Across any state or territory, sensible regulation which facilitates good apartment design helps to underpin the delivery of more liveable, efficient and sustainable housing.

This can be demonstrated through outcomes which have been seen in Sydney, where SEPP 65 is in place, as compared to lesser quality offerings which have gone up in parts of Melbourne.

Now, Western Australia is looking at its regulation regarding apartment design. Last October, the government released a universal set of design principles, draft design standards for new apartments and mixed use complexes, a draft design review process for complex developments and a skills discussion paper looking at what restrictions (if any) should apply as to who should be able to prepare and certify documentation for building permit applications. This last paper raises an interesting question: who should design WA’s multi-residential buildings?

Three broad options are considered in the design principles. Under the last (Option 3), there would be no additional regulation of design skills and the current situation – where anyone is able to prepare and lodge plans as part of a development application for any type of building – would continue. Under this approach, reliance for design quality would fall primarily on the design standards and design review process, whilst market forces would be relied upon to exclude poor practitioners.

The other options are threshold based regulation (Option 1) and competency based regulation (Option 2). Under threshold based regulation, plans for multi-residential and mixed use developments which exceed certain thresholds would need to be either prepared or certified by a registered architect. This is what happens under SEPP 65 in New South Wales, which requires plans for developments which either contain at least 10 dwellings or reach a height of three storeys or greater to be prepared by a registered architect. According to the paper, such an approach could be adopted in Western Australia but with thresholds tailored to meet local development types.

Alternatively, the threshold could relate to the value of the development in terms of construction cost, the paper said. Threshold regulation could also operate under a tiered approach involving different levels of design skill for different types of development, it added.

Competency based regulation (Option 2), on the other hand, would allow for competency standards to be applied to different project categories.

A distinguishing feature between threshold and competency based regulation is that the former would require practitioners who prepare approval documentation to be a registered architect and to have undergone the formal process of registration under the Architects Act 2004. Competency based regulation, by contrast, applies equitably to both registered architects and (non-registered) building designers and enables the latter to prepare approval documentation provided they are able to demonstrate the necessary expertise for the project type in question.

Which approach is best?

According to the Association of Consulting Architects (ACA), threshold based regulation is generally the preferred option. ACA WA president Kieran Wong acknowledged that opinion on this matter was not uniform amongst ACA members and that some members had suggested consideration of a hybrid between threshold and competency based regulation. Indeed, Wong acknowledges that there are good (non-registered) building designers who produce excellent outcomes and that simply being a registered architect does not guarantee suitable experience in respect of the project type in question.

Nevertheless, he said that threshold regulation is a straightforward method based on a robust and well-established registration process.

Wong said current arrangements where anyone can prepare and submit permit documentation is not the best way forward. Whilst stressing that ACA endorses the design standards along with another proposed requirement for mandated design reviews, he said it is important that the standards are used not as a prescriptive device but rather as performance criteria to be implemented by skilled and experienced designers.

He said the importance of sensible regulation in design can be seen through the difference between Sydney and Melbourne. In Sydney, where SEPP 65 mandates design standards, reviews and skills (according to threshold), he says outcomes in multi-storey developments have been good. In Melbourne, where apartment design standards did not exist until recently, he said there are many more examples of poor quality outcomes, and that these have served to exacerbate negative sentiment about high density multi-residential living.

“The way we have drafted our response (in the ACA submission to the review) is to support all three components of Design WA – the apartment design standards, the requirement for Design Review and also the requirement for design skills,” he said.

University of Western Australia Professor Geoffrey London agrees, at least in principle. London is wary of measures which restrict competition but has come around to supporting threshold based regulation nonetheless. Whilst robust design standards should in themselves help to facilitate good outcomes, London says this still leaves questions about who is checking that the standards are correctly applied. This is especially the case as many of the smaller councils would not have design review panels in place and would not be equipped with staff who have sufficient expertise to assess whether or not individual proposals meet the standards. Having threshold requirements thus provides these councils with an additional level of assurance about design quality, he said.

In addition, London said the act of specifying that a registered architect be used sends a clear message about the importance of good design. He says registered architects have been through five years of education and two years of practical experience, receiving a thorough and extended exposure to design education.

Furthermore, with competency based regulation, he said there are questions surrounding who would decide what the various competencies were.

London says he largely arrived at this viewpoint following feedback received from the Department of Planning and subsequently the Government Architect in NSW that the success of SEPP 65 in that state had been largely down to its mandatory nature under law, its use of design review panels to make judgements about how the guidelines are applied and its mandatory use of architects.

“It’s one that I have come to agree with,” London said, asked about the idea that threshold regulation was the way to go.

“It’s one that I have wrestled with for a long time. I have some reluctance ideologically in saying that this should be something that is closed to other professions but all the evidence that I have seen points to the need for that particular threshold requirement.”

Rules about who can and cannot design Western Australia’s apartments and mixed-use buildings are under review.

The outcome may well be that only registered architects will be able to design buildings above a given height or number of dwellings.