“I’ve just been rejected in all my applications for new houses in this council.”
So went the frustrations of one multi-award winning architect in an experience recounted by architecture writer Stephen Crafti in a recent presentation at the Design Build expo in Melbourne last year (the name of the architect was not given in presentation).
The architect had prepared an innovative design solution and been knocked back by a town planner. Simultaneously, applications for plainer developments had gone through.
In this case, the planner was young and inexperienced – a factor which Crafti believes impacted the outcome.
“Here is an award winning architect, coming to a counter with amazing design and having proved his worth getting several awards and then being told, ‘no, it’s not right,’” Crafti said. “Yet things that weren’t exciting and were pretty generic got rubber stamped.”
According to Crafti, architects and developers face challenges in dealing with planning departments on innovative projects. Whilst some are fortunate and have their development assessed by experienced planners, others come across junior staff who are besieged with applications and are hesitant about projects which differ from previous developments.
That raises questions about challenges in getting innovative design concepts through planning. In a panel discussion at Design Build last year, Crafti explored these issues with BKK Architects director Simon Knott, Robert Simeoni Architects director and design architect Robert Simeoni and Milieu Property Group founder Michael McCormack.
Knott said a particular challenge involves ‘neighbourhood character.’ Often, he says planners are comfortable putting forward applications which are similar to existing developments. Submit something which falls outside that neighbourhood’s existing vernacular, however, and difficulties emerge.
Further, he said, the biggest challenges are not with planners themselves but those above them – ‘faceless’ managers or, above them, elected councillors. The former, he said, sometimes reject applications without affording an opportunity to meet with them. Many of the latter operate according to a mindset which is hostile toward development.
“We find the issue is not with planners themselves,” Knott said. “The people we deal with face to face, we have an opportunity to talk with and you can talk them through that design. It is when it goes up the tree when it goes to faceless managers that you don’t get the opportunity to meet and they just say ‘no, we are not going to do that.’
“Or, quite often…it goes to a council vote and the councillors knock it back on really what is a negative approach to building.
“If you are a councillor, generally a lot of them are elected on the fact that they are anti-development. There is no incentive for them to improve the planning application. There is every incentive for them to vote it down, let it go to VCAT and say to their constituents ‘well, we didn’t support this.’”
Other issues are also at play.
One is uncertainty surrounding height controls. Speaking particularly about Victoria, panellists indicated that height restrictions on multi-residential development are often arbitrary and unclear. Developers, McCormack said, may purchase land believing they might be allowed 10 storeys when in fact they end up being allowed only eight. This leads to uncertainty surrounding land purchasers and discourages urban renewal projects. Height restrictions, he says, should be clear and predictable.
Simeoni agreed, adding that such ambiguity is compromising the built environment. When developers, having based their feasibility study on being allowed 10 storeys find they have only eight, he says they are forced to seek other ways to make up the margin loss. Inevitability, that leads to compromises in design and construction.
A further issue is appeal rights in respect of individual developments. These, McCormack says, enable those dissatisfied with the proposal to delay the process. This adds to cost and further impacts confidence in backing innovative designs.
A key to overcoming much of this, he says, is though a complying development regime similar to those in Queensland and New South Wales whereby proposals which meet certain criteria are accepted through an expedited process.
Rudimentary understandings about what ‘neighbourhood character’ consists of remains a major issue. Especially in heritage areas, this concept can be mistakenly interpreted to mean that new developments need be the same as or similar to those before. When this happens, much of what gets built becomes a replication of what was there previously.
Instead, if we became more sophisticated with our understanding of features such as materials, we could honour ‘character’ whilst still delivering change.
On the flip side, there is agreement that some development which is allowed is questionable. A proposal to build 700 apartments on the former Channel 10 site in the Melbourne east suburb of Forest Hill raises questions given the limited nature of transport in the area, panellists noted. Likewise, many residents of major roads are being asked to accommodate a disproportionate volume of density simply on the basis of living on a main road.
A key to making things work, Simeoni said, involves genuine consultation and engagement. In his own case, Simeoni takes planners through where the design fits from a planning perspective planning and how the development in will impact neighbours. He also talks with neighbours before submission of the proposal. He says much resistance occurs where the community members feel disempowered and as though they are having change forced upon them.
Knott expressed frustration with the anti-development mindset of some councillors. In his own municipality of Northcote (Melbourne (inner-north)), he says the Greens were elected running on a campaign of being anti-development.
“It doesn’t make sense,” he says. “They might be anti-inappropriate development, but to say they are anti-development just doesn’t make sense.
“We need to house people. We need to have development in our communities. Without it we are in trouble.”