The minimum floor space requirements outlined by Victoria's Better Apartments discussion paper may not be the best means for improving the quality of the state's housing stock.

Following the release of the discussion paper for Victoria’s inaugural apartment design guidelines, some industry experts are pointing to the need to avoid prescriptive standards and focus more upon performance-based measures in order to achieve superior outcomes for occupants.

According to Amanda Johns, Partner – Planning and Environment, Thomson Geer, the emphasis of the guidelines should be upon more nuanced and flexible performance-based measures in lieu of inflexible prescriptive criteria.

“It should be about good design and facilitating good design more than anything else,” said Johns to Sourceable. “But prescriptive standards aren’t the way to go in my opinion– they don’t lead to good design.”

While much media coverage of Victoria’s introduction of apartment design guidelines has focused upon slated increases to minimum floor sizes, which continue to lag behind those of other states, Johns said that this won’t necessarily improve the quality of residential units.

“If you have a prescriptive standard that specified a minimum floor area, that doesn’t mean you’re going to get a good design result.”

Johns instead advocates the adoption of guidelines that employ performance-based criteria, in order to enable designers to adopt more creative solutions for serving the varied needs of apartment residents in Victoria.

“What we need to be doing is giving some guidance about what the aims should be when it comes to providing the best possible amenities for residents by performance-based measures rather than prescriptive.

“We need to challenge the design industry to be more innovative and creative.”

In John’s view one of the chief flaw with prescriptive measures lies in their inflexibility and inability to address the highly varied circumstances under which apartment developments are built.

“A big problem with prescriptive standards is that they don’t necessarily take into account the particular characteristics of a specific piece of land,” said Johns.

“So for example they might not take into account the large difference between a north-facing building and a south-facing building, where there are different ways of achieving acceptable outcomes in terms of light for both these types of building – a prescriptive standard won’t address this.

“Prescriptive standards also might not take into account what’s next door – what the adjacent building is.”

Another area in which prescriptive standards are likely fall short lies in their comparative inability to provide different kinds of housing to occupants wide range of occupants with varying needs.

“We need to provide housing diversity, yet prescriptive standards won’t allow to achieve as great a level of diversity as we should be aiming for,” said Johns. “People have different needs – some people only need one bedroom, some people need more. A prescriptive standard makes it difficult to address this.”

While the Better Apartments discussion paper mentions a range of measures for improving the if quality residential units in Victoria, according to Johns the specific references made within the document would imply that drafters are intent upon pursuing a prescriptive-based route.

“[Better Apartments] says we’re going to look at whether we need prescriptive measures or whether we need performance-based measures or whether we just need policy,” said Johns.

“A lot of the examples that are provided throughout the document, however, are prescriptive-based. The reference made to prescriptive measures including possible minimum floor areas, depth and ceiling heights, makes me think that these are a seriously entertained outcome.

“Those prescriptive parts would not be a good result.”

Johns also points out that natural market processes remain a critical means of ensuring that new apartments are of sufficient quality as well as cater to the diverse needs of occupants, and that prescriptive standards could impede their effectiveness.

“The market will have a role to play in what is considerable acceptable. If it’s so badly designed no one will buy it,” said Johns. “So let the market play a role in working out what’s acceptable and what’s not acceptable.

“Just because it’s not acceptable to the planning minister doesn’t mean it won’t work for others.”