Jul 24, 2014

Seriously, does even storage in new apartments need to be regulated?

The Victorian Government Architect is proposing a mandatory design standard for apartments. But it's not all milk and honey; it'll lower housing supply, raise costs and reduce housing choice

Alan Davies — Editor of The Urbanist

Alan Davies

Editor of The Urbanist

Model apartment configurations from the NSW Residential Flat Design Code

Both the Financial Review and The Age report that the Office of the Victorian Government Architect is proposing a draft standard to regulate the size and amenity of new apartments (Move to ban micro apartments, studios in Melbourne and Strict new rules for high-rise apartments on table).

This isn’t surprising; this is an election year and Planning Minister Mathew Guy has been under consistent pressure about the number and standard of high rise residential towers approved in the centre of Melbourne on his watch.

We can’t see the draft standard because at the time of writing it’s not available to the public on the Government Architect’s website. However the mainstream media evidently has priority access* and tells us the key elements of the draft standard include:

  • Minimum size of 37 sq m for studio apartments and 50 sq m for one bedders
  • 90% of apartments must receive direct sunlight
  • Living areas must face north
  • All apartments above ground level must have a 2 metre deep balcony
  • 30% of building material used must be recycled or locally sourced
  • No more than eight apartments per lift per floor
  • No building should have a depth greater than 18 metres
  • Buildings nine storeys or higher must be separated by a gap of 12 – 24 metres.
  • 2.7 metre minimum ceiling heights
  • Minimum storage provisions – 4 sq m in a studio or one bedroom apartment

Many of these ideas are drawn from the Residential Flat Design Code introduced in NSW in 2002. The NSW Code, which is currently being reviewed, sets out ways to achieve ten Design Quality Principles. It also mandates that apartment buildings over three storeys must be designed by a registered architect. (1)

I don’t doubt most of the ideas in the draft standard would improve the quality of apartment living. After all, the rich don’t buy penthouses for no reason; they’re bigger and better than the average apartment in almost all respects.

The trouble of course is most of us can’t afford to have everything. Much as I’d love it, instead of shelling out for a lofty 2.7 m ceiling I might opt for the standard 2.4 m height so I could afford a location with greater accessibility and a little more buzz.

Or I might be prepared to save money by foregoing a 2 m deep balcony, calculating that above nine storeys it would be too windy to be useful; I might see the vibrant streets and squares that attracted me to apartment living in the first place as providing all the outdoor space I want.

In short, if I can’t afford to have everything, I’ll make trade-offs. For the young singles and couples moving to city centre and inner city apartments, the location is the key attraction, not the dwelling.

The draft standard puts me in mind of the old adage that if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. To the Government Architect, everything looks like an “amenity” problem that can be solved by “design”.

But regulations have social and economic costs as well as benefits. If implemented, these proposals would reduce the scope for residents to optimise housing choice relative to their available funds (see Should there be a minimum size for city centre apartments?).

They would increase costs for all apartment types, render some projects unviable, and hit those at the bottom end of the apartment market hardest. (2)

That’s not to say there isn’t an important role for regulation. That role includes how developments relate to surrounding land uses and how apartments within a building relate to each other e.g. fire risk, sound transmission. I think there are also some consumer protection issues that warrant regulation because of their inherent technical complexity (see Living in the CBD: does it have to be miserable?)

However given the cost implications, the case for regulation is very weak when it comes to matters that apply to the interior of an apartment and can be easily comprehended by an average buyer or renter. (3)

Prospective residents can readily assess attributes like floor area, aspect, storage provision, ceiling height, balcony size, interior light penetration, and the number of apartments sharing an elevator. (4)

There’s a long history of paternalism in housing regulation that’s almost always increased costs and in too many cases, like the “slum” clearances of the 50s, 60s, and 70s, has had disastrous results. Architects and designers need to remember that good housing outcomes require more than one tool.

The NSW Department of Planning and Infrastructure’s current review of the Residential Flat Design Code shows the pressure on governments to over-regulate. One proposal put to the Department is to mandate “a range of standard furniture sizes / dimensions” for apartments. Some Councils want the Code to regulate “whether an apartment has a good spatial layout”.

The Discussion Paper produced for the review mentions affordability a number of times but the focus is relentlessly on design issues. Most telling is the absence of any measurement or analysis of how the Code has impacted dwelling supply and affordability.

That’s astonishing given the parlous state of supply in NSW. As I noted recently, significantly more medium and high density dwellings were approved in metropolitan Melbourne between January 2010 and April 2014 than in metropolitan Sydney (see Does housing supply impact on inequality?).

It can’t be assumed all of the shortfall is due to the Code (it doesn’t apply to developments up to three storeys), but it’s certainly got to be one of the prime suspects. (5)

The draft standard proposed by the Victorian Government Architect is a throwback to another era. The authors don’t seem to get that tastes have changed. What matters most for those buying or renting these apartments is where they live. Increasing the cost of that choice will place a burden on all apartment dwellers and exclude some from the locations they want (see Thomas the Think Engine, How small is too small for an apartment?)

It could be really bad news for housing affordability and choice if the Government Architect’s draft standard were to become an election issue. Fortunately, the Planning Minister rightly told ABC Radio on 23 July that he won’t make any decision before the 29 November election. The Opposition should avoid locking itself in on this one too.

See also: Are city centre apartment towers the “slums of the future”?

*Update 6:50 pm 25/07/14: The Office of the Victorian Government Architect says the Fin Review’s priority access to the draft was via a leak (although the Office doesn’t deny any of the specific claims made by the newspaper).


  1. The NSW Residential Flat Design Code is given statutory force by State Environmental Planning Policy 65 – Design quality of residential flat development.
  2. An architect interviewed by the Financial Review estimated the Government Architect’s proposals could add $40,000 to the cost of building a studio apartment.
  3. 85% of apartments in Melbourne’s city centre are bought by investors.
  4. At most, there might be a consumer protection argument for requiring developers to provide more information about the attributes of an apartment.
  5. The Office of the Victorian Government Architects needs to take into account that most of the developments in NSW that’re subject to the Code aren’t the sort of high rise towers that are the key motivating force for instituting regulations in Victoria.
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39 thoughts on “Seriously, does even storage in new apartments need to be regulated?

  1. Jacob HSR

    Alan Davies #36,

    Why do you only think of the CBD. There are suburbs near the CBD where families already live. Port Melbourne, Hawthorn, Richmond, etc.

    People there can live in houses or 1-3 bed apartments.

  2. M Bourne

    michael r james #22. You’re kidding right, 37 sq was for a studio and 50 sq was for a one bedroom. Should I have the kids in the lounge room so I keep them awake if I want to watch TV or use my computer, or should all three of us sleep in my room?

  3. Samuel

    Looking at this article, http://architectureau.com/articles/2014-houses-awards-sustainability/ I wondered whether even a lauded development such as The Commons may not meet the proposed standards.

  4. Alan Davies

    Jacob HSR #35:

    I don’t doubt there’d be demand for larger 4-5 bed apartments in the CBD if the price were lower, but at the price they’re delivered the demand is confined to penthouses.

  5. Jacob HSR

    Michael R James #34,

    That could be an option, but you would end up with 2 kitchens and 2 laundries when you only want 1 kitchen and 1 laundry. Or at least costly redundant plumbing.

    It is ridiculous to say that in this city of 4.4 million, there is no demand for 4 bedroom apartments. As if everybody that has kids likes gardening and mowing the lawn.

  6. michael r james

    On the issue of “family sized” apartments, when buying off-plan as is the case for all these developments, one can negotiate to buy two adjoining 2-bedders and have them integrated from the beginning. Possibly you might be able to get a small reduction in price but in essence it will simply be twice the price of the 2-bed unit. (but it might be marginally advantageous w.r.t. BC fees though they are fairly strictly proportional to floor area).

    Of course they can also buy two adjoining apartments later but their choice will be much more restricted and it will then cost them extra (and they’ll have to get all kinds of permissions).

  7. Alan Davies

    Jacob HSR #32:

    Here’s an alternative explanation. Household who want 4 – 5 beds tend to want larger living areas too. Rather than “market failure”, it could be that the price at which 4+ bedroom apartments of an acceptable size can be delivered in the CBD is uncompetitive with the alternatives (e.g. inner city/suburban terraces, townhouses, detached houses), so the demand isn’t there.

    AIUI, most new apartments already exceed the proposed minimum floor space.

  8. Jacob HSR

    Alan Davies #31,

    You have to acknowledge that there is complete market failure when it comes to providing 4+ bedroom apartments.

    Like the supermarket sector where we have a duopoly even though in banking we have 4 major banks. (Have a 4 pillars policy in supermarkets?)

    Would you agree with a middle-ground approach where a certain percentage of apartments built each year are exempt from the proposed quality laws?

  9. Alan Davies

    Deanne Tyrell #28:

    I don’t see how insisting (some) residents live in a larger apartment than they’d otherwise choose lowers energy costs! Seems to me it could have the same pernicious effect as parking minimums. And fire hazards are already regulated; they’re not what the Government Architect is on about in his draft standard.

    If you don’t like very small apartments, why don’t you just buy a bigger one? Oh, that’s right, they cost more!

    Tom the first and best #30:

    …investors do not intend to live in them and thus usually think less about their liveability and then the tenants get stuck with less liveable flats.

    The reason investors think less about liveability is largely because their customers, i.e. tenants, also have less demanding expectations of the apartments they rent. Tenants know their stay is short-term and if they don’t like it they can move to another apartment when the lease expires without having to shell out the tens of thousands of dollars for stamp duty that an owner-occupier would incur.

  10. Tom the first and best


    Booklets have more effect on owner occupier purchasers than investor purchasers because the investors do not intend to live in them and thus usually think less about their liveability and then the tenants get stuck with less liveable flats.

    Also just because a booklet exists, does not mean that its target market will read it in great numbers.

  11. Dylan Nicholson

    Clearly regulations are needed when they control things that the average buyer couldn’t be expected to judge for themselves, or that significantly affect other people. That includes anything to do with the structural integrity of the building, and how safe it is to evacuate in an emergency etc. etc. In fact from what I’ve seen the current standards for such things aren’t adequately enforced – the house I currently live in required massive repairs at the owner’s expense due to water damage that obviously due to poor construction standards. It would most definitely include better insulation standards – many Australian dwellings built today are shockingly poorly insulated.
    But…I do wonder whether we really need government regulations that so minutely specify things that buyers and renters can obviously judge for themselves. By all means have some government-backed rating system that grants a ‘liveability index’ or some such that would act as a motivation for developers to aim towards higher standards, and I’d even support stricter standards on qualifications are required to be able legally design and construct any sort of dwelling, but it seems to me that as long as there informed consenting adults that are happy to sacrifice higher ceilings or extra natural light or what-not in order to be able to afford something convenient and low-maintenance then why deny them that?

  12. Deanne Tyrrell

    Brilliant! Fresh air, sunshine, lower energy costs, intelligent storage requirements and reduced fire hazards – seems pretty sensible to me.

  13. Nathan Alexander

    I was with the City of Melbourne when it conducted Postcode 3000, a program to encourage central city living. As part of that, it released a booklet to educate the market, which informed potential apartment buyers of what to look for, including storage space. That is a much less heavy-handed technique than regulation, and allows for much more flexibility in tastes and trade-offs. (And BTW, I have lived for years in apartments.)

  14. michael markham

    mies never lived at 860/880 Lakeshore Drive. myth.
    he moved into an apartment when he first arrived in Chicago and never left it until he was taken out on an ambulance stretcher.
    mrs. farnsworth retained and used her white steel vacation house for 20 years. she fell out with mies, not the building. in old age she eventually sold it to Lord Palumbo who retained and used it for another 20 years. during those years it was a private residence and access was by private appointment after submission of references. it has been a museum, similar to the Boyd House in South Yarra for the last 10 years. It was purchased by a trust to preserve it after it was threatened by the metropolitan expansion of Chicago. that trust put its money where its mouth was when it came to the importance of the structure. fortunately the world is not entirely full of hicks.

    Mies adopted the aluminium curtain wall window frame after 860/880 Lakeshore Drive, he didn’t drop it. 860/880 is a pure steel frame building, not a curtain wall building. Wolfe was making it up. Wolfe made most things up? he wrote fiction for a living.

    You are correct, 2400N Lakeview is in the style of MvdR. As far as I am aware he had only two styles.

    It is a novel view that the Reichstag is related to the Merchandise Mart. You should write a book and market test it.

  15. michael r james

    #23 michael markham at 4:36 pm

    You won’t get any argument from an Australian about relative property values. Oz has quite possibly the worst in the world. (Of course you can always find more expensive on a per sq metre basis but those places–HK, Manhattan, parts of Paris etc–but you’re paying for something very special in those cities.)

    Mies and the other Bauhausers may have fled the Na*is but turns out they themselves were quite fascistic in their design attitudes (as was their patron saint Corbusier) to their clients. They were also hypocrites when it really came down to it. It was all style over substance.

    Actually I quite like Chicago architecture but funny you mention Speer because it is probably the city closest to his style in being a bit heavy and often on gargantuan scale. There are plenty of examples but I am looking at the humungous Merchandise Mart built in 1930 it was the world’s largest commercial building (only 25 floors but 2 blocks square; pics in Wikpedia). I think it was this kind of thing in Chicago rather than the high-rise in NYC that inspired the likes of German Expressionism of Metropolis and Speer (or his boss’s fantasies).

    I don’t know 2400 N Lakeview but I am guessing it is in the style of MVDR? From my copy of Wolfe’s walking tour of Chicago architecture:
    “Nos. 860 and 880 N. Lake Shore Drive, designed by Mies van der Rohe in 1951, constitute the first and most influential examples of hi style. The pair of 28-story apartment towers overlooking the lakefront were the forerunners of the typical corporate tower and the ubiquitous high-rise luxury apartment house for the next 25 years.”
    And the much bigger 70-story Lake Point Tower (by two of his students) that was the world’s first high-rise with curving glass walls.

    Especially in Chicago with really cold and windy winters, but equally sweltering summers, these buildings must use horrendous amounts of energy to make them livable. Especially the early ones which had metal-framed windows that just suck the heat out in winter. The mind boggles on the heating you’d have to use to stop condensation on the inside walls and frames. I presume this is what Wolfe implies by: “these buildings have contrasting aluminum window frames–a feature he wisely dropped in the later structures.”

    Mies lived in one of those twin buildings (860 & 880) but soon moved out, to three blocks away, into a “1916 Italianate six-story brick apartment house …of no special architectural merit” where he lived until he died in 1969.

  16. michael markham

    #tventy too – i lived for a time in 2400 N Lakeview. I wasn’t aware that Albert Speer had consulted on the design, thanks for the update. I’ll have to reassess my previously negative views of his work. His advice to MvdR resulted in one of the loveliest little apartments I’ve ever lived in, surprisingly affordable, (the rent was about 65% of an identically equipped flat in Melbourne at the time – Cairo Flats). I wouldn’t disagree with you that the aesthetics of Chicago Architecture are imposing.

  17. michael r james

    @#20 Jacob HSR Posted July 26, 2014 at 10:27 am

    Those are the proposed rules, not mine. I didn’t comment on the balcony issue.

    But I think I understand the reason for the “absolute” nature: it is the only thing that keeps the developers (and those who approve plans which, since it was outsourced in the 2000s, is really just another branch of the developer/builder clique). The tiniest leeway will become a chasm of exceptions for every single development. As I wrote in #12 I can bet even if these rules make it into law the pollies will allow a whole bunch of weasel clauses allowing exemptions; that’s pretty much how the industry works, even in the incredible case of fire safety (see my description of Devine in #12, which btw, only came to light–to owners, renters, building managers and seemingly the city’s fire chief–when there was a fire).

    So, no, for all these reasons there is not much room for the so-called middle ground when it comes to the rapacious developers.

    You have misinterpreted the thing about direct sunlight; it is 90% of each apartment, not 90% of apartments.

    I would like to hear what the planners and architects say about the need for balconies. But I understand the “2 m deep” as it is required for proper shading of the living room (so you don’t have to keep curtains permanently drawn–something I have mentioned many times on this blog; you’ll see this phenomenon on lots, if not the majority, of Brisbane hi-rise apartments.) And ditto for privacy.

    In the case of balconies I cannot turn to my usual guide (Paris) because northern European climates are just too different. Having said that, the floors with filant balconies (usually the piano nobile–ie. 2nd floor; and penultimate floor (usually 5th to 7th; ie. below the mansard attics) are still considered the premium floors. Those balconies are maybe 50 cm deep and never shaded. Another useful style is where there is no balcony but there are balustrades; this style is only possible in Europe where the (full length French) windows open inwards (so there are metal shutters opening outwards).

    But those (eg. #16) who say they would trade balcony space for internal space need to be careful for what they wish for. (One is that in planning regs it is not a simple trade as internal space must conform to the particular footprint and total sq. metres. This is why council usually won’t allow balconies to be glassed-in.)
    However another solution is the mediterranean one (which we really should have taken for our building styles instead of the Brits imposing often inappropriate ones): loggias, ie. where shutters allow flexibility between internal/external.
    #19 M Bourne at 1:59 pm

    I don’t understand why you think these proposed size limits would change anything
    for you since you began with a 50m2 apartment and the smallest proposed is 35m2?
    #21 michael markham at 12:13 pm

    No thanks. You can definitely keep Mies and all those mid-century architectural fascists of the modernist/international style who impose their obsessions about (false) aesthetics on the people who have to live in their buildings. I look at those hi-rise apartments on Chicago’s golden mile (or whatever it is called) and think: this is considered premium? Low ceilings, glass curtain walls in those really cold & windy winters. No thanks.
    You know Mies’ glass house (or is it Philip Johnson; same diff., he was Mies american sponsor) in Connecticut? Won plaudits and awards but guess what? No one has ever been able to live in it. The rich lady who commissioned it admitted it was impossible to live in and she quickly sold it. So it has never been lived in and has been a museum for most of its life (really 100% of its life).

  18. michael markham

    2400 N Lakeview, Chicago, Office of Mies Van der Rohe, 1964, close to the entire ouvre (circa 1960-2006) of Shinohara Kazuo, posthumous Winner of the Golden Lion, Venice Architecture Beinnalle 2012 and the dwelling which won the Victorian Architecture Medal 2000 would be deemed non-comforming in relation to Go. London’s design standards, endorsed by War. Mihaly (in accordance with the reflexive status measures of av. middle class renovators). Being aware of the State Govt. Architect’s one (and only?) built contribution to the environment located at Lat 34deg26’39″S, 119deg23’59″E, Point Henry, WA I think I’ll go with the market on this one.

  19. Jacob HSR

    Michael R James,

    Why be so absolute?

    100% of apartments must have a balcony or 90% will do?
    100% of apartments must have 2.7m high ceilings or 70% will do?

    Interestingly the proposal is that 90% of apartments have direct sunlight, not 100%.

    I think a middle ground, between those who have blind faith in free markets and those that want 100% of apartments built to their ideals, would be good.

  20. Sean

    Alan Davies demonstrates once again that he doesn’t understand how house prices and housing economics works, and the role of the banks and credit. He thinks the gods set land values somehow.

  21. M Bourne

    Restricting apartment size is just a covert way of keeping away those on a lower income. And demanding north facing living areas and windows in every room is a joke. I lived in a 50 sq m unit with my 2 kids until they were 4 and 6. Then I moved (people can do this if they outgrow a small place, we are really quite adaptable) into a 80 sq m 3 bedroom homette. Whoever designed the place made my fences too short for privacy from the footpath and road, so all the bedroom curtains stay shut all the time, and I only have one north facing window that is not blocked by the carport. But get this – I saw all that when I looked at the place, and what I have is good for the rent I pay. If developers want to build something below perfect then that is great for price conscious people like me! Regulations need to be limited to the necessary; structurally sound, compliant with fire safe and well soundproofed and insulated – great. But size and aspect? Let us make our own choices.

  22. patricia bakacs

    The free market will never properly respond to produce products which have attributes at their core which are to difficult to financially asses- available sunlight, fresh air, design for free, unhindered movement and sustainability (double glazing etc) for example. However these are all important factors which affect a human’s mental/physical health and hence their productivity – but of course- if you can’t put a dollar value on it and it’s roll on effect to society then who cares right? Lets just slap up cheap sick hellboxes to ensure cheap sick people.

  23. Mike Smith

    I’d trade off my balcony for extra space – at 7th level, its too windy.

  24. michael r james

    @ David Walker at 11:52 pm

    First, I strongly suspect you (& AD, or probably many here) have never lived in an apartment. I mean lived as your principal residence, not for a few nights, or a holiday or visiting friends. This is significant because it means fundamentally you have no skin in the game; you could really care less about the quality of what is now filling the core of our cities.

    And those things you mock (and distort), they happen to be the list being proposed as law in Victoria. You may want to sneer but I’m guessing they are things that a survey of actual apartment dwellers (esp of poor quality Australian apartments, even as most Australians have no real basis of comparison) really, really want, and would even be prepared to pay a fair price. And perhaps there is also a contribution from architects and, dare I say, urban planners some of whom know what makes for a much better and sustainable physical and social habitat.

    As to costs, perhaps you are one of few who hasn’t noticed that the relationship between price and value is non-existent in Australia. So one is justified to be cynical about all the bleatings that doing some of these things will be just so too costly. The building and property spruikers have no credibility on these matters; and the fact that we all know all state governments answer to the beck and call of developers makes one doubly angry at your insouciance. Meanwhile Harry Triguboff who has built more nasty apartments than anyone else in Australia, is worth $6 billion. Obviously he barely makes a dime out of selling his crap, and forcing him to improve the quality a bit will bankrupt him.
    Reply to your latest post ( 10:42 am).
    That is free market b.s. and exactly what slumlords have said thru the ages. Having running water, indoor WCs (and their location, plumbing etc) and standards of light and air are all “perfectly obvious to any potential buyer” so, according to you, why should they be mandated and subject to very strict building codes?

    There is one strict law that operates in the building game: 99% will always build to the minimum standards. Our most successful apartment builder even boasts about it: “build ’em cheap, pile ’em high and sell ’em dear”.

    Bottom line is that, it would be one thing if we, were like, say, China (or HK in its housing crisis days in the 60s) with hundreds of millions of desperately poor needing better housing. But we are one of the richest (the richest on some measures) countries in the world so we can both afford and should have enough vision to take more care about building our urban fabric that must serve us for the next century or so.

  25. David Walker

    Michael, you now seem to be suggesting that people who see these regulations as largely unnecessary must be in favour of giving developers free rein everywhere. Few people believe that.

    The debate is about where the line should be drawn.

    Personally, I believe in regulation of building fire protection, structural energy effiency and various other things. These are things that buyers cannot reasonably establish without hiring an engineer and gaining permission to intrude into the structure for testing purposes. It’s the same reason we regulate cars’ crash performance but not their glovebox space.

    But I draw the line at regulating things which are perfectly obvious to any potential buyer, such as floor area and storage space. If buyers are not competent to figure out how much floor space they need, then there is a huge list of things they are not competent to do.

    You do not need to be a free-market purist to believe there are some decisions which individuals can make for themselves – even if they do not end up making the same choices you would make.

  26. H H

    1. Read The Fountainhead.
    2. Realise that it’s governments role.
    3. Move on with life.

  27. michael r james

    Probably the developers had blown their case by their usual overstepping the mark. Have you listened to some of these guys, like Trigubof?

    Maybe there was a momentary breakout of common sense, and sense of the common weal, too?

    Anyway, come on, you don’t seriously expect them to become law do you? Most likely they will never be heard of again (post election, no matter who wins), or–the usual mechanism–there will be a whole bunch of let-out clauses, at the discretion of the planning department (or even better, self-assessment), etc.

    And to both AD and Waffler, that is a theory that is clearly not true. The value is simply not in Australian apartments compared to most places. It’s a bit of a mystery except it really is driven by those “investors” more than any other market I can think of. I think the especial rapaciousness of Australian (perhaps Anglophone) developers, combined with the obvious lack of a functional market (for users rather than investors) is why we need stiff regulations. Did you not see that doco the other night about the truly shocking overcrowding in many city apartments? Totally illegal but what is being done about it?

    Another example comes from the fire in Devine’s Cathedral Square last year (10 June 2013). Devine makes some of the poorest-designed nasty apartments in Brisbane (though Tribubof has just finished two huge ones.) Turns out Devine got exemptions allowing them to avoid installing fire walls between the apartments in the roof space. Similarly, fire sprinklers were not required on each level! In a complex with about 500 apartments and 1200 people, mostly foreign students.

    I can confidently say that free markets by themselves have never led to improvements in either primary safety or amenity in building. Naturally the rich get what they want but for the majority it is determined by regulations and laws (and their enforcement), not by some fake notions of free markets. Developers and slum landlords have always been happy to build crap, care less about H&S (often even where there is law, see Devine) and least of all about amenity for the end-user. If you believe otherwise then you are choosing to ignore history.

  28. David Walker

    Like Alan, I’m kind of amazed to see people in the comments arguing one or more of the following:
    1) I think standard X (e.g. 2.7m ceilings, 2m balconies) is terrific, so let’s make it compulsory.
    2) My chosen standards will have no discernable impact on cost, while their value is beyond calculation.
    3) My chosen standards will have an impact on cost, but it doesn’t matter because the housing market just went up 10 per cent anyway.
    4) My chosen standards will have an impact on cost, but $40,000 isn’t much to most people.
    5) Developers talk about affordability, so affordability can’t be a real problem.
    6) Affordability is a real problem, but since we already spend a lot on housing, we should make it “as good as it can be”, regardless of how many people we price out of the market.
    7) I have taste and expertise. People with different views are uneducated.

    Note for Warwick and Michael: When you are 184cm (as I am) then 3m ceilings seem great. When you’re a 65-year-old, 148cm woman, the space beyond 2.1m is not storage – it’s stratosphere.

  29. Alan Davies

    michael r james #8:

    …these will never become law especially when the developer lobby get on the case.

    If it’s all about the predations of rapacious developers, how do you explain the introduction of SEPP 65 in NSW in 2002?

  30. Waffler

    Another lot of lets pick on developers comments (and no, I am not a developer).

    In the long run, developers can only sell what people will buy. Investors will only buy what they can rent. People will only buy/rent what they can afford for the product (read size location, features, etc) that (sort of) matches what they would like (noting of course we would generally all like more than we can afford :)).

    Sure we need to make sure that cost-cutting doesn’t lead to unsafe of unhealthy designs (therefore building codes!) – as Alan says, there is a place for regulation.

    But if I buy an apartment and later decide it doesn’t suit because the layout is wrong or it is too small for my needs, then that is clearly my own fault!

    Having some paternal do-gooder deciding I can’t buy a 35 sq m apartment when it may suit me fine, and be the only one I can afford, doesn’t sound like a good use of regulation.

  31. michael r james

    @ Alan Davies at 4:01 pm

    That explains it! Naturally it means these will never become law especially when the developer lobby get on the case. The whole thing is indeed some cynical PR exercise.
    Too bad. But at least it is out there. Someone should run a poll on it.

    AD: As usual, MRJ looks at it solely and exclusively thru the prism of what he personally likes and seemingly ignores the preferences and welfare of those who buy/rent apartments.

    Not at all. My views come from a lifetime of experience in many cities in many countries. Also from being both renter and owner-occupier.

    I have no idea on how Jacob HSR comparison is anything like as valid as mine. It is clearly not. There is only one city in Australia that could claim to be at all Parisian (and it does occasionally, as in the Paris end of Collins st etc) and it’s Melbourne.

    You’ll have to try harder. You seem to have given up on real evidence-based argument.
    I agree with Warwick Mihaly in that investors bring to bear a constant downward pressure on costs and thereby on amenability–they never intend living in the building so what does it matter. But I also disagree that higher minimum standards will not preclude profitability, nor will it do what AD always claims, that it will reduce accessibility etc etc.
    An obvious thing to any owner-occupier of these newer buildings is that a developer’s or investor’s saving turns rapidly into an owner’s (or worse, renters) cost. But actually even worse is that, while it is often extremely simple and cost effective to do many things during construction, it often becomes much more expensive, more difficult and sometimes plain impossible for occupants. As I wrote in #5, if a place is not designed with storage it will often be impossible to build it later. Adequate power points is another gripe.
    Incidentally on my fave hate topic, building heights, there is a relationship with ceiling heights. I doubt that a bit of extra height adds much cost (certainly not proportionally) but of course it means the developer can squeeze more floors in a given height profile. But here’s the thing: if some areas are zoned to be low-rise (Parisian) which would be 8 floors* along with absolute height limits, then this pressure (to add existing floors by suppressing ceiling height) completely disappears.

    *Standard concrete construction results in 6 floors being a kind of threshold for cost efficiency; ie. go above this height and the costs start to escalate because of the need for much deeper, stronger foundations etc. I think this can easily be stretched to 8 floors (if not ten, which I don’t encourage) with smarter engineering. For example it was one of the benefits to those new timber apartments in Docklands built by LendLease; ie. much less cost (and time, which is money) in the foundations, and if I remember those buildings went up to 9 floors (supposedly the tallest structural timber buildings in the world).
    And AD, if you worry about costs you should promote that kind of building. They are cheaper and faster to build (and as I have shown repeatedly, allow for actual higher-density in urban areas), more eco-friendly both to build and live in.

  32. Warwick Mihaly

    Alan, I strongly disagree that people can make their own assessment about what affects them and only them. If you ask, most people would like to live in a detached house with a big backyard and ocean views. As noted above, what people think they want and what would actually suit their lifestyle / family size / mobility requirements etc. are often very different. This is something that Robin Boyd identified half a century ago in The Australian Ugliness. A cracker of a read if you haven’t already.

    For once, ResCode agrees with me. The fact that it deals with internal amenity makes this obvious, but so too does the practice of local Councils who take into consideration what future owners / tenants / neighbours will think. We need to take the legacy of current built environment decisions seriously. Buildings last a long time, often generations. What a person accepts for him or herself now will also affects tenants decades down the track.

    As an aside, there’s a hell of a lot of 2.4m high ceilings in high-rise construction because they permit a minimum floor to floor dimension that can be built cheaply. I’m in agreement with Michael James here – developers play the affordability card when it suits them. Keep in mind that their priority is not those living in their buildings but their profit margin. I’m pretty tired of seeing high-rise towers built by foreign investment, with apartments purchased by other foreign investors, so that locals (or international visitors) can live in sub-standard conditions. Why should the primary force driving Melbourne’s planning future be profit?

    Here’s a crazy thought: imagine if profit didn’t drive the building industry but quality did!? I’d love to live in that city.

  33. Alan Davies

    Warwick Mihaly #4:

    I’m all for regulation where needed. See the para that begins “That’s not to say there isn’t an important role for regulation…” But I’m aware that regulations tend to come with a cost, so they shouldn’t be applied willy nilly.

    Where users can make their own assessment about what affects them and only them, they should be able to decide what “as good as can possibly be means” to them; it needn’t and shouldn’t be up to the Government Architect.

    And if 2.4 m ceiling height isn’t standard, there’s a hell of a lot of it about in our dwelling stock.

    michael r james #5:

    The Government isn’t doing it; it’s a proposal to the Minister from the Government Architect. The Minister has said he’ll make no decision until after the 29 November election (read my last para).

    The architect isn’t “anonymous”; his name and company are given in the Financial Review article I linked to. His firm designs apartments (he says) so I daresay he knows more about the costs than either of us.

    And to paraphrase: As usual, MRJ looks at it solely and exclusively thru the prism of what he personally likes and seemingly ignores the preferences and welfare of those who buy/rent apartments.

    And re your comment to Jacob HSR; his analogy between apartments and hotel rooms is at least as valid as your analogy between Melbourne and Paris.

  34. michael r james

    Wow, it is as if I wrote those new regulations!
    Is it really a conservative government doing this?

    So obviously I agree with them. As usual AD looks at it solely and exclusively thru the prism of (false) costs, and seemingly from the eyes of a developer.

    Have you ever even lived in an apartment? I have, all over the world, for approaching 34 years now.

    If you look at modern apartments going up, often they are as little as 4m wide. This might look ok when completely empty but it is impossible once you put furniture in. And without any built-in storage, it will rapidly become even more impossible.

    I have written many times here about the horrible minimum 2.4m ceilings that all developers will build–even for expensive so-called luxury penthouses! The 2.7m is a great new regulation. It also provides for a lot of extra storage which is beyond calculation in value.

    Your footnotes #2 and #3 prove the point. You want to provide for “investors” rather than the people who will have to live in them. As to the extra cost, it is of course total speculation on the part of that anonymous architect. But even if it was $40k, that would be less than ≈10% of average small apartments; and to put in context I just heard this morning that Melbourne property has gone up 10% in the past year. In other words, even if it is as high as 10% it is extremely worthwhile (and a good investment re resale; AD please educate yourself and spend some time on realestate.com.au and see how any place that has them will always point out that they have high-ceilings, ditto all around the world) and is no more than the kind of ridiculous housing inflation we inflict upon ourselves and which most economic-rationalists seem to think is a good thing (it’s the market!). So the affordability argument is fake, as usual; it is exactly what the developers bleat about. Every single building regulation in history has been fought tooth and nail by them, because “it adds cost and will make it unaffordable”! Get over it.

    Note how the mandated building separation above 9 floors is one factor in why low-rise Parisian-style residential apartments allow for equal- or higher density than the kind of hi-rise being built in Australia today. And provides vastly better quality of life and quality of the urban fabric. Not just well worth the investment but critical if we want to build quality cities.

    @Jacob HSR, hotel rooms serve an entirely different function to residential apartments.

  35. Warwick Mihaly

    As an architect, I am enthusiastic about a built environment regulation that originates out of the Office of the Victorian Government Architect. I have great respect for Geoffrey London and, in particular, Jill Garner. Having spoken before with Garner, I know that she is interested in making Victoria’s built legacy world’s best practice, and seeks out models that already work well from other corners of the globe.

    The central tenant of your argument is that user choice is more important than a guarantee of minimum quality. Are you arguing therefore for free market will over a protective regulatory environment? Is this your opinion for building stock only, or for issues like vehicle safety, quality of schooling, or medication availability?

    The fact is most people don’t know what a good building is. This is not to say that it’s impossible to educate oneself, only that most people don’t bother. You demonstrate this yourself in your article: a 2.4m ceiling height is not standard, it is the minimum permissible ceiling height for any living area in any residential building type. 2.7m is reasonable but hardly “lofty”. I suggest that when the apartments in question are already tiny, 2.4m is a mean dimension indeed. The planning code has also already declared that every dwelling must have access to some sort of private outdoor space. For apartments, this is already regulated at 8sqm. On this issue, all this OVGA regulation is doing is insisting that the balcony be wide enough to be usable.

    Yes, location is important. But when billions of dollars and vast resources are thrown into the built environment each year, don’t you think we should insist the results be as good as they possibly can be?

  36. Dudley Horscroft

    The Victorian Government Architect obviously has time on his hands.

    There can be no justifiable reason for prescribing how space in an apartment must be allocated, any more than prescribing minimum apartment sizes. He should look at the ILO Convention on accommodation for seafarers. This reads:
    4. The floor area per person of sleeping rooms intended for ratings shall be not less than–
    (a) 20 sq. ft. or 1.85 sq. m. in vessels under 800 tons;
    (b) 25 sq. ft. or 2.35 sq. m. in vessels of 800 tons or over, but under 3,000 tons;
    (c) 30 sq. ft. or 2.78 sq. m. in vessels of 3,000 tons or over:
    I doubt that any ships built today have as little room per sleeping berth. Recent ships (left the sea in 1973) had far more room, and each officer’s cabin contained a shower/lavatory as well as amply storage space. A double bunk folded up during the day to provide a “day bed” aka “settee”. The only thing missing was cooking facilities – think a desk top could be folded up to provide space for a couple of hot plates. But, in a “studio apartment” (which I think approximates to a ship’s cabin where the bed is in the living space) how often would one cook a meal for 12, or even six. Probably 2 would be max. I doubt that my last cabin was anywhere near 37 sq m.
    “4 sq m for storage space” Consider a wardrobe 2 m long and 0.5 m deep. That is 1 sq m. Add three shelves and there is your 4 sq m storage space. Have it only 1 m long, but add 7 shelves, you still have 4 sq m storage space.
    Just because NSW has a mandatory design code does not mean that Victoria should be as daft.

  37. Alan Davies

    Jacob HSR #1:

    The NSW Code suggests “Depth” means the overall width of the building. Compared to the towers on small sites that are the issue in Melbourne, the NSW Code seems to have been written for relatively low and long buildings on large sites.

  38. Jacob HSR

    Why mandate balconies for apartments. Do hotel rooms have to have a balcony?

    What does building depth mean? “No building should have a depth greater than 18 metres”

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