“We only want beige.”

That was the message given by real estate agents regarding the three-storey, 136 unit QVII building completed by Grocon in Melbourne’s Swanston Street in 2004.

Beige, the agents said, was what buyers wanted and was easy to sell.

“We beg to differ,” designers McBride Charles Ryan (MCR) pushed back. Eventually, it was agreed that the complex would feature four colour schemes based around the four seasons. At night, it emits a colourful display.

Did it sell? Absolutely. Indeed, units with all four schemes sold at roughly the same pace.

Ideas about wanting only beige, MCR principal Debbie Ryan said, were lazy and wrong.

As apartment living gained popularity in the 1990s, many were designed with a ‘cookie-cutter’ approach and featured a standard gym, a foyer which had to be of a certain tone and a necessary lounge area.

With more Australians now living in apartments, pressure to move beyond this is growing.

That raises questions about how design strategies can respond. These were explored during a panel session at the recent Design Build conference in Melbourne. Alongside Ryan, this featured design writer Stephen Crafti, MAB Corporation general manager residential David Allt-Graham and Neometro founder and design director Jeff Provan.

According to Provan, who is part of a Melbourne based ‘High Density Happiness’ initiative to promote design strategies which deliver a high quality of life for apartment occupants, the need for greater consideration in multi-unit design is growing as the role and function of apartments changes.

Back in the 1990s, he says, apartment living was seen as a temporary phase before people started families and moved back to the suburbs. Given affordability pressures along with a desire to be close to work and amenity, however, multi-storey living for many is now more permanent.

With this in mind, he says people are transforming their apartments into individualised spaces. Design strategies, he said, need to cater for this and to enable people to bring traditional features from single storey homes back into multi-storey dwellings.

“We are now no longer living in an apartment on the way to a house,” Provan said. “We are now moving into apartments and wanting all the trappings of a home along with a comfortable and beautiful place to live.”

Despite real-estate agents wanting only beige, Melbourne’s QVII apartment complex offers four different colour schemes based around the four seasons of the year (source: Mcbrivde Charles Ryan

From an interior perspective, Ryan says the main avenue for achieving diversity and choice involves altering the colour, texture and floor plates – an example of which can be seen through the QVII building. Whilst she acknowledges the need for designs to be easily replicable, she says there needs to be diversity in that replication.

Arguably the biggest area for consideration, however, is amenities. Toward this end, Crafti says more attention is being paid to matching the amenities provided with the cohort of anticipated residents.

One of Provan’s projects in Smith Street (inner-north Melbourne), for example, has done away with basement car parking altogether. Many of those moving into the area, he says, are foregoing vehicle ownership in favour of other transportation.

Instead, the building has bicycle storage and facilities. It also has a rooftop garden which goes beyond ‘fake grass and a barbecue’ and instead is a real garden with vegetable patches and a place for people to hang out their washing in the open air.

On this score, Ryan and Allt-Graham have been involved in research about the type of facilities which are actually used by apartment occupants. Proving popular, they say, are dining rooms which people can reserve for large numbers of guests, business board rooms and casual business areas which are connected to Wi-Fi. Gymnasiums are also popular and well-used.

On the flip side, cinema rooms are less utilised – a phenomenon Ryan attributes to the prevalence of large-screen televisions.

A challenge, Allt-Graham said, is decoupling ‘salesmanship’ considerations from those which maximise the value of the space for residents. He describes an ‘arms-race’ of developers trying to create sexy concepts such as golf rooms to sell apartments. What has proven most popular among residents, he says, are small and intimate spaces.

This development at 1 Union Street in Brunswick features a genuine rooftop garden – not just fake grass. (source: Neometro

Interesting considerations surround swimming pools and gyms.

On these, Provan is sceptical. Swimming pools, he said, have in many instances been shoved into leftover spaces behind shops. As for gyms, he says a large number in the past have not really been functional. To run a gym, he says you need to be commercially active and continually updating equipment.

Ryan acknowledges this and says other facilities may be more appropriate for smaller developments. But she says facilities such as gyms and pools are well-suited to larger developments where you virtually have a small town living within the complex and can afford to have such amenities in a prominent location. A complex with 617 apartments in Melbourne’s Docklands known as The Quays, she says, is an example.

Next, there is the need for facilities which add value and convenience for residents.

Bicycle facilities, Allt-Graham said, enable residents to ride into safe lock up spaces as well as to inflate their tyres. Compared with dragging bikes upstairs or leaving them in lobbies, he says this makes a big difference.

Rubbish rooms should be easy to find and readily accessible.

Crafti agrees, and he also questions why laundries are often dumped in the basement. Washing, he said, is a regular part of people’s lives. Why shouldn’t it be done with city views?

As mentioned above, a driver for all this is the growing phenomenon of apartments being seen as a long-term place in which to base lives. This is especially the case as a growing number of families choose the apartment lifestyle.

This has been led, Crafti said, by an increasing number of Asian families who are comfortable raising children in apartments and by a growing number of ‘empty nesters’ whose children have left home.

More broadly, Provan says Australians are increasingly raising families in apartments amid concerns about affordability and burgeoning commuting times as the urban sprawl pushes those wanting to live in detached houses further out. Already facing a ten-hour work day, he says many are unwilling to tolerate three-hour return commutes and will embrace apartment living closer in as a means to spend more time with families.

Finally, the commentators say notions about smaller apartments such as those of 50 square metres necessarily being problematic are misguided.

Go to Hong Kong, Crafti said, and 50 square metres caters for families of five. Australian cities, he says, has been spoiled with the amounts of space we have.

Allt-Graham agrees. Often, he says, buyers will go down the road to find something five to ten meters larger. Look at those floor plans in detail, however, and much of that extra space is actually non-useable and is being wasted.

“There is nothing wrong with 50 square metre spaces as long as it is designed well,” he said.

“People have been doing apartments that way in Europe for a long while and they are fantastic in the way you can find a spot and design for everything. We need to be more receptive and open to that type of space.”