As the city undergoes a boom in multi-residential construction, questions are being asked about the quality of apartments being delivered throughout Melbourne and whether or not Victoria needs better or more regulation in order to improve the quality and liveability of high-rise dwellings which are being built.

By all means, the magnitude of the boom cannot be understated. While the proportion of overall dwellings which high rise apartments make up throughout the city is tiny compared with that in markets such as Toronto, Vancouver and Los Angeles, the Victorian capital’s stock of completed apartments is expected to have grown more than sixfold from 18,000 at the end of 2006 to 123,000 by the end of this year, property sector consulting outfit Charter Keck Cramer reckons.

Amid this, concerns about quality of stock are growing. In June, a Melbourne City Council study estimated that 55 per cent of the city’s apartment buildings of 15 or more storeys were of ‘poor’ quality, with problems including cramped layouts and a lack of natural light. At that time, Fairfax Media reported that some architects were so unhappy with the result of buildings they had designed that they were refusing to have their name associated with them.

This is raising an interesting conundrum for the city, which is under pressure to address a crisis in housing affordability yet which cannot afford to jeopardise its reputation for liveability.

In response, the Victorian government is undertaking a review of regulation with regard to apartment design. A discussion paper released in May called for feedback on how regulation could be improved regarding areas such as natural light and sunlight, apartment size, outlook, natural ventilation, acoustics and noise, outdoor space, natural landscape, accessibility, adaptability and car parking provisions.

It should be noted that Melbournians currently living in apartments appear to be generally satisfied with most aspects of their current dwellings. According to more than 100 apartment owner responses to a Rate My Building research project being conducted by Fitzroy-based architects Atelier Red + Black, almost eight in 10 believe their apartment has sufficient windows for light and ventilation, while almost seven in 10 reported hearing no or low volumes of noise from the street or neighbours. Around three in four described outdoor spaces such as balconies as either satisfactory or highly functional. Space, however, seems to be a common area of concern: more than four in 10 described their apartment as being too small for their needs and almost two-thirds said their storage space was inadequate.

At the core of the debate are questions about whether or not regulation should be prescriptive or performance-based in nature, and the extent to which market or regulation-based approaches deliver the best outcomes.

Atelier Red + Black directors Michael Smith and Sonia Sarangi say more regulation in key areas is clearly needed. Smith and Sarangi have called for a range of specific regulatory measures to be put in place, including increased ceiling heights, more stringent rules for minimum bedroom sizes, and requirements in medium and high density developments for greater window sizes (when in light-well and saddleback configurations). They have also said greater percentages of apartments should be able to be combined and easily adaptable for universal access, and called for greater percentages of rooftops to be used for landscaping or energy production, among other things.

Sarangi says an incentive-based strategy adopted in Singapore could serve as an example of how to bring these changes about. For that strategy, the city/state encourages the addition of rooftop and mid-level gardens by rewarding developers who include these in their development with a two per cent gross floor incentive as well as some building height concessions (subject to flight path considerations).

In Melbourne’s case, Sarangi and Smith say, incentives to help form visual breaks in form could be provided to developers to avoid ‘slab-shaped’ developments, for example. Communal gardens could also be encouraged by excluding these from height restriction calculations in the planning scheme.

With regard to apartments, Smith says there are a number of problems with an approach based entirely on market-oriented solutions, including the fact that the free market does not easily take into account the larger picture consequences of individual choices or place long-term considerations over short-term choices. Where market-based considerations (for reason of cost) might reward the exclusion of suitable landscaping in a large number of cases, for example, cumulative impacts such as an exacerbation of the urban heat island effect could result.

Likewise, adaptability considerations may not be overly significant from the point of view of initial owners of apartments wishing to own their property for less than a decade. However, this would result in apartment towers – which have a lifespan of 50 to 100 years – being unable to serve the needs of a changing society.

Moreover, Smith says market forces which may ordinarily serve to dictate a suitable balance of quality, amenity and cost considerations are being compromised by the number of apartments being purchased and sold for investment reasons as opposed to occupancy.

“It’s almost a bubble situation where it doesn’t matter so much what the apartment is like and how it performs because it’s just an investment,” he said. “When you have got that sort of situation coming in, all of the normal market forces which would normally drive quality tend to get thrown out the window.”

Not surprisingly, industry lobby groups disagree. The Urban Development Institute of Australia, for example, argues that the best strategy should revolve around a mix of market-based and performance-based approaches, and that prescriptive rules which specify things like minimum and minimum room sizes or ceiling heights should be avoided.

UDIA policy and advocacy director (Victoria) John Casey says ‘liveability’ should be thought of in a broader context which includes interior amenity but also extends to the amenity of the building and that within the broader nearby locality of the apartment in question. Moreover, he argues that debate around better apartments should be considered within the broader context of housing affordability and the capacity of the industry to deliver a quantity and diversity of housing supply and choice which is sufficient to meet the needs of a growing population over the long term.

In this context, it should also be remembered that apartments serve a different purpose in the market to townhouses and detached dwellings by providing affordable housing options in convenient locations, he adds.

Casey says that in Sydney – where median unit house prices now stand at more than $650,000 (compared to less than $450,000 in Melbourne) – mandatory implementation of standards in areas such as cross ventilation and apartment size have contributed to the higher cost of housing. Prescriptive requirements can also inhibit the ability of developers and designers to deliver solutions which are appropriate for specific sites. Any approach that requires apartments to face north in order to maximise sunlight, for example, might be inappropriate around bayside suburbs where many occupants want views across Port Phillip Bay, he said.

Victorian Planning & Environmental Law Association president Tamara Brezzi says the critical question revolves around whether or not mandatory prescriptive regulations deliver the best possible outcome. She says optimal decisions regarding amenity require case-by-case site assessments and the balancing of a range of considerations and factors, adding that there is a danger of overly prescriptive regulation placing limits upon the flexibility which is required to apply the best possible solution for individual developments.

“What I think should be the ultimate objective is to ensure that there is a system in place that allows for the consideration of whether or not something is a good outcome in town planning and design terms,” Brezzi said.

“That inherently requires an opportunity to look at each case on its merits and to consider the circumstances of each building, the orientation of each site, each outlook from each room and all of those sorts of things.

“Part of that debate is about assessing whether mandatory prescriptive controls are inherently incapable of allowing that innovation and individual site by site assessment.”

As the Melbourne apartment boom continues, debate about the best way to deliver a sufficient quantity of quality and affordable multi-residential building stock rages on.

Exactly what type of approach will be adopted remains to be seen.