Room to move

Melbourne is about to undergo one of its biggest planning changes in a decade

Melbourne is about to undergo one of its biggest planning changes in a decade.  Aside from long awaited government investment in rail and public transport, ineffective planning regulations for housing construction is being overhauled.  This is important to get right if we are to reduce urban sprawl and convince Australians that apartment living is the future.

There is a generational shift towards apartments in favour of their convenience and low maintenance. However, many turn away from the expensive shoe boxes constantly dumped on the market, rejecting the amenity to cost ratio that investors willingly consume. 

Close to where I live, a substantial development has been approved on the back of an old planning scheme. It is a seven storey snaking housing complex looking onto central courtyards and our predominantly two storey neighbourhood. Three floors of flats are underground, limiting views, airflow and natural light. 

The local council had very little provision in the planning scheme to guide the design and analysis work in the planning proposal. A building with poor amenity still manages to tick all the environmental and planning boxes. 

Although the construction industry has the tools to analyse and craft beautiful spaces, financial return trumps quality, which must be driven by planning policy and consumer demand. 

Although the construction industry has the tools to analyse and craft beautiful spaces, financial return trumps quality, which must be driven by planning policy and consumer demand

New planning policies for Victoria have been developed through consultation with a diverse group from the building industry and by studying local and overseas projects with exemplary amenity. The policy defines minimum sizes for rooms, bedrooms must be 3m by 3m, plus minimum built in storage. Living rooms are minimum 12m2 inside a maximum 9m deep apartment with 2.7m ceilings. This is a huge step forward in reshaping apartment amenity. Apartments must have an unimpeded outlook, obscuring screens are no longer accepted as a patch fix for overlooking. Outdoor balcony space is guaranteed and sized to fit a table and chairs and the prized barbeque. Half of all apartments are required to be mobility accessible; a well overdue stipulation. Cross ventilation, corridors with natural light, communal outdoor space with guaranteed sun, deep bed landscaping, and 100% rain water capture form part of the revised residential planning guidelines. To summarise, it’s almost architectural utopia. 

Schematic design will need to focus a lot more on CAD-based space planning and schedules for each apartment rather than the current light touch approach. This brings more detail earlier into the design process, which is more onerous for our clients but leads to well considered outcomes. Environmental analysis included in the planning submission will not change, although the results will score more highly. We wait to see how the changes will effect site yield. My guess is an initial price hike per square meter, consumers will experience and expect new level of amenity, a new norm will be created and prices will eventually drop through competition. Well, let’s hope anyway. 

 Alan Maclean is an architect at Bates Smart Architects in Melbourne