Why is design important? Is bigger better? A Developer’s perspective.

Why is design important? Is bigger better? A Developer’s perspective.
Urban EditorialMay 29, 2020

New property these days is often accompanied by sophisticated marketing campaigns, brochures, appealing imagery and a ‘lifestyle’ focus. Display suites are set up to give buyers comfort around the fittings and finishes and to generate confidence to buy off-the-plan. The renders showing the building exterior combined with interiors furnished with the latest trends are state of the art. Agents wield price lists and unsurprisingly, the larger ones cost more.

So do these marketing campaigns really demonstrate good design?  And is the most expensive apartment the best one?

What many buyers do not realise is that new property design is not unconstrained. The process of designing a new apartment is always a series of compromises. Meeting the regulatory standards and adherence to the Building Code and the Design Guidelines assures a minimum standard, but every development is also subject to requirements set by the authorities, Councils and building surveyors. As such, many designs are ‘pushed and pulled’ in order to comply with these requirements, and they are almost never fully understood upfront. 

The quality of the final built form comes down to the architectural response to various ‘curve balls’ that come up, along with the developer’s investment in the original design intent. The Australian public seems highly focused on the physical size of a property as constituting good design, possibly influenced by banks that value on a square metre basis or even design guidelines that dictate space requirements. However, this is a very narrow perspective. Good design is about utilizing the space available to create an aesthetically pleasing home.

It may come as a surprise, but the average size of Australian apartments (108sqm) is significantly higher than other major cities in the world.  An average-sized apartment in London is 47sqm, Chicago is 68sqm, Los Angeles is 72sqm – all vastly lower than the current Australian average.

So does more space equate to better design?

What is also interesting is the ratio of apartments to free-standing homes in Australia is vastly different to the ratio in major cities across the world.  According to Charter Keck Cramer, apartments in buildings of four or more levels as a percentage of total housing stock in Melbourne is only 3.3%. Sydney (10%); Chicago (30%); Greater London (35%); Toronto and Vancouver (40%) and even Los Angeles (35%) are significantly more mature apartment cities. Bottom line, we are new at this and the apartment market is still in its infancy for a world class city such as Melbourne.

Much of the Government’s focus for apartment design is on energy ratings, sustainability, natural light and yes – space. But is more space the answer to good design? It certainly makes the job easier, but I would argue it is not a prerequisite.  Less space requires fewer resources to build and has a lower carbon footprint, lower ongoing heating and cooling costs, fewer furnishings, less maintenance and a lower cost to purchase. 

So how much space do people really need and how much do they want?

In London, a minimum space standard was established in 2016 as part of the London Plan. For new apartments, the minimum standards are 37sqm for one person, 50sqm for two people in one bedroom, 61sqm for three people with two bedrooms, 70sqm for four people in two bedrooms and 74sqm for four people in three bedrooms. Would it be fair to say apartments in London are inferior because they are smaller?

Achieving better design outcomes really does come down to ensuring the builder works collaboratively with the developer. Coming up with optimal design solutions requires challenging the coordination effort of consultants and the builder to ensure space is maximised. The ‘feel’ of a space can often be compromised by something as rudimentary as a step in a wall or a ceiling bulkhead, which could otherwise be designed out if extra effort is given by the project delivery team when practical problems arise. These days, with so many building contracts being on a “Design and Construct” basis, the developer can easily lose control of the design, as contractually it is within the control of the builder who is typically looking for the simplest and fastest on-site solution with the lowest risk and lowest cost. 

Having an invested Developer is key to delivering well-designed buildings.  So what is well-designed?  It is so much more than the glitzy marketing that draws in buyers. It basically comes down to the age-old tension between form and function. Good layouts that deliver the right balance of space between where you live versus where you sleep, and ensuring space is useable, flexible and can be optimised in terms of furnishing, light, how you walk through a space and so on. Great design combines clever efficient floor plans with the physical characteristics of ceiling heights, natural light, ventilation whilst having regard for energy consumption, quality appliances and the things you touch and feel; fittings and finishes, built in joinery, flooring, window furnishings and so on. It is a combination of all these factors that results in good design outcomes regardless of space and arguably more importantly in limited spaces.  

So how do buyers determine how good the design is before they buy a new property? It is not easy. The best way is to check the track record of the developer and builder. Review the floor plans, look at previous projects and ask questions, not forgetting to ask yourself – how much space do I need?


“About the size of a London flat”, Brogan Taylor, February 21, 2020, Office for National Statistics
“The Average Apartment Size of the Largest US Cities, Charted”, by Digg Nov 27 2018
“Characteristics of new residential dwellings a 15 year summary” ABS 15/4/2020
“The London Plan”, The Mayor’s Plan 2016

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