Is Australia ready for smaller footprint apartment living?

Is Australia ready for smaller footprint apartment living?
Olivia RoundApril 17, 2019

When it comes to purchasing your first home, one of the main concerns is affordability. With the cost per square meter starting at $1000 upwards, many Australian first-home-buyers are opting for modern, ergonomically designed apartments with smaller square footage. 

As with houses, apartments provide flexibility to accommodate people with varying needs, offering a range of different sizes, configurations and amenities. In Melbourne alone, Secret Agent Property Research found that the standard apartment sizes range from student accommodation at 34 sqm through to warehouse conversions at around 97 sqm. However, the majority of pre-existing apartments built between 1960-1990 are around 59 - 79 sqm, which is considerably smaller than the average Melbourne 3 bedroom home at 175 sqm


Is Australia ready for smaller footprint apartment living?

One of the key aspects to consider when buying a small scale apartment or studio is the location. Laing+Simmons property agent Sylvia Vitale explains that Potts Point studios are among some of the smallest properties in Sydney at around 17-30 square meters, but the incredible location compensates for the lack of floor space at home. 

“Often people living in studios are out and about. They’re visiting cafes, restaurants and galleries, or they’re out walking along the harbour.”

- Sylvia Vitale, Laing+Simmons Potts Point agent via Financial Review


Is Australia ready for smaller footprint apartment living?

Another factor is how the design will affect day to day living – including the occupant's health and wellbeing. Victoria's Planning Minister Richard Wynne identified a problem with poorly constructed housing in Melbourne and addressed the need to produce higher-quality apartment complexes.

"Melbourne has some great examples of architecture which make the most of compact spaces but we must avoid unliveable dog boxes cropping up across the city."

- Victoria Planning Minister Richard Wynne told The Age

As veteran building consultant Robert Hart bluntly puts it, "[Poorly designed apartments] are an abomination. We now have tens of thousands of apartments affected by shoddy workmanship, rubbish materials, bad waterproofing."

However, there are plenty of great designs to look to – Sydney business owner Sarah O’Neill was one of the lucky ones who managed to score her dream apartment. Her decision to downsize to a 29sqm Sydney studio was to attain a more sustainable and less stressful lifestyle. O'Neill explains that living in a small space definitely does not compromise her quality of living either.

"...the increasing availability of quality multi-functional furniture is helping to get around the limitations and having less possessions does not mean you can’t be surrounded by beautiful things. Needing less possessions means you can afford better quality."

- Sarah O'Neill, small apartment owner via


Is Australia ready for smaller footprint apartment living?

As Australia shifts from the 'suburban sprawl' to higher density housing, mid-rise developments such as The Commons by Nightingale Housing are leading the way with impressive environmentally conscious designs. Nightingale's next collaborative design project 'Nightingale Village' is set to become 100% fossil fuel free and carbon neutral in operation, and each development will offer shared amenities for resident use including large outdoor spaces, communal dining areas, as well as solar energy and rainwater harvesting, which collectively lowers resident costs and their carbon footprint. 

"Melbourne (and by extension, all of Australia) will experience massive growth over the next decades – but where will these people live? And perhaps more importantly, how will they live?"

- Jeremy McLeod, founder and director of Breathe Architecture via The Conversation sought the advice of two experts in the field of space-saving design, who shared their thoughts on small footprint living and how to design effectively for small spaces.


BIO: "I prefer to design compact spaces. My work is highly functional and considered. I produce dynamic and clever solutions with a focus on the organisation of space. I employ a strong conceptual focus and the needs of my clients are heavily embedded in the outcomes."  Nicholas Gurney was shortlisted in Zenith’s Emerging Designer category at the 2017 IDEA Awards. 

Is Australia ready for smaller footprint apartment living?
Tara apartment v1
Is Australia ready for smaller footprint apartment living?
Tara apartment v2


BIO: Since Tsai Design’s first architectural commission in 2013, director Jack Chen has made it his mission to pursue innovative solutions that drive architectural progress. Type Street Apartment, Chen’s minimalist take on small footprint living, is his latest exploration into architecture’s invigorating potential. The renovation won three categories at the 2018 ArchiTeam Awards and received a shortlisting in the 2018 Houses Awards.

Is Australia ready for smaller footprint apartment living?
Type Street Apartment v1
Is Australia ready for smaller footprint apartment living?
Type Street Apartment v2
Is Australia ready for smaller footprint apartment living?
Type Street Apartment v3


The Australian Bureau of Statistics revealed that one-person households are likely to rise between 3 million and 3.6 million by 2031, which is a significant increase since 2006 where only 1.9 million people lived alone. With the growing population, do you think there has been more demand for designing smaller apartments in recent years?

Nicholas Gurney: “There is certainly a strengthening demand for smaller apartments, but I think there are many factors beyond the growing population. At present, small space habitation is considered by many to be a phase of transition i.e. a place of habitation for a finite period either on the way up or on the way down, so to speak. With comparison to five years ago, there is certainly improved demand for the development of existing building stock and I think this arises from issues surrounding affordability and locality. There are more single-person households than ever before, and this will make an ongoing contribution to the demand for smaller apartments.”

Jack Chen: "I'm not sure, to be honest, I think both scenarios are on the rise, they offer very different ways of living so it’s good that people have the options to either live in a house with a backyard further out, or to embrace the convenience of city living, with shops and gyms right outside your door.”


Is Australia ready for smaller footprint apartment living?
"Lightwell staircase" features a mirrored wall to give the illusion of more space. Credit: Nicholas Gurney

U: What's your favourite space-saving design trick?

Is Australia ready for smaller footprint apartment living?
Flinders Lane apartment bedroom features mirrored cupboards to create the illusion of more space. Credit: Nicholas Gurney
Is Australia ready for smaller footprint apartment living?
Multi-purpose bespoke cabinetry. Credit: Jack Chen

JC: “I like to think each problem is unique and not one trick will work for all scenarios, but I think generally the less is more philosophy is quite an important one that flows behind the scenes in all of my projects. I am not a pure minimalist, but I think it is important to have less visually, to visually declutter goes a long way to provide a calmness most people desire in their home. What this means is there needs to be plenty of hidden storage space for the user.”


Is Australia ready for smaller footprint apartment living?
'Atop a Shop' by Jack Chen. Credit: Tsai Design

U: In your opinion, which areas of a home/apartment can be downsized, and which cannot?

NG: “Everything can be reduced from what we’re accustomed to, however, it is conventional fittings and fixtures that administer the spatial organisation and provide the constraint on reduction. A sleeping area can be reduced to the proportions of a mattress or the space required for a murphy bed but a utility space such as bathroom or kitchen cannot be reduced to the size of its parts. Instead, the pockets of space in and around these utility areas is managed to enable a downsize. A living space is a luxury space and can be downsized simply.”

JC: “Again, I think each person’s requirement is different, there could be general patterns of living comfort, but I try not to start with generalization. Small space living is very tailored to each person’s priority in living, in order not to waste any cm of valuable space. Some are ok with sleeping with 60cm height space in order to give space for daytime activities, others define a home as a place that you can sleep in comfort, hence more priority and space needs to be provided for the bedroom in the second scenario.”


Is Australia ready for smaller footprint apartment living?
Nakagin Capsule Tower by Kisho Kurokawa Shimbashi in Tokyo, Japan. Credit: YellowTrace

U: On a global scale, which space-saving designs are you most inspired by?

NG: “I tend to take inspiration from more conventionally sized architecture which permeates in how I design compact spaces. The Nakagin capsule tower in Tokyo, Japan is an interesting space-saving proposal imagined in the Japanese Metabolist style. Nearby to the famous tower is a more recent micro-unit example called the CT7165. Measuring just 8.5sqm, the units in CT7165 are even smaller than the 10sqm capsule units.”

JC: “I think the idea of layering a room vertically to take advantage of the high ceiling is a really smart approach. Usually, space above our reach of around 2m is not utilized much, because there’s a perception of inconvenience, but in a house with a small footprint, they are really valuable opportunities to take up.”


NG: “A reduction is positive. There is something very satisfying about inhabiting spaces without surplus or excess and this can only be experienced through positive change. The obvious benefits of more quality time and less financial burden are obvious advantages.”

Olivia Round

Olivia Round is the Features Editor of Olivia specialises in news reporting, in-depth editorial content and video + podcast interviews with industry experts.

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