Better Apartments? Says who?

The recent release of the State Government's discussion paper has provoked a strong response from the industry and here on Urban Melbourne. Rather than focusing on a general overview of the Better Apartments discussion paper and the questions it raises, I have instead decided to focus on one particular aspect of the debate: apartment sizes.

There would appear to be a number of negative connotations generally associated with smaller apartments being built all over Melbourne at present, stemming largely as the result of poor design and build quality, thus impacting the quality of living of the resident. Speaking broadly, the worst of these apartments suffer from a lack of quality outlook, extending to poor natural light and ventilation due to bedrooms requiring borrowed light from other rooms or in some instances narrow light-wells, low ceiling heights and bulkheads, lack of storage space, etc.

Now these are all factors that aren't necessarily limited to small apartments and clever design can overcome them. It could be argued that well-designed smaller apartments are the missing piece of the housing diversity puzzle in Melbourne. Areas that are well serviced by public transport, retail, community and recreational facilities (and other necessary services) in close proximity of the city would be ideal for such housing stock, and would present an easier entry into home ownership for those in their 20s.

A smaller well designed, flexible and affordable apartment would definitely be an appealing prospect for me: I'm 28, single, work four days a week in a city office, and one day at home in Richmond. I otherwise spend very little time at home and the greatest amount is spent sleeping. I can cook and cook regularly, but also like to eat out (due to the convenience of having so many options in the area) and get out of the house.

Now, not everyone shares the same circumstances as me, but I'd hazard a guess that I'm not alone. So who's to tell me I couldn't live quite comfortably in an apartment less than 30sqm in size? Which brings us to…

Micro Apartments

New York Micro apartment. © Business Insider

In 2013, a project called My Micro NY won a design competition for New York’s first “micro apartments”, an initiative for the development of affordable housing for singles in New York City, by way of small prefabricated units. The city’s first “micro” building will have 55 rental apartments ranging in size from approximately 25sqm up to 34sqm with quality natural light and ventilation, adequate storage space, and Juliet balconies.

The greatest appeal of these micro apartments is in their flexibility with elements that fold away when not required. Additionally, because the architects believed amenities were important to residents, the building will have a public meeting space, café, common rooftop garden for residents, as well as a laundry room, residential storage space, a bike room, and fitness space. The project is due for completion this year.

New York Micro apartment: kit of parts diagram. © Business Insider

There are great examples of that locally, most notably Cairo flats in Fitzroy. Located on Nicholson Street, the U-shaped building built in 1938 and designed by Best Overend features 28 'bachelor flats' and is widely considered an icon of early Melbourne modernism.

The flats sought a distinctive type of accommodation, the custom designed bachelor flat, providing maximum amenity in minimum space for minimum rent. The minimal units were supported by a communal dining room, an in-house meal and laundry service, communal flat to roof space and lockable garages. Cairo established a major break with earlier types of flats in Australia and is significant for introducing the flat to the modernist programme in Australia and for its acknowledgement of the existence of a new, modern way of living.

National Trust Register
Cairo Flats Fitzroy. © Assemble Papers

More recently, Melbourne firm Architecture Architecture have completed a fit-out of one of the studio apartments within Cairo (24sqm!) for director Michael Roper. The project has received a number of architectural award commendations for "making more with less."

Embracing the philosophy of making more with less, Architecture Architecture have created a simple space with maximum flexibility to address contemporary living needs within a minimum floor area.

In an era when people are increasingly opting to live in cities and our urban fringes are forever expanding outwards, Architecture Architecture understand the imperative to make more with less, opting for high quality flexible space rather than inflexible specialised spaces – quality over quantity.

Architecture Architecture: The Purple Rose of Cairo

When I was at KTA and we were working on the Church on Napier project at 124 Napier Street, Fitzroy, we looked at a number of ways of providing a decent setback from Napier Street to the new three-level apartment building while maintaining the same yield of residences. One option that we conceived was three bachelor flats of around 28sqm + a 4sqm balcony based on the NY model of micro apartments and these were well received by the agents providing feedback.

The apartments featured flexible living areas that could be adjusted to suit the needs of the resident. These apartments would have benefited from being a part of a larger residential complex and community within the site that also featured a large communal outdoor garden. This would have added greater housing diversity within the area that was relatively affordable in comparison to much larger apartments in Fitzroy. Additionally, the location meant that they were only a two minute walk to Gertrude Street and a five minute walk in either direction to Brunswick and Smith Streets.

With careful consideration given to outlook, amenity, privacy, storage and flexibility, with generous floor to ceiling heights I'm of the opinion that well designed smaller or 'micro' apartments do have a place in Melbourne and while the minimum apartment size guidelines may have the best interest of residents at heart ultimately the market will dictate and prove whether or not there is demand for them.

If the apartment ticks all the right boxes in terms of natural light and ventilation and adequate storage among a raft of other criteria, the minimum size of the apartment should be a secondary consideration not the driving factor in the design.

As Colleen Peterson wrote in her piece yesterday, any guidelines should not impede design innovation nor should it drive up housing affordability. If done right any potential design guidelines for apartments should create opportunities rather than place unnecessary and stifling constraints.

Lead image credit: The Purple Rose of Cairo, Architecture Architecture. Image: Tom Ross of Brilliant Creek.


Bilby's picture

An interesting article, Laurence, but both the examples you give have a significant land to building footprint ratio. This is not true of the towers currently being proposed and built in Melbourne with small apartments. What is the trade off for those residents? Obviously communal gardens are not possible on the scale of Cairo Apartments, but would you advocate setting aside whole tower floors for communal uses, for example?

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Craig Yelland's picture

Nice article.

Our project Society in South Yarra has 242 apartments in a mix of one and two bedroom apartments. The one bedders are predominately 36sqm with fold down beds.

The whole top floor is for communal use: dining, lounge, gym, library, spas, and roof top cinema. The ground floor has a bar, business center and contemplation garden.

The building has 100% site cover. You don't need land to provide communal facilities.

Director of Plus Architecture

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Simon wxtre's picture

The issues related to urban density, apartment size and heights are social issues relating to demographics and transport infrastructure planning. They are not really planning issues related to building codes and the quality of apartments. Personally I do not see the issue with small apartments as you have stated. One room with a small kitchenette and bathroom attached via separate rooms is acceptable. It is social engineering to enact policy limiting the smallness of apartments.

The issue in my opinion is the quality of new apartment buildings. They appear inferior to older buildings, for example compared to the one I reside in which is double brick Some not all use poor materials, have little insulative properties and do not provide concrete walls between each apartment. Newer apartments age poorly in little time after they are constructed. Many use aluminum composite exterior walls that look out of place when situated next to old heritage facades and churches. I prefer older concrete or brick/stone apartment building designs.

High-rise buildings alone do not have a negative affect on the CBD. Height, apartment size and urban density are irrelevant to positive planning outcomes. In my opinion it is the kind of walls, chairs, building design and streets that has a psychological affect on people. If a development is of poor quality regardless of whether it is high-rise, small or close to other buildings people will become miserable. Lack of transport can also affect this. In Melbourne there are developments for example near Victoria Gardens and around the Queen Victoria Market where this has occurred I believe. Stricter quality controls need to be in place because developers cut corners and use cheap materials in construction.

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Simonknott's picture

I totally agree Laurence. We've been advocating for mandatory design review panels, in conjunction with the standards, to allow well designed, innovative housing to be part of the mix. First home buyers are 'voting with their feet' eschewing outer suburban detached housing to live in smaller apartments closer to the city. We desperately need these standards but we can't let them stop good design in the process.

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