Given the ongoing spate of high-density, residential development sweeping urban centres across Australia, designing buildings with an eye on potential changes in the surrounding environment will be critical in preserving their future quality.

According to Arup building physics leader David Barker, Australia’s urban environments are undergoing rapid, widespread changes that architects and engineers must keep in mind during the design and development process.

“You need to start to think about what our city is going to look like in ten years time,” said Barker. “We’re starting to see things like very dense high-rise residential developments in the centre and the outskirts of Melbourne.

“Things will become more dense, and even where you might not predict it to be dense, you may have a neighbour who’s suddenly built a tower on your north façade.”

Barker notes that the surging density of Australian cities could potentially have an adverse impact on the quality of built environments as occupied spaces – a point not lost Victorian Planning Minister Richard Wynne, who recently triggered controversy by rushing through abrupt curbs on development in downtown Melbourne.

“These kinds of high rise developments preclude certain amounts of daylight or sunlight access, as well as natural ventilation and views – when you get a dense population of apartments it makes it much more difficult to achieve those things,” Barker said.

“I feel that as our city changes, the operational demands of a single dwelling or a single high-rise building will change over time. This is especially important given the amount of development we’re seeing.”

As a result of current and anticipated changes to the nature of Australia’s urban environments, Barker believes flexibility will become an increasingly important design factor for ensuring the long-term viability of built assets.

“I think we should be looking at things like flexibility in design – rewarding designers for embedding flexibility in the way they create these apartments from the perspective of a changing environment,” he said.

“When I talk about flexibility, I mean these apartments shouldn’t be built just to operate for two years or three years – they should be built to last and operate for multiple decades – ideally at a level where they maintain the quality of the space that they’re providing to occupants.”

Daylight access is a major example of how the changing urban environment adjacent to a building can affect the amenability for occupants in future.

“Let’s say from a technical perspective you had a building that was very much open to sunlight, and there’s a balance between bringing in a large amount of sunlight and daylight and that sunlight driving your internal loads up, and making it uncomfortable, or increasing your heating and cooling demands, and associated energy consumption,” Barker said.

“You can imagine that in one year you need to have a design that needs to respond to solar gains in a way that limits solar gains – it might be shading, it might be blinds, or even building massing that responds to the particular site surroundings at that time.

“And you can imagine that in 10 years’ time it’s different – perhaps daylight access becomes limited, and it becomes less about restricting the entry of sunlight and more about maximising.”

Other major areas of uncertainty in relation to changes in the urban environment are airflow and natural ventilation.

“Trying to predict if your building and your apartments are going to give you adequate natural ventilation is a tricky topic – it’s a lot more difficult than daylight and sunlight, and that’s why you don’t see concrete criteria for it in guidelines or codes,” Barker said.

“Wind is already very difficult to accurately model – it’s statistical in nature, it’s very much influenced by macro effects, so climate and weather, but also micro effects, so if you stick a new building up it’ll affect the wind flow around it and the neighbouring buildings as well.”

Barker points out that anticipated changes in Australia’s urban landscape are already affecting the behaviours and predilections of real estate investors.

“When people are considering buying apartments, they are starting to look more at the planning regulation, and I never really had these conversations a couple of years ago – people weren’t really talking about it too much aside from savvy investors,” he said. “Now it’s common knowledge – it’s becoming a part of the standard due diligence when you are preparing to buy a property.”