As the population of major cities continues to expand and the increasingly service based nature of the economy sees growing proportions of business and employment opportunities shifting inward toward city centres, demand for inner urban apartments throughout Australia is likely to rise over the longer term.

As this happens, if we are to maintain high levels of dwelling comfort and enjoyment, the importance of good design cannot be understated. That raises questions about who should be in charge of driving effective design practices across our built environment and the roles which various industry and public sector actors should assume. In a recent press release, for example, former NSW state government architect and current Urban Taskforce chief executive officer Chris Johnson called for the role of the government architect to be expanded beyond public sector buildings and to incorporate a broader leadership function in terms of facilitating effective design practices across industry. That is imperative, Johnson said, given the growing importance of the private sector in terms of its share the overall level of building work which indeed takes place.

According to Johnson, density need not necessarily be associated with phenomena such as concrete jungles, overshadowing or bland design. He says an example of high architectural standards within a populated environment can be seen through projects such as Sydney’s Central Park, which in 2014 was named as the best tall building in the world by the Council of Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat.

In terms of driving quality, whilst a lack of any willingness on the part of residents to accept substandard levels of comfort from their living environment does indeed mean that market forces play a role, Johnson says leadership is still required in this area.

First and foremost, there is government and planning ministers, who Johnson says largely determine what can and cannot be built. Design needs to be a significant planning priority, he says, with considerable levels of guidance from the government architect. Local councils and design competitions can help as well. The City of Sydney, for example, allows developers who demonstrate excellence in design quality through competitions to be rewarded with extra floor space. Newcastle does likewise.

Outside of government, Johnson says good practice can be encouraged through industry awards, which many developers consider to be critical from a branding perspective. Also, their needs to be encouragement for developers to select good architects – a process he says can occur through government architect offices and major industry associations as well as via good design work being recognised through media outlets and industry journals.

“It’s the combination of all those things: the planning minister and the planning system through to local government picking up and wanting to run competitions, a government architect who can then work with the planning system to help run competitions and then award type systems that industry can run which acknowledge those in the private sector doing their work,” Johnson said.

Brett Skyring, a Queensland based planner and director of Panther Consultant Planners says Australia has skilled planners and designers but falls down in terms of convoluted planning systems which make understanding what can be built in which area more complicated and thus make identifying opportunities for innovative design solutions more difficult. In Queensland, he says, there is no form of centralised and consistent online mapping system and planning platform whatsoever; in NSW, the government does offer a centralised platform which facilities the task of obtaining planning information across local jurisdictions but the system does not contain the name of the individual jurisdiction in question – rather, only reference numbers are indicated. Having easier systems with consistent online platforms would more easily enable developers to identify and understand different design solutions and opportunities which could apply across different areas, he says.

In terms of architecture, Skyring agrees with Johnson’s call for an expanded role for the government architect but stresses that the functions of the government architect should remain separate from government planners. He is also cautious about any suggestions of industry bodies assuming any kind of leadership role given the differing priorities of individual bodies according to the membership base which they represent.

Apart from the amenity aspects of design, meanwhile, there is also the question of the quality of construction itself. On this score, renowned building industry commentator David Chandler OAM talks of lazy approaches whereby defect levies paid for by purchasers act as a ‘get out of jail free card’ for bad design or poor workmanship, worthless warranties for home insurance from which industry bodies earn commissions and compliance bodies being stacked with representatives from industry who ‘look after their own’.

Part of the answer, Chandler says, may accidentally revolve around new types of insurance products which are coming onto the market which will provide all embracing coverage including design, fitness for purpose, quality, delivery and performance – products he says have originated overseas largely as a response to off-site construction. As clients demand a better ‘risk wrap’ as these products become increasingly available, Chandler says, weaker links in the supply chain will either pay a premium or become uncompetitive whilst stronger players will seek to adapt, improve and lower their risk profile.

As Australia moves toward a future with higher levels of density needed to house a growing population, the need for leadership in design and construction quality will continue to increase.

Exactly who steps up and where this originates from will be an interesting question.