Are we Falling Short on Good Apartment Design? 1

Wednesday, May 13th, 2015
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With such heated debate in recent times around SEPP 65 in New South Wales and Western Australia, and the proposed Apartment Design Guidelines in Victoria, the big question is: what is good design?

How do we quantify good design? Who defines what is good design and what is poor design?

In the 1980s, Deister Rams, considered to be one of the world’s greatest designers, created the 10 principles of good design as he was concerned that the world of design was starting to crumble. According to Rams, good design should be: innovative, useful; aesthetic, understandable, unobtrusive, honest, long-lasting, thorough down to the last detail, environmentally-friendly, and should feature as little ‘design’ as possible (i.e. concentrate on the essential aspects).

In order to ensure these principles are met and exceeded with every design, I believe a number of key variables need to be established with the client from the very first meeting, while also considering site constraints, characteristics, features and the overarching objective of the development.

That said, it’s important to also acknowledge that good design is open to interpretation and subjectivity, and may have different meanings to different people.

Similar to art, design is rarely objectively good or bad. I do not believe creating a set of design guidelines will necessarily create better design. Every project should be looked upon, researched and analysed on its own merit prior to the beginning of the design process. Each design should be specific to the site, client, and their needs. Even then, there is too much subjectivity to have a common rule that will result in good design.

In Victoria, the debate regarding well-designed apartments continues, primarily bring driven by the Australian Institute of Architects through the Victorian Government Architect (OVGA).

A set of draft guidelines has been created by the OVGA summarising:

  1. Context
  2. Scale
  3. Built form
  4. Density
  5. Resource
  6. Energy and water efficiency
  7. Landscape
  8. Amenity
  9. Safety and security
  10. Social dimensions and housing affordability
  11. Aesthetics

There has been an insinuation that the lack of official design guidelines is allowing profit-hungry developers to exploit this loophole to the detriment of future residents and consumers. It is also implied that the design should only be completed by a registered architect.

Very little proof has been forthcoming to support these claims and from my knowledge, only a handful of apartment developments have been reported to be of poor design.

It is believed that these examples were self-contained student accommodation units designed by architects and located in inner-city suburbs close to tertiary campuses where land value and demand is high.

Naturally, many students have limited financial resources and with the ever-increasing cost of tertiary education and the meteoric rise in the cost of living, students require affordable housing to ensure that they can live within their means during this significant phase of their life.

Are these self-contained student accommodation poorly designed simply because they are less than 50 square metres? I suspect that these units were intentionally created smaller to provide affordable housing to the multitudes of students who do not have a car and need to be close to educational institutions and public transport. These developments also help decrease urban sprawl and reduce traffic congestion in major capital cities.

There are many reports in the media referring to Melbourne’s apartments being smaller than what is allowed in New York, Hong Kong and a host of other densely-populated global cities.

In New York for example (as reported in The Fifth Estate), 1.8 million one or two-person households have only one million studios or one-bedroom apartments to choose from.

Upon recognising the housing problem, the city of New York has not only reduced the minimum apartment size, but is also promoting this type of development by holding a micro apartment design competition. The Fifth Estate also reports that San Francisco reduced its minimum apartment size to 20 square metres in 2012.

As much as I support good design, we need to be careful not to stifle innovation, sustainability, and affordability. Yes, I believe that guidelines to promote good design, if adopted carefully, would assist with better design outcomes. But they must be used as guidelines only, and not as definite law.

We should focus more on the development of amenities and encourage innovation within the design. The market will determine what is good design is and what is poor design. If the apartment is too small, it will not sell. However, if it is small but combined with innovative design in its use of space, it would be considered good design and therefore would be in demand.

Simon Goldenberg, director of Icon Co, builds apartments in both Sydney and Melbourne.

“Although the Sydney apartments are a lot larger, they have become unaffordable,” he said. “If Melbourne follows suit, it will increase the lower bracket of entry level for the home buyer.”

If the cost of purchasing an apartment becomes unaffordable to the lower bracket, then we will have a housing issue as Melbourne real estate prices continue to climb – especially as we witness an increase in population due to generational growth and increased life expectancy.

I think we may see short-term corrections in the real-estate market, but I do not believe we will ever see the market drop for an extended period of time.

This is just one reason why smaller inner-city apartments should be considered as a more measured approach to creating affordable housing for the masses.

Many inner-city locations are home to employment, universities, sporting arenas, public transport and infrastructure and services.  It makes sense to promote apartment living and infill development in the inner-city suburbs while also helping consolidate our population growth, services and transport networks and decreasing urban sprawl.

But clearly, there is a supply and demand issue. The demand for housing is strong in the city and it will continue to grow as our population continues to grow.

As we work to meet this demand, the notion of good design should not be ignored. Guidelines can be used as a tool to achieve good design, but less emphasis should be applied to the size of the apartments and more placed upon the context, purpose and impact of sustainable design.

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  1. Lindsay Webb

    Not to be finickity, but that is Dieter Rams. On a more practical note, if one follows the Rams' principles, good design can be objectively evaluated.