Better Apartments Paper: Are We Being Set Up to Fail? 2

Wednesday, July 1st, 2015
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In May, the Better Apartments discussion paper for better apartment design was released by the Victorian Government’s Minister for Planning.

The discussion paper continued on from work undertaken by both the previous government and the Victorian Government Architect (OVGA), and is quite similar to the flawed Victoria Apartment Design Standards (VADS) which was leaked to the media in July 2014. At the time, the document was slammed by the industry and even the then-Minister for Planning.

Since the Andrews Labor Government came into power, the OVGA now reports directly to the Premier, not the Minister for Planning. The likelihood of discussion papers and guidelines becoming legislation with little input from the wider building and construction industry is increasing, and the OVGA continues to demonstrate its limitations in taking a holistic approach to design policy.

I applaud the Minister in attempting to create a more pleasing built environment; this is a common goal that we are all trying to achieve.

However, it’s apparent that the discussion paper is leading with pre-determined answers, and the results just do not stack up with the reality of the market cost and affordability or what consumers are prepared to pay for a new apartment.

The discussion paper raises 14 different issues or potential impacts and at the bottom of each issue, it asks a series of questions to elicit feedback and prompt discussion.

To an outsider, the approach sounds all above board and appears to be the correct way to achieve an outcome. However, if you have been following the debate closely, you will realise that the discussion paper was created after the design guidelines, leading many to believe that we are just going through the motions of public consultation to achieve a predetermined outcome.

This is evident as each of the issues or questions raised in the discussion paper are angled toward a response that directly relates to the VADS guidelines leaked in 2014.

The draft of the VADS is largely based on the SEPP 65 model adopted in New South Wales. However, SEPP 65 continues to receive criticism throughout the industry as it is seen to be driving up the cost of affordable living, resulting in strangers co-living in apartments and other similar scenarios for people just to reduce their living costs.

Media reports suggest SEPP 65 has driven the property prices of luxury apartments in NSW upwards of $700,000, whereas the current median price of a 46 to 50 square metre one-bedroom apartment in Melbourne is $411,000. This is cheaper than 70 per cent of detached houses and 58 per cent of all existing units and flats sold in Melbourne last year, as outlined in the discussion paper.

One of the building design fraternity’s longstanding concerns is that SEPP 65 permits only “registered architects” to work on residential buildings of three or more storeys. NSW also does not have a registration process or a minimal qualification for a draftsperson (building designer) or a commercial builder and currently has no other way to ensure qualified people are designing large scale buildings.

On the other hand, Victoria is considered far more progressive in this area. In the 1980s, the need for a minimum qualification for building design professionals was realised. This led to the creation of qualification and experience requirements and a formal registration process to accommodate draftspersons and building designers through what was then known as the Building Commission (now the Victorian Building Authority).

The objective of SEPP 65 to increase the quality of the built environment is to be commended, but the restriction of draftspersons and building designers is just a band-aid to a larger problem. Instead of placing these restrictions, the NSW Government should be working toward a better solution and lifting the bar in the built environment, by promoting good design through education, continual professional development and the creation of more registered professions and trades within the industry.

The Australian Institute of Architects (AIA) has also declared its intention to restrict non-architects practicing across the nation. This is no different in Victoria – the attempt by the AIA to restrict trade for registered and qualified design professionals through its continual lobbying is of great concern, as is its apparent influence and intimate relationship with the OVGA.

However, it’s important to recognise that as as states such as Queensland and Victoria have a formal registration process in place for all design professionals, any restriction introduced in these states would be considered a restraint of trade.

In Victoria, under the Building Act 1993, building design professionals are registered with the Building Practitioners Board. To secure registration, building design professionals must have an advanced diploma level of qualification and require experience in the industry. In fact, a number of individuals who have completed a Bachelor of Architecture have chosen this pathway rather than seeking registration as an architect.

As of 30 June 2014, there were 2,360 registered draftspersons in Victoria and approximately 4735 registered architects, totaling 7,095 registered design professionals that are qualified to design and document all buildings in Victoria.

Now for discussion purposes, let’s assume each registered design professional is a principal of a design practice that employs four people.

By restricting supply (for example, one-third of design professionals) it will potentially send 2,360 design firms out of business, leave up to 11,800 Victorians out of work (assuming four employees in each design practice), increase the demand and the cost of design services, slow the supply of design services and send a ripple effect right throughout the industry, which will quite quickly grind the Victorian building industry to a halt.

Clearly this will impact the state’s economy, and that is even before we dissect the impact of each of the 14 issues in the discussion paper. If SEPP 65 is driving up housing affordability in NSW, why would we introduce a carbon copy in Victoria and hurt people buying their own property?

All Victorian design professionals should be working toward one common goal: good design. There is a role for each of the professions within the industry with different niches and markets to excel in this endeavour. To discriminate or restrict any of the design professions is not only considered a restraint of trade, but would have dire economic results for the economy.

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  1. Tobias S.

    A key flaw with the Better Apartments paper is really its prescriptive character.

  2. Anna

    Thanks for the article Alastair, a couple of comments if I may:

    – The asking price of an apartment is not directly related to the cost of construction. Developers charge what the market will bear, as do most producers in a capitalist economy, prices are only driven down by high levels of competition, difficult to achieve in dwellings because they are very much a fixed commodity.

    – Most dwellings in Victoria are in buildings of two stories or less, so even if there was a requirement for larger and more complex buildings to be designed by registered architects, building designers would still have plenty of work. This doesn't take into consideration non-dwelling construction and design.

    – People who hold a B. Arch. Des. + M. Arch. sometimes register as architectural draftspeople because the registration process is faster, simpler and easier, with 1 year of work experience required. Registering as an architect involves at least 2 years of work, usually more to get all the hours in each area, plus two exams, in addition to the 5 years study at university, versus 2.5 years at TAFE for the Advanced Diploma of Building Design.

    – The report you link to is an opinion piece.