Chris Hayton on the height debate

Height is perhaps the most contentious of all issues when discussing new building proposals.

Maybe because it is readily quantifiable relative to the surroundings, or because fear of height has become a default response to any new development, it is often debated as a singular issue. Many ignore the other factors that contribute to the appropriateness of building’s design. Such simplistic quarantining of the height debate is often to the detriment of our urban environment.

At its worst, and as highlighted by recent proposed changes to the Victorian planning zones, height becomes a crude and unsophisticated metric by which to measure the merit of development proposals.

In good design the individual parameters that define a proposal are intrinsically related to each other. Design should be a holistic response that works intelligently and sensitively in the macro and micro context, fulfilling key, site-specific objectives, of which height is only one.

As we seek a more sustainable, multi-centred and mixed-use urban environment, limiting density through blanket height controls makes little sense. In doing so, we risk strangling the opportunities to develop more sophisticated and engaging cities.

This is not to say the capacity for any given site to accommodate height is unlimited but that there is greater potential to deliver high-quality urban design and architecture if the designer has flexibility in the distribution of built form across the site.

Height needs to be carefully considered and dealt with sensitively. However, absolute height should not be the arbiter of whether 
a design is appropriate or not. Instead the judgment should be made on the quality and appropriateness of the proposal as a whole.

Where skilled designers and planning officers work with an assessment process that uses a holistic, merit-based assessment system, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that the outcome will be beneficial to all. Developers can achieve improved yields, delivering a dynamic, multi layered living environment; planning authorities can have greater confidence, having guaranteed the objectives for specific sites and the city benefits from high quality architecture and urban design.

The great caveat on all of this is design quality.

Our experience suggests that once the designer can demonstrate a comprehensive understanding of the planning control objectives for a site or precinct, planning officers are willing to entertain a more liberal interpretation of the preferred outcomes so
 long as the proposal achieves those underlying objectives.


In recent examples, working with the City of Yarra and the
 City of Stonnington, ROTHELOWMAN obtained permits for developments that had envelops greater than those suggested by the planning controls because of a demonstrated quality of design. In short, these proposals were entertained because they will make our cities better places to live.

The successful cities of the future will be those that embrace
 and facilitate high quality urban design. Australian cities need to evolve if they are to retain their “liveability” in a competitive global market.

In a world where city demographics are increasingly defined by where an individual chooses to go, as opposed to where they need to be, this search for a high-quality urban environment has become paramount.

Chris Hayton is a principal at ROTHELOWMAN with 20 years of experience working on major projects in Australia and Europe.

1 comment

Riccardo's picture

Often height issues are NIMBY envy that they don't have access to the same capital and potential profit as the developer. So they literally 'beggar thy neighbour'

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