Better Apartments: Yes, but not at the expense of innovation

The planning industry has been waiting for some time for the release of guidelines on the development of high rise apartments in Victoria. This is largely a result of the uncertainty, at both local government and VCAT, regarding acceptable levels of internal amenity and also the hot issue of ‘equitable development potential’.

Some decision makers will not accept south facing apartments but others will, some will accept studio style dwellings for less than 20% of the overall mix yet others form the view if it is good enough for one then it is good enough for all. Some decision makers will allow saddle back apartments and others won’t. Increasingly nine metres is deemed an acceptable separation to achieve ‘equitable development’ but in some instances this may or may not be appropriate for primary outlooks compared with secondary outlooks. In some areas such as Fishermans Bend the preferred setback between buildings is 20 metres.

The increased emphasis on providing new housing in the form of high rise apartment buildings in recent years and now further emphasised through the new Residential Zone regime, has placed considerable pressure on all parties. Clear guidance on what constitutes reasonable outcomes is necessary and I think developers, architects and planners alike would embrace such a document providing that it allows for innovation, flexibility and performance based outcomes.

I couldn’t agree more with Craig Yelland and his concern that the implementation of guidelines based on SEPP 65 in New South Wales will result in a rise in property prices and a furthering of the gap in affordable housing in Victoria. Given the challenge Melburnians face entering the property market, maintaining a supply of affordable housing must be a high priority.

There is a clear opportunity for guidelines to be introduced that will address a range of important issues without having a significant impact on affordability, including:

  • Providing for performance based criteria (can I say the word ‘decision guidelines’?) on apartment sizes, noting the impact that storage, layout and width of rooms has on amenity and liveability. I have seen small apartments done well with integrated cabinetry, clever furniture design and innovation with layout and adaptability. Such small apartments done well should not be negatively perceived.
  • Recognising the role of sunlight in providing quality housing but recognising that there can be other trade-offs, such as views, daylight access and access to entertainment precincts and the like.
  • Recognising that daylight is important for the liveability of dwellings but that the level of daylight required for a bedroom is reasonably less than that required for a living area. Apartments need to reflect that different people will live in different ways and, for example, creating apartments with small kitchens can be seen as an appropriate reflection of societal changes in eating out not in poor housing provision.
  • Providing certainty regarding building separation as this is a key factor in creating a reasonable outlook in high rise precincts and reducing the need for screening between buildings. It would seem sensible the taller the building the greater the separation required and, as an example, setting a 12 metres separation between buildings would provide light, aspect, outlook and negate the need for overlooking measures.

The key is that these guidelines must be performance based. They must establish decision guidelines that steer thinking on various issues to ensure that the best outcomes are found. Using a format, such as that found in ResCode could provide for such certainty, with flexibility for different design outcomes. An approach, consistent with the Tribunal’s interpretation of ResCode, where meeting the Standard automatically is deemed as meeting the objective, would also provide certainty. Importantly, the structure would provide for flexibility to make a case for variations, taking into consideration the decision guidelines.

While I am not a believer in the setting of mandatory minimum sizes for dwellings, to start a rational debate, I would suggest the following as an example of how the Guidelines could be written in a manner that provides greater certainty but allow for innovation in design and taking into consideration affordability.

Dwelling Size Objective

To ensure that the size of dwellings meet the likely needs of future occupants.


  1. Studio style apartments should not be less than 37sqm.
  2. Single bedroom apartments should not be less than 45sqm.
  3. Two bedroom apartments should not be less than 60sqm.
  4. Three bedroom apartments should not be less than 85sqm.

Decision Guidelines

Before deciding whether a dwelling is suitably sized, the responsible authority must consider the following:

  • The likely future occupants of the dwelling and their needs.
  • The provision of internal storage, such a wardrobes, linen press, utility cupboard and cupboards in the kitchen.
  • The size of the bedroom/s and the capacity to place bed/s within the rooms appropriate to the likely future occupants.
  • The dimension of the living area and the capacity to place furniture, such as a couch, table and chairs, to meet the needs of likely future occupants.
  • The integration of cabinetry and other devices to increase the effectiveness of the space.
  • The capacity to integrate balcony areas into the liveable space, such as the use of wintergardens.
  • Access to daylight for living areas, kitchens and bedrooms (in that order).
  • The overall amenity of the dwelling.

The preparation of the guidelines must be done as a priority and provide for flexibility and innovation in design while not having the effect of increasing the already high price of housing in Victoria. The input from a wide range of architects and other associated professionals, including lighting engineers can significantly inform the debate and I encourage them to be heard and make a submission.

Colleen Peterson is the managing director at Ratio Consultants. Follow Colleen on Twitter.


Sar's picture

Although a minimum size standard can be a good thing, the problem with setting minimum sizes (that are this small) for apartments is that every development, with the odd exception, will only seek to meet this minimum size, so going forward every development in future is going to riddled with 45sqm one bedders and a few 60sqm 2 bedders.

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Bilby's picture

Why suggest a range of minimum sizes if you believe in a performance based criteria? This seems to undermine the premise of the article. Likewise, if the argument is about SEPP65 increasing costs for the property buyer / renter, how can this be avoided with the addition of requirements for specialty integrated joinery, the involvement of lighting consultants, or increased levels of amenity, all things being equal? Isn't this an admission that cost needs to be secondary to amenity if we are to see real improvements in the apartment industry and in the experiences of those who live in apartments?

For my money, I would like to see a considered, evidence based analysis of what 'good design' costs as a premium per m2 over and above the current standards that most developers abide by. Would it be higher or lower per m2 than average costs for additional space in a Melbourne apartment (say $8500 as a benchmark). In other words, if you could have a 45m2 one bedroom apartment for $382,500 or a well designed, light filled 45m2 apartment with integrated joinery at a premium of, say $42,500 (total cost$425,000), which would you choose as a buyer, given that your $425,000 would otherwise buy an additional 5m2 of space?

My immediate thought is that I would prefer the well designed apartment, but this assumes a $950 per m2 premium for the improved design budget. Is this accurate, or would it be more like $1500 or $2000 per m2? If so, then I think my answer would be different. What do others think? What is a reasonable impost for 'good design'?

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Nicholas Harrison's picture

What she has proposed is a performance based control because it is based on a standard that can be varied if the design satisfies an established set of guidelines.

That is exactly the same way that Rescode currently Works for dwellings and units. This system has worked pretty well for many years in Victroria (except for assessing 'neighbourhood character' which is such a notoriously ethereal concept that it is virtually impossible to set down any clear standards or guidelines.)

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Bilby's picture

Yes, I get performance based controls, Nicholas. The article is confusing, though - is the author addressing cost concerns, design guidelines or minimum sizes? If it is cost concerns, how does a performance based system address this (unless there is a standardised cost per m2 against which the development is judged as part of the performance based system)?

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Craig Yelland's picture


I like your notion of putting costs against design standards. It enables the purchasers to have a choice.

The main drivers in the cost of delivering apartments are:

  1. The land component. Less apartments on a site equals more land component.
  2. The efficiency of the floor plate. The higher the proportion of communal space ie lifts, stairs and corridors, the higher the cost to deliver the apartment. A deep apartment is more efficient than a shallow wide apartment.
  3. The size of the apartment. This is obvious.

It would be interesting to hear from a developer: Given a similar outlook, how much extra are purchasers prepared to pay for a northern outlook vs a southern outlook, or a shallow versus a deep apartment?

Director of Plus Architecture

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