Life in a windowless box: the vertical slums of Melbourne

By Ralph Horne, RMIT University and Megan Nethercote, RMIT University

Australia’s apartment boom is in full swing. Nationally, 40% of new dwellings are now apartments or units, and building approvals outnumber those for houses. Melbourne and Brisbane are the most extreme cases, but these trends are national; and they are fundamentally reshaping the future of urban Australia.

In Melbourne, for example, the inner city is being flooded with 1-2 bedroom micro-apartments set in increasingly tall towers (+30 storeys). Almost half are under 50 square metres – not much bigger than a generous double garage. These would be outlawed in other world cities, including Sydney. The Property Council of Australia and much of the industry acknowledges the problem. Victorian Planning Minister Richard Wynne has now released a discussion paper, and there is a plan for new guidelines next year.

The differences between a small one bedroom 42 m2 apartment and a standard one bedroom 50 m2 apartment.
RIBA Homewise – The Case for Space: The size of England’s new homes. Included in Future Living, City of Melbourne, 2013

The market is not delivering what families need, and as a result, future liveability in Australian cities is in jeopardy. Much of the commentary is about size and density. An urgent discussion is also needed about quality and the market.

Reports of “vertical slums” are not entirely unwarranted. Apartments can be great homes – why are ours so mismatched with families and affordability concerns? For working families in the city who need access to services and work, there are few affordable alternatives.

Quality vacuum – a race to the bottom

Many new apartments have bedrooms with no windows, low ceilings and inadequate storage. They have poor access to natural light and ventilation, and underperform on environmental efficiency. Internal amenity of apartments is comparatively under-regulated. Apartment bedrooms without windows, for instance, are illegal in New York, Hong Kong and Vancouver.

An example of the features included in a ‘poor’ housing development.
Future Living, City of Melbourne 2013

Current regulation is failing families and future Australians. Building Code of Australia (BCA) and National Construction Code (NCC) requirements, borne out of original concerns with safety, are seemingly inadequate to the delicate task of ensuring quality while enabling innovation. Even the Guidelines for Higher Density Development (DPCD 2004) fail to provide specific and measurable outcomes, with high-level objectives that are evidently easily bypassed in practice.

Melbourne’s apartment construction boom continues unabated

Marketing airspace – unconstrained towers

A recent report unfavourably compares Melbourne’s high-rise rules to those of world cities. Developers in Melbourne can build at four times the densities allowed in New York, Tokyo or Hong Kong. Moreover, inner city developers are generally under no obligation to contribute to essential public infrastructure, such as affordable housing and community facilities, through density bonus systems. The findings are nothing short of damning, not least for a city that prizes itself, year on year, as the “world’s most liveable city”.

Market-driven urban development “logic” is rarely questioned, but there’s evidence of wholesale market failure. Much of our high density, high-rise apartment stock caters to the local and overseas investor market, enticed by favourable taxation and regulatory regimes. Putting aside concerns about the potential impact of tightening regulations on foreign property investments, many new apartments seem basically unaligned to households’ and families’ changing needs.

Two priorities emerge: for reform, and for understanding changing housing needs.

Reform or regret

Hodyl’s report makes a case for urgent market reforms to establish density controls; density bonuses to link development to public benefit, including open spaces, affordable housing and community facilities and an enforceable tower separation rule to mandate the minimum distances between towers. It also argues that Melbourne would benefit from apartment standards.

In Sydney, guidelines and processes have long been in place to regulate minimum apartment sizes, maximum numbers of apartments per floor, requirements for window provision, minimum floor-to-ceiling heights and minimum storage sizes (SEPP 65).

Reforms towards “good design” pre-suppose an understanding of the future occupants of apartments and their housing needs. A recent study found “good design” is a reasonably uncontroversial concept: it is design that accommodates changing household comfort and needs, and contributes positively to the environment, health, wellbeing and safety.

A current study called the LATCH Project is underway to determine changing household needs and the everyday experiences of inner-city apartment dwellers, including families.

The research reveals the huge diversity of households – future apartment dwellers are not just single-person households and empty-nesters. They need daylight, functioning kitchen spaces, storage, nearby schools and open space. Things that currently fail to align with high-density developments across our cities.

The Conversation

Ralph Horne is Deputy Pro Vice Chancellor, Research & Innovation; Director of UNGC Cities Programme; Professor at RMIT University.
Megan Nethercote is Research Fellow at the Centre for Urban Research at RMIT University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.

State of Australian Cities 2013

State of Australian Cities cover

The fourth State of Australian Cities report was released this week and includes interactive web-based maps and the second tranche of  Australian Bureau of Statistics’ 2011 Census population and housing data.

The report’s main focus is how the change in Australia’s industrial structure (described in the 2012 report) is affecting its major cities and what this may mean for productivity and equity.

Interesting facts include:

  • Australia has one of the highest population growth rates in the OECD.
  • Aside from city states like Singapore and Monaco, Australia is the most urbanised nation on earth.
  • An increasing number of people are living further away from city centres in major cities while higher-skill, higher-paying jobs, are becoming concentrated in central areas.
  • Australian cities tend to have higher private car use than public transport use when compared with overseas cities.
  • Since 2008, residential energy use has accounted for 12 per cent of Australia’s total energy consumption.
  • Energy demand for space heating and cooling is projected to increase in the coming decades. Factors influencing increased demand include houses with the largest average floor areas in the world, the decreasing occupancy rate of dwellings and the increased use of whole-house heating and cooling systems.

  • Nearly 40 per cent of total national energy use is expended in moving people and freight. The transport sector uses 73 per cent of Australia’s total liquid fuel, with over half of that being used by road transport.

  • The transport sector also contributes the largest proportion of average household carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions at almost 42 per cent. Light passenger vehicle use alone accounts for 35 per cent of Australia’s average household emissions, by far the largest overall component of the transport sector’s emissions.

  •  Rates of walking and cycling fell throughout the 1990s before recovering in the first decade of the century. The proportion of journeys to work made by bicycle is now the highest it has been in 40 years.

To read more about the State of Australian Cities click here.



How to increase densities without losing the neighbourhood

Metropolitan plans in Australia over the last decade have increasingly advocated for higher densities to accommodate growing urban populations. Higher housing densities are being supported for a whole range of reasons including to protect precious agricultural and bush land, to reduce sprawl and associated negative impacts such as increased travel times and distances.

However local planning controls, financing and development have not always been able to change as quickly to deliver on these targets, nor have communities embraced or agreed with such plans.

As planners, designers and developers struggle with how to implement alternatives on the ground, particularly in the face of community opposition it is interesting to discover more about innovative options that are out there. Not the ones that deliver more of the same – single detached, double garaged McMansions, or alternatively high rise apartments – but rather the middle ground, developments that not only increase densities, but also bring the benefits of density to the occupants without the perceived negative impacts.

Pocket Neighbourhoods

Pocket Neighbourhoods by Ross Chapin (2011) offers some interesting alternatives and includes examples of compact housing developments that provide a sense of community and a link between neighbours through shared common spaces.

logo pocket neighbourhoods

Increasing housing choice

One of the featured case studies is that of Kirkland, Washington (East of Seattle, U.S.A.). Kirkland city planners faced the challenge of how to increase housing supply and choice for a growing population while limiting sprawl and decided to invite developers and architects to write their own rules. There were few guidelines, but the main one was a limitation on the size and type of homes, thereby allowing more houses than would normally be permitted in a standard subdivision.

Creating new planning codes

The restrictions were that the city would accept only five  applications and had no obligation to approve any of them. The ones that received approval and were constructed would be thoroughly evaluated and considered as the basis for a new planning code.

As a result of this, Danielson Grove was developed (see Pocket Neighbourhoods pages 74-77 for more details, picture below) and was one of only two projects accepted by the City of Kirkland under its Innovative Housing Demonstration Ordinance.

Danielson Grove houses facing commons

After the two projects were completed the city’s planning department followed up with an extensive evaluation to decide whether the regulations demonstrated should be permanently adopted citywide. The study found that they provided a welcome alternative to the large homes being built and integrated well with the surrounding community.

Benefits of Pocket Neighbourhoods

Due to the homes being noticeably smaller than the average house being built at this time, there was not a perception of higher density, nor was there a noticeable increase in traffic. As a result, most of the standards proposed in these sample projects were adopted in a new housing zone code.

Influential Australians

The book also makes mention of two Aussies influential in this area, Paul Downton, co-founder of Urban Ecology Australia and Director of Ecopolis Architects responsible for the design of Christie Walk in Adelaide and David Engwicht and his concept of “mental speed bumps”, activities that naturally slow traffic down.

More Information

For more information see Pocket Neighbourhoods, also find out about Design Patterns for Pocket Neighbourhoods.

Pocket Neighbourhoods by Ross Chapin