Dual Occupancy: Planning Rules Design!

Tuesday, January 12th, 2016
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As an architect, you are tempted to individualise your designs. You want to be different and stamp a statement! But will you be allowed that freedom on every residential project?

The short answer is yes, if managed strategically at council.

The design process for medium density development is less self-centred and places the property owners’ interests above the individual’s creativity. The primary goal here is obtaining a planning approval and not a refusal, be it for a dual occupancy, duplex or multi-unit town house development.

If one is requested to design just one house on a block, chances are one may not have to apply to council for their approval.

One can then stretch the design boundaries for a single home (but not a dual occupancy) and create something unique as long as the building surveyor supports the concept. Flat roofs, cantilevers, roof terraces, choice of materials, proportion of windows, and bold individualistic lines are all part of that exciting design mix.

But the moment a project changes for more than one house on a lot – like a dual occupancy project – it falls deep within the grips of the local council’s planning scheme controls, which includes their neighbourhood character policies, the interface with the public realm and lately the new term “backyard character.”

Satisfying the planning standards – ticking the quantitative items – was the acceptable norm to win council support until the Red Dot VCAT decision of Lomaro v Hume CC. There, the VCAT member decided meeting the standards was not necessarily satisfying the objectives of Clause 55 – Rescode. As a result, one now has to tick a few more boxes, which are best left to the professionals.

In order to achieve a greater outcome for all, we should collaborate with the council planner who, in his or her role, is just policing the planning scheme when assessing our dual occupancy application. We can always choose an alternative route and be adversarial, but we would probably end up at VCAT, where anything could occur. I believe it is safer to collaborate and avoid VCAT so that everyone wins within reason rather than wait another nine months for a VCAT decision where many members are former council planners.

So what are the steps to a successful dual occupancy in Greater Melbourne?

Place high regard for the N (the neighbourhood character) word in local councils who have invested in a neighbourhood character study.

Find out what the dos and don’ts are as far as their neighbourhood character study is concerned. These expectations are not specified in the zoning requirements a layperson relies on to make a decision on the size and built form of a dual occupancy type development.

Some councils will stick to their guns and expect every new house to look very much like what existed 40 years ago on a back street or quiet cul-de-sac when design was the evolution of a carpenter becoming a drafting designer. Other councils may be generous and accept incorporation of some of the architectural features atypical of the streetscape. A skillion porch here and well-proportioned window there could help cross the line. A council which has yet to complete or update its neighbourhood character study may require careful hand-holding at strategic meetings as the design becomes a subjective exercise.

The other aspects to consider are the property’s depth, size, availability of services, and absence of restrictions on title. Orientation – which side faces north – is critical, as it determines overshadowing of secluded open spaces and habitable room windows on abutting land.

A duplex-style dual occupancy where two “sort of” identical homes are placed side by side with a common party wall are lately becoming a common request as these duplex dual occupancy projects potentially have no common driveways to share. Each unit could be on its own title as long as each unit is serviced individually. The footprint and development yield is larger as there are no turning circles to consider for the vehicles. Some councils, such as Glen Eira, encourage these type of dual occupancy projects, while several other council are totally averse to garages facing the street. The width of the site frontage plays a significant role in this type of duplex style dual occupancy design as does the type of road onto which it fronts.

If it fronts onto a main road controlled by VicRoads, they may not support vehicles reversing onto their road for safety reasons.

A 17-metre wide frontage has a higher chance of approval for a duplex in a mid to outer ring suburb while an inner city suburb may allow a duplex on much smaller frontages as lot sizes are smaller. However, some councils like Banyule require a minimum 25-metre site frontage for two crossovers/driveways. Moreland council, meanwhile, needs serious hand-holding for support in such design proposals, and more so if the land is zoned neighbourhood residential. A recent VCAT decision went against Moreland refusing a duplex on the ground of it having two crossovers. The VCAT member argued the property was so close to the city that it must open up for higher levels of development within the municipality.

The next common request is a tandem style dual occupancy where a second home is sited behind the front home, which is very often an existing home worth retaining. This design response is preferred by most of the councils across Greater Melbourne with some requiring the rear or last unit being a single storey.

Other aspects to consider in a duplex or tandem dual occupancy are the impact on vegetation on the property and on adjoining lots, slope of land, adverse impact on amenities of abutting lots, overshadowing in excess of what is permissible, bulk and building height, views to and from the street to name a few of the myriad of items to consider when planning for a dual occupancy.

These are the challenges.

The solutions are simpler. Ask your dual occupancy architect or designer to understand planning regulations for a successful design outcome. That goes beyond just checking the zone in Land data or ticking the standards in Clause 55 (Rescode). Read up on what council will expect in terms of shape, location and size of open spaces, landscaping opportunities, parking and turning circles, dispensation for parking on property well served by public transport, neighbourhood character and how the design will be perceived from the street.

Imagine going for a walk along the immediate neighbourhood. Does your design fit into the style of buildings when it comes to type of roof, entrances, fences, proportion of windows, landscaping, front setback treatments to name a few items? Or will be it be bold, individual and create a statement for your dual occupancy/duplex design? A pre-application council meeting with 3D presentations can save a lot of time in the long run. I encourage incorporating some of the architectural elements common on the street to win the planner’s heart.

Having said that, a design I conceived and managed was extremely contemporary with its flat roof, sleek horizontal lines, terraces and large glazed windows in a neighbourhood dominated by 1950s homes with hipped roofs and small windows. It was approved despite objections from neighbours.

The lesson here is simple: one has to work with the planning officer!

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