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Will Victoria’s new apartment guidelines help the medium density experiment succeed?

New guidelines for apartments and urban design in Victoria have just been released – but will they be enough to make the density experiment succeed?

The Apartment Design and Urban Design Guidelines for Victoria aim to help state agencies, local councils, developers and consumers better understand and apply the Better Apartments Design Standards that came into effect in April 2017.

The new standards address issues that had been raised about apartment quality, including ensuring natural light for bedrooms, natural ventilation, sufficient room in living spaces and bedrooms for furniture, private outdoor space and sufficient storage.

“We promised to put an end to cramped, dog-box apartments with borrowed light and no ventilation – and that’s exactly what we’ve done,” Victorian planning minister Richard Wynne said.

“We’re cracking down on dodgy apartments and giving the industry the tools and resources it needs to comply with new standards that protect owners and tenants.”

The guidelines explain in detail the key aspects of the Better Apartment Design Standards and how planners, designers and architects should apply them, and also how development consent authorities should assess a plan’s compliance with them.

Aspects addressed include siting and building arrangement, building performance and dwelling amenity.

The performance section highlights energy efficiency and water efficiency as fundamental goals, with passive solar design given major emphasis.

President of the Victorian chapter of the Australian Institute of Architects, Vanessa Bird, said the new guidelines provided clarity, which was welcome.

It is also expected they will result in more consistency in decision making by councils and VCAT.

headshot Vanessa Bird

Vanessa Bird, Australian Institute of Architects

In combination with the Better Apartment Standards, Ms Bird said she expected changes in terms of apartment quality, particularly around room sizes, borrowed light and snorkel bedrooms. Requirements around light wells and balconies and storage in the standards will also see improved amenity.

“The most disappointing aspect, however, is there is no mandating of architects on significant buildings or major projects,” Ms Bird said.

“If Victoria wants to increase the supply and acceptance of medium density housing in the middle suburbs, it needs to be well designed.”

Without good design, community acceptance would be harder to achieve, she said, and there was less chance the “medium density experiment” would be successful.

Already there had been reports from councils such as Frankston and Wyndham that four-storey apartment buildings were being developed without the input from an architect, Ms Bird said.

“In the outer areas, where there is more resistance to medium density, it is so important that apartments are well designed, by skilled and experienced architects to ensure acceptance by the community.”

This was not such an issue in inner city prestige sites or where sites were expensive, as having a quality team of architects is generally part of the project’s overall marketing, Ms Bird said.

Since the process of developing the apartment standards began, in response to the concerns around small apartments, there has been a shift to bigger apartments, she said.

“The mindset has already slightly shifted and we are seeing more ‘owner occupiers’ investigating apartment living. There did need to be a raising of the bar, but this has also happened in response to demand.”

However, good design doesn’t just “come from a set of standards”.

“It comes with time, training and the expertise that an architect has developed over time.”

Experts sought to give advice on improving design

The government is also creating a design advisory service to offer specialist advice to developers of larger-scale apartment projects. Use of the service will be voluntary, with either councils or developers able to initiate the process.

The government is now looking to recruit architects, planners, urban designers and building designers that have experience in apartment projects to be among the session members that will provide advice.

The plan is to operate the service for a year, and then review how well it worked to deliver its goals of better outcomes, reduced need for planning reviews and improved confidence in the planning decision-making process.

Ms Bird said that whether the planned service would result in further improvements was hard to gauge.

“The design review is a good initiative. Its success will be reliant on the expertise of the panellists.”

Ms Bird said the proposal read as if the reviewer will potentially be a single person, in contrast to the existing Office of the Victorian Government Architect design review panels that involve a mix of experts reviewing designs for major projects.

Ms Bird said it was interesting that the government was calling for expressions of interest from people including not only architects, but also planners and building designers.

“If it is about design review, it seems strange to ask a planner for design input,” she said. Planners provide expert planning compliance input, not design advice.

For design advice to improve outcomes, it needed to come from a deep knowledge of the apartment typology and how to apply the principles to the design, she said.

“It is meant to go beyond a tick the box thing.

“Ticking off standards is the beginning. There are many ways to comply and the design advice should ensure that the best possible design outcome has been achieved.”

Taking it further means looking at the building as a whole, and how it relates to its context and how it acts within the streetscape.

Ms Bird did not think the plan for users to pay for the service would be a barrier if the advisory process provided certainty around approvals and saves proponents or councils time.

She said success of the design advisory service would be determined by the resolution of its detail – who the experts are, as well as the quality of the applicants, will in large part determine whether it delivers better outcomes.

Urban design guidelines highlight sustainability essentials

The government also launched a new interactive and updated set of Urban Design Guidelines.

“Our public space is what defines our city and what makes Melbourne the best place to live in the world. It’s vital that we get the planning right so that it stays that way,” Mr Wynne said.

The guidelines have a heavy emphasis on planning and urban design that contribute to the use of active transport such as cycling and walking, public transport and creating urban greening in public spaces including the forecourts of high-rise multi-residential buildings.

Help to educate the market

In addition, the government released an Apartment Buyers and Renters Guide. The guide translates the basic principles of the standards and sustainable design into information on what prospective purchasers or tenants should look for in terms of sustainability, liveability and quality.

While it stops short of suggesting they ask about a NatHERS rating or other energy efficiency information aside from the rating on appliances, it does explain the basic aspects that contribute to low operating costs and improved thermal comfort.

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