With a growing and aging population, an ambitious program of urban renewal and considerable levels of demand for more compact cities, the urban landscape of New South Wales is undergoing fundamental change.

With a growing and aging population, an ambitious program of urban renewal and considerable levels of demand for more compact cities, the urban landscape of New South Wales is undergoing fundamental change.

Not surprisingly, then, the state is taking a hard look at how it goes about designing buildings and cities. Toward this end, the NSW Government Architect released a 129 page document in October outlining draft design strategies for buildings, the public realm and cities.

That prompts interesting questions about how well or otherwise the state is going about delivering good architecture practice the moment and some of the strengths and weaknesses associated with current design practices.

In terms of where things are going well, Urban Taskforce chief executive officer and former NSW government architect Chris Johnson talks about the EPP 65 environmental planning instrument which aims to promote high quality design in multi-storey residential buildings. In particular, he says the specification that only qualified architects can design buildings of greater than three stories has underpinned an emphasis on design being performed only by those who possess the necessary skills and experience from which to deliver positive outcomes. In addition, he says that apartment design guidelines which accompany SEPP 65 have provided a common baseline for architects in producing buildings of this type and boosted the quality of multi-storey apartments.

Where things have gone wrong, he said, is that council officers and courts have in many instances looked upon these guidelines as though they were absolutes and applied them in an inflexible manner to define what good design should look like when assessing planning applications or making determinations. This, he says, not only smothers innovation but can also lead to unintended outcomes. A stipulation under the guidelines to have 70 percent of apartments facing north to get sunlight during the middle of the day, for example, might be suitable in some areas but is difficult to achieve in CBD apartments and is of limited value in the case of these apartments as many who live in them will in fact be at work at that time. Moreover, Johnson said that in order to achieve this, some designers had resorted to placing more of the smaller one-bedroom units on the northern side and relegating larger apartments onto the less sunny side on the south. This, he said, has created a phenomenon whereby those who live in smaller dwellings (who are often more mobile and therefore less likely to occupy their apartments during the day) were getting the midday sun whilst couples or families who were more likely to occupy larger apartments in fact missed out.

Furthermore, Johnson says that what in fact constitutes good design for specific projects is often a matter of individual judgement and opinion and is therefore difficult to codify in hard and fast rules.

For these reasons, he says it is critical to enable individual architects to apply professional judgement as to the best design solutions for individual cases.

“I think people writing design guidelines and trying to sort out design quality have all got a good outcome in their mind,” he says. “Just like good art is better than bad art, good design is better than bad design.”

“(But) I don’t think you get good art by saying ‘here are the rules for how you do good art’. Good art comes from being creative and from individuals who can produce good artwork – not by saying ‘here are the rules to produce good art work.’”

“The same in many respects applies to architecture. There are certain rules about height and addressing setback so that you get amenity and space around buildings and that’s fine. But if you start getting rules which say ‘this colour is correct and that colour is not correct or this proportion for windows is correct and the other one is not correct’, I think you are interpreting good subjective issues into the design and buildings.”

Other commentators offer different perspectives. Xing Ruan, Associate Dean, International Director of Architecture Discipline at the University of New South Wales says much of the emphasis around design practice throughout that NSW has revolved around a desire for international recognition through novel and prominent work. Whilst this can have a positive impact in terms of challenging architects to produce their best, Ruan says it can drive an excessive focus on novelty as opposed to optimal design solutions for the case in question. Despite what he refers to as the ‘criminal environmental and architectural effect’, he complains about a number of designers producing buildings which contain large areas of sealed glass (‘despite our sublimely temperate climate’), for example, in the hope that west-facing glass will be covered by plants which grow on the exterior of the building.

Whilst acknowledging the intentions behind the recent draft strategy, Ruan takes issue with the notion that the strategy is to serve neither as a guideline nor an instruction manual. Guidelines, he says, help to head off the most extreme design mistakes whilst increasing the probability of positive outcomes on a given project – albeit with less novelty and differentiation perhaps being applied in some cases.

Moreover, he says it is important for any design strategy to focus primarily upon configuration as opposed to being preoccupied with considerations surrounding aesthetics and appearance.

Johnson, meanwhile, acknowledges that the strategy says the right things in terms of not being about hard and fast rules but remains concerned that it will be interpreted as absolutes nonetheless.

He says the best way forward is not so much about micro rules but rather ensuring that those designing buildings possess suitable levels of skill and expertise with regard to the building type in question.

He says this may require different classes of architects.

“The principals of getting good design (associated with the latest strategy) are correct,” he said.

“However, I think the way you get there is more through ensuring the right skills are involved rather than setting down a rule book as to what you should and should not do.”