Sydney developers must not abandon small apartments as momentum builds: Rob Stent

What governments do and don’t do can affect the quality of our lives in terms of where we live and the type of housing we live in. 

We are increasingly turning away from the conventional form of the detached housing, demonstrated by 2011 Census figure that show a 66.7% increase in flat or apartment living from 2001 to 2011.

It is important that governments understand the change in our increasingly diverse society and its housing demands.

No doubt market driven supply and demand are drivers of much of the housing stock on offer, but what is less acknowledged is the impact of intervention of governments through regulation.

There are differences between Victoria and NSW that have influenced housing choices.  These differences will become less pronounced if each government borrows from the other’s housing policies for multi-unit development.

Melbourne’s apartment boom has been part population growth and changing demographics and part aided by a regulatory framework that has been relatively unrestrictive in determining the size and configuration of apartments.

The lengthy boom followed a hiatus of twenty years from 1971 when the Victorian Government introduced a major overhaul of residential controls in the Melbourne Planning Scheme, which effectively eliminated medium and higher density housing from being developed in Melbourne.

For twenty years, only 15% of new housing starts were in the form of multi residential housing until a rare Federal Government initiative called the Better Cities Program, together with a reviews of the residential planning rules by the Victorian Governments (alternating Labor and Liberal), provided the current regulatory framework. As a result, they played a significant part in making Melbourne a far more diverse and culturally rich city to what it was prior.

A prescriptive regulatory framework in Sydney

By and large, in Melbourne this framework is performance based. A more prescriptive framework operates in Sydney.

Whilst Sydney has a long history of multi-unit development, there has been only modest comparable multi-unit housing developed in the last few years.  Its long awaited upturn is encouraged by the proposed changes to the planning controls for multi-unit housing encouraging greater flexibility whist maintaining amenity standards.

Melbourne has typically been able to offer up more affordable apartments than Sydney, however Sydney’s apartments are often larger and have better amenity.  

In Victoria, multi-unit development controls allow greater flexibility and scope when determining the number and size of apartments.  Height controls are generally not mandatory and setbacks to streets and boundaries rely on little other than what is required for small-scale suburban development.

Design of privacy for multi-residential housing is managed by a minimum required distance between dwellings that was originally devised for single suburban housing scenarios.  Internal amenity controls are also limited, being largely governed by building regulations for single housing.  These stipulate required levels of ventilation and light as a percentage of the room area, irrespective of how deep the apartment is or whether its rooms receive adequate natural light levels, actual moments of sun penetration or natural ventilation.


In NSW on the other hand, sites have to be carefully master planned and buildings carefully configured to reach the government mandated targets of SEPP 65.

In 2002, in response to the then NSW Premier, Bob Carr’s perception of poor design standards of multi-unit housing development throughout Sydney, the NSW government introduced the State Environmental Planning Policy No. 65 – Design Quality of Residential of Residential Flat Development (SEPP 65).

It was followed with the Residential Flat Design Code (RFDC), a design guideline that provided discussion, analysis, examples and principles, primarily structured as a design tool for architects and assessing council officers.  It is a mix of ‘rules of thumb’ on issues such as cross ventilation and solar access.  These and other design objectives were quickly adopted as minimum standards for development.

The NSW planning policy also stipulates, through the Development Control Plans (DCPs) of Local Councils, both height and floor-to-site area ratios (FSR) along with type and mix of apartments (studios, 1BRs, 2BRs, etc).

SEPP 65 has improved the quality of multi-unit residential buildings in NSW. This planning policy has had a genuine impact on the quality of the built environment and residents living in these apartments appreciate their amenity. It has created awareness in architects and developers alike for the imperative for a rigorous design process that is not always found in the lower end product of its southern counterpart.  It has however, arguably resulted in more expensive apartments compared to what has been available in Melbourne.

Land costs are also higher in Sydney, resulting in a land cost of up to $100,000 per inner-city apartment, compared to around $50,000  per apartment in Melbourne. This higher land cost is exacerbated by fewer dwellings due to FSR caps, mandatory heights and required levels of apartment diversity. It is worth noting however that construction costs in Melbourne are 20% higher than Sydney for comparable projects.

Australia’s two biggest cities, Sydney and Melbourne, appear to be poised at opposite ends of their respective residential development cycles. Melbourne is expected to slow after experiencing a long boom – providing a valuable opportunity to review what is designed and offered to the market and look at what it can do better. In doing so, I believe Victoria will adopt much of the NSW framework to raise standards for resident amenity, including access to light and sun, outdoor space and privacy.

Sydney is poised after years of quiet activity to gather momentum.  Important to this occurring will be the final revisions to SEPP 65 which, yet to be finalised, are expected to borrow from the Victoria’s experience in providing scope for more flexibility and in turn, scope for greater affordability.

small apartments should not be sacrificed in the process. small apartments can provide affordable entry to housing for many people, particularly single households, who are the fastest growing household in Australia.

The small apartment should be considered as mainstream housing.  Governments, together with architects, councils, planners and developers should allow for innovative design solutions as ways to realise high amenity levels in ways not yet considered.

For small apartments to be successful homes, design levels have to be raised to accommodate adaptable layouts that allow residents to use them as they like, when they like. If a development consists mainly of small apartments, why not augment amenity beyond the apartment door with communal gardens or lounges and kitchens? Why not look to network amenity resources between precinct developments, with cross-pollinating facilities such as pools or playgrounds to encourage development of neighbourhood?  

Taking care of the amenity and quality of what we live in and preserving what is of high architectural, cultural and social value is vitally important.  Taking care also of the broader community aspirations regarding diversity and demographic mix, equity and access to affordable and diverse housing is equally important.

The balance between prescriptive and performance standards is always difficult, with the desire to prevent the worst whilst potentially blocking the best. Governments need to arrive at a balance of the flexible and prescriptive and be open to the opportunity for innovation and affordability, or we will all be short changed.

Rob Stent is a director Melbourne-based architecture, interior and urban design practice Hayball and is a past president of the Victorian chapter of the Australian Institute of Architects. Among the buildings he has designed is Lend Lease’s completed Serrata apartment building in Docklands, one of Melbourne's first apartment buildings to achieve a four-star Green Star rating.



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