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Not all apartment buildings are making us sick and unhealthy

Photo: Alexander Possingham
Photo: Alexander Possingham

It’s possible to design apartment buildings of all shapes and sizes to promote health and wellbeing. Architects and designers say they just need the right conditions to do so.

High rise apartment buildings often get a bad rap for being difficult to design in a way that promotes a healthy lifestyle and wellbeing for residents.

The biggest problem for high rise buildings is that they are often too “fat”, president of the NSW Chapter of the Australian Institute of Architects Andrew Nimmo told The Fifth Estate.

“The building footprints are just too big. Our apartments have an obesity epidemic,” he said.

Big building footprints leads to poor natural lighting due to “long dark corridors”, as well as less opportunities for ventilation because the apartment will usually only have a single aspect.

The University of New South Wales’s Dean of Built Environment Helen Lochhead said it’s possible to design high rise apartments buildings that have good amenity – including ample natural light – but unfortunately these ambitions are often at odds with the economic pressure to get the most out of a building site.

Developers will always want to get the most apartment floorspace they can in a given site. She said this is why it’s up to planners to set the appropriate controls to make sure architects have room to design in a way that promotes human health and happiness.

She likened planning controls to a water-filled container. Planners can have the container “filled up to the brim” so that there is no room for architects to design unconventional shapes or thinner buildings. A three-quarter full container, in contrast, means that architects have the freedom to design for better building amenity.

This might mean more set back at the front, or less overshadowing of communal spaces, among other benefits.

She said that existing apartment design guidelines, which do encourage this amenity and wellness-focused approach to apartment design, are still “only guidelines.”

Mr Nimmo agrees that “the focus is on increasing the yield rather than the quality” and that this is a “good place for a design review panel”.

He’d also like to see architects and other designers take a more considered role in the planning process.

But what about low and medium rise apartments?

Mr Nimmo said that there will always be a place for high rise apartments, particularly as rapid urbanisation calls for higher density living.

He said that as buildings become higher, there are stronger winds that make balconies unusable, among other limitations that impact the amenity of high rise apartment blocks.

Mr Nimmo points to cities such as Paris and Amsterdam that are high density despite having mainly medium and low density apartment blocks.

“It’s a fallacy that to achieve high density you need to go high rise,” he said.

Ms Lochhead said that there are pro’s and con’s to all building types when it comes to human health and wellbeing.

“Often older apartments are healthier; we didn’t have all these mechanical things, [they were] not as reliant on artificial ventilation… they are sensible, well-planned buildings, light and airy.”

So what makes apartment buildings healthy?

For home buyers and renters looking for an apartment that promotes good health and wellbeing, there are a few key things to look out for.

The width of the building is a key point to consider.

“Try to avoid single aspect apartments. The developer can do clever diagrams [to show] cross ventilation but it won’t really work. The exception that will create cross flow ventilation is the corner apartment, Mr Nimmo said.

Generous windows also make a difference.

Ms Lochhead said that safety is something that also needs to be considered. It’s important for the common areas to be well-lit, for example.

Building amenity starts at the front door and “how [the building] relates to the street,” she said.

Ken McBryde, director of Sydney Architecture Studio and University of Sydney professor, agrees that context is key when building an apartment that puts human health and wellbeing first.

“It’s your immediate surrounds, and the context that you live in – where is this high rise building?”

“It’s about that sense of belonging, a need to be able to identify a sense of place. Are you proud of being part of that building and where it fits in? That’s a question of human scale and city scale,” he said.

Buildings should also be designed in way that is sympathetic to the human requirements for both privacy and social interaction.

Mr McBryde said that a corridor with door straight off it is the sort of thing that sacrifices privacy and can be readily avoided.

Access to outdoor space and nature also has a significant impact on human health and wellbeing. This includes private spaces, such as balconies, and communal spaces where residents can interact with neighbours.

Mr McBryde also said fire escape stairs commonly found in apartment buildings are a missed opportunity for promoting active lifestyles.

“[Stairs] should be designed to attract interaction. They should be designed to have a nice finish so you feel like using them. Not like a fire escape. A fire escape is a wasted opportunity,” he said.

Giant car parks underneath apartment buildings also promote insular, inactive lifestyles.

One of the biggest “red flags” of an unhealthy building, according to Mr McBryde, is monoculture. He said you want to see an assortment of people doing different activities.

“The best places in the cities are where you bump into people and have surprising interactions.”

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Comments

2 Responses to “Not all apartment buildings are making us sick and unhealthy”

  • Tony Coote says:

    When you look at what is actually being built in Sydney you will see high rise apartment buildings strung out along both sides of Sydney’s busiest roads.
    Here the air quality and noise levels are appalling. The impact on the health of the people forced to live in such conditions is well documented but is consistently ignored by governments both local and state.
    There is no planning here – just rezoning. There are no additions parks, shopping centres or any of the expected amenities required for those living in these slums. Moreover, this non-planning is often promulgated in dubious circumstances, whereby the only ones who benefit are the developers and a small number of corrupt Councillors and Council employees.

  • Philip Graus says:

    Build to context as this article suggests. Low medium and high can all be appropriate in the right context. The higher the density the higher the quality of the public domain needs to be. Government Architects recent Greener Places gives some good guidance

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