Proportion of dwellings in buildings of four or more storeys (source: Better Apartments discussion paper)

The Better Apartments discussion paper released recently by Victoria’s Minister for Planning, Richard Wynne, tells us that a key problem with Melbourne’s apartment boom is that some units lack adequate daylight.

The paper states that natural ambient light is “important for people’s health and wellbeing and also allows dwellings to be used and occupied without recourse to artificial lighting, thereby reducing energy consumption”.

It’s important to note that the discussion paper treats access to natural light and to direct sunlight as separate topics. This article is only about the former; I’ll discuss access to sunlight another time.

“Borrowed” light

The main issue that’s surfaced in the public debate is that some apartments have a bedroom without an external window; the bedroom relies on “borrowing” light via glass panels from living areas. There are also some with a “battle axe” bedroom that gets daylight via a narrow light corridor.

The discussion paper has a notional floor plan illustrating these problems (page 14). It rightly notes though that the level of natural light depends on a range of factors, including aspect, depth of the apartment, proximity of nearby buildings, ceiling height, and size of windows.

It also extends the public debate about natural light to new areas; it explicitly asks readers if they think daylight “should be required in secondary spaces such as corridors and bathrooms”.

Daylight is of course a very good thing. If they can afford it, buyers and renters are prepared to pay extra to get more of it. We all know dwellings with a north facing backyard command a price premium and those with a southerly aspect sell at a discount.

The point at issue here though is more specific; it’s whether access to daylight ought to be more tightly regulated; it’s whether some approaches taken by developers ought to be placed off-limits. (1)

This is an important issue of policy because it’s probable that tighter regulation would increase the cost of bringing apartments to market; some of that increase would likely be passed on to buyers.

How light enters a bedroom – whether it transits via a light corridor or is borrowed from a living area – really shouldn’t be an issue of concern for regulators.  It’s not as if it’s going to get contaminated on the journey past the TV! (2)

All that should matter is whether the amount of natural light that ultimately enters a bedroom is adequate. It should be the residents call whether they’re happy with how it actually gets there.

A key failing of the discussion paper is it provides no numbers on how many apartments are thought to lack adequate daylight. I expect there are are some battle axe bedrooms that actually do get reasonable natural light; there’d likely be some reliant on borrowed light that do too. (3)

On the other hand, I know there are some apartments that have a bedroom with a window – and in some cases even a living room – that nevertheless doesn’t get much light, perhaps because of a nearby building or a narrow light well e.g. see Living in the CBD: does it have to be this miserable?

It would make a lot more sense to focus the discussion around defining how much light is necessary within apartments before jumping direct to secondary solutions like regulating internal layout. (4)

Health effects

As any minimum daylight requirement would likely have cost implications, any decision should also be informed by a better understanding of the claimed negative health and wellbeing impacts. There’s no explanation of these in the discussion paper however; they’re just asserted.

I accept the proposition that some minimum exposure to daylight is a general requirement for good health no matter where you live; but that isn’t the issue here.

All that’s relevant in the context of this debate is whether or not some residents are likely to suffer ill health as a direct consequence of having a bedroom that receives a low level of natural light.

They might get adequate exposure to daylight in myriad other ways e.g. when their away from their apartment or when they’re relaxing in their living area. For most residents, bedrooms are places that are mainly used in the evening hours.

I’d really want to see some hard data on the health effects of dark bedrooms before I’d accept the proposition that battle axe or borrowed light bedrooms are a significant enough health threat to warrant further regulation.

For similar reasons, I doubt that reliance on artificial light is a significant issue either. In any event, these are invariably very small rooms; lighting them during the day with a 5w LED globe while they’re in use isn’t a big problem. The big users of power are heating, cooling and cooking.

As for bathrooms and corridors within apartments, residents spend so little time in them it’s hard to take this suggestion seriously; it looks like zealotry.

Wrap-up

I haven’t yet seen a compelling reason why additional regulation is required to increase natural light within apartments. More consumer information would help, but I think prospective tenants and buyers are perfectly capable of using their eyes to decide what’s acceptable to them.

As I noted recently, the focus of regulation should be on what future residents can’t reasonably know, can’t reasonably foresee, or is outside their control (see Will higher standards make apartment residents worse off?). Ensuring apartment blocks are separated by a reasonable distance from other buildings will do a lot to improve access to daylight.

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  1. The National Construction Code requires the area of windows must be at least 10% of the floor area. Borrowed light is permissible.
  2. “Borrowed” seems to be the wrong term – the living room isn’t denied the simultaneous use of the light and it’s not temporary (and it’s certainly not returned after use!). “Shared” or something similar would be a better term.
  3. Oddly, the discussion paper refers to bedrooms with a light corridor as “saddle pack” bedrooms. Presumably the authors mean “saddle bag”; but unless there are two such bedrooms in an apartment (and they’re set out as mirror images), I think “battle axe” is a more accurate term.
  4. That wouldn’t necessarily be simple; there could be demands to regulate not just minimum lumens but also other relevant factors like duration and time of day.