The Great Density Debate

April 9, 2014

One of our contributing online editorial assistants, highlights that before attempting to accommodate the rapidly increasing population of Melbourne, we must first understand what constitutes a good housing design.

Text: Sarah Hurst
Above image: The Commons by Breathe Architecture; Image courtesy of Michael Downes

Since the start of the decade, Melbourne has seen a dramatic increase in its population across the board. The Bureau of Statistics advises that this increase is occurring at a rate of approximately two percent per year. In late 2013, Melbourne’s population was estimated at 4.35 million – a 27 percent increase since the year 2000. The city is swelling and as Melbourne’s Lord Mayor recently described, there is a ‘spreading at the edges, like some sort of stain’.

The Victorian Government’s ‘Plan Melbourne’ initiative is an attempt to combat the increasingly sprawling suburbs that are becoming disconnected from jobs and public transport. According to the authorities, the project attempts to provide ‘a clear vision for the future that responds to the challenges of population growth, driving economic prosperity and liveability, while protecting our environment and heritage’. Exercised at a macro level, this plan looks to the establishment of extensive urban renewal areas such as E Gate and Fisherman’s bend to establish viable housing solutions, taking advantage of connections to an already existing network of infrastructure and services.

At a micro level, the plan aims to satisfy an immediate requirement for housing owing to a strong market for apartment dwellings. Residential apartment buildings are surfacing in increasing quantities around the skirts of the city to meet the demands of buyers and renters alike who want to live and work within convenient proximity, all the while enjoying the amenities of a city. Lygon Street in East Brunswick recently became the focus of a community discussion, headed by local architect and author Stuart Harrison, and explored how the integration of multi-residential complexes relate (be it favourably or adversely) to the existing fabric and the broader community context. In an attempt to offer an alternate solution to multi-story apartment buildings, Harrison shed light on the industrial attempts to redefine what it means to live in both an inner-urban and a suburban context by highlighting the works of local architects practising in the housing sector and what can be learnt from them.

Reduction House by MAKE Architecture; Image courtesy of Peter Bennetts

Reduction House by MAKE Architecture; Image courtesy of Peter Bennetts

Lygon Street, Brunswick, in particular, has seen a large number of medium to high density dwellings built over the last five years. Ranging from five stories up to 12 stories, these building dwarf the lower and previously developed single and multiple floor dwellings. It only takes a weeknight visit to the once quiet restaurants and ice-creameries beyond Brunswick Road to understand the sheer volume of people that have migrated to this northern pocket. Restaurants and eateries are expanding and business seems to be booming; and the number of currently vacant, waiting to be developed sites, is communicative of the demand for housing in this area.

The pocket in which Harrison focused a large amount of his discussion (and acknowledged as a good and condensed example of the changes Brunswick is undergoing), is also where he lives. The blocks starting from Bythe Street to further north currently feature a mix of light industrial, commercial and medium density residential buildings. The long-term plan is to completely change the mix to residential, with commercial spaces on the ground floor; a combination described as ‘mixed use’.

However, developing sites with retail services at the ground floor and apartments just above, according to Harrison, is a considerably limited idea of what constitutes mixed use. When looking at the retail tenancies at the ground floor of the recently completed apartment buildings in this area, Harrison noted that the majority of them remain unleased. He questioned this current model against the ideals of good urban design – making places good and street active. He identified the high rental costs of operating out of such tenancies and questioned the type of business that might afford such exorbitant prices and their appropriateness and viability in an area where foot traffic is largely made up of those living in the surrounding streets, rather than a continually visiting trade.

Reduction House by MAKE Architecture; Image courtesy of Peter Bennetts

Reduction House by MAKE Architecture; Image courtesy of Peter Bennetts

During his research and in preparation for his recently completed book, New Suburban, Harrison sought to identify (and potentially prescribe) alternate means for dense living, both in Brunswick and surrounding suburbs of Melbourne. He identified several northern developments, which through their distinct architectural language and varying methods of sustainability, offer community interest and amenity as well housing to its occupants. With a varied client base featuring a diverse range of needs, his reviewed palette of dwellings provides some insight into Melbourne’s exploration of (and interest in) smarter housing.

The Reduction House by Make Architecture is an example of how a client’s existing dwelling can be reinvented and reduced through means of exploration and an understanding of the key features and opportunities around the site. Originally a Victorian-era house with an extension built onto the rear, the previous addition was removed to make way for a new, smaller extension, allowing for the design of a pool and rear studio/garage/kids room at the back of the site.

Reduction House by MAKE Architecture; Image courtesy of Peter Bennetts

Reduction House by MAKE Architecture; Image courtesy of Peter Bennetts

Although housing only one family and not concerned with accommodation of the masses, this project in Abbotsford highlights a question about the size of the current style of single dwellings and the opportunities for comfortable living in appropriately reduced building sizes. The current suburban trend dictates: bigger is better. However, with better design resolution and identifying client-specific needs there could be more opportunities for better-informed design outcomes and an increased focus on efficient site usage.

Another project that Harrison talked about was the Heller Street Park and Residences development in West Brunswick. Designed by Six Degrees, the development is tucked away on a quiet street, offering a generous public frontage in the form of grassy berms rolling up to a row of ten townhouses. A controversial scheme at its inception, the project reclaimed land that was previously a clay quarry, and later a nursery, which was closed due to site contamination. Purchased by a developer, the land was divided with two-thirds going into a public park and remaining earmarked for housing development.

Heller Street development by Six Degrees; Image courtesy of Patrick Rodriguez

Heller Street development by Six Degrees; Image courtesy of Patrick Rodriguez

The key to the success of this project is pinned largely on the shared amenity it enjoys with neighbours and the wider community, which also use the park. Through solid urban design principals, it redefines expectations that a terrace house should feature a rear private yard (as well as a belief that the two should be combined yet secluded elements), while challenging beliefs that medium density housing results in deprived access to green amenity. Heller Street demonstrates that this simply isn’t true. Although Harrison argues this particular development was not a good model for affordability, it is one that is worth a greater investigation and further development.

In a third, Harrison highlights a recently completed example of higher density living in northern Melbourne, The Commons by Breathe Architecture. The development features 24 apartments (eight one bedroom and 16 two bedroom units) with a cafe, artist studios and retail spaces beneath. It uniquely offers its residents zero car parking – one of the many sustainability principals being employed by architects today. It features a communal roof top garden with raised vegetable boxes and a shared laundry, washing line and barbeque area.

With generously sized apartments designed to be affordable and sustainable, the focus of this development was on its occupants. The overall development adds its own value to the broader community. Harrison describes The Commons as ‘a good sustainability outcome from one of the best sustainable practitioners in Melbourne’. Aesthetically, its design is sensitive yet progressive and fits seamlessly into the grain of Brunswick. When compared to other apartment complexes around Brunswick on the basis of the contribution to both the surrounding community and the residents, The Commons is considered to be at the forefront of sustainable design and living.

View of The Commons by Breathe Architecture; Image courtesy of Michael Downes

A view of The Commons by Breathe Architecture; Image courtesy of Michael Downes

However, in the context of Harrison’s recent talk in Brunswick, the tone of the discussion quickly became political. Members of the audience were quick to raise their concerns about the issues of public transport in Brunswick and the towering apartment complexes that seem to offer very little in terms of what’s perceived as good design for the residents and the community at large. These are valid concerns that require greater attention.

It’s obvious that the success of development of Brunswick is vital to its residents. The dilemma about poorly designed apartments that offer little to their immediate surroundings is being increasingly raised in public. Described as ‘sky high slums’ in a recent article by Geraldine Chua, Melbourne’s apartment industry is set to be scrutinised, as the state government proposes to ‘boost design quality of apartments being built amid fears that the skyline will be marred by sub-standard buildings’. Seemingly concerned with both good quality design outcomes and long wearing construction materials, the importance of good quality design within such a dominating industry is starting to be realised. This then raises questions about how good design can be controlled, and how (and by whom) such principals can be enforced.

In the case of highly populated areas in Brunswick, the disconnect being born between the old and much of the new seems one that holds disregard and contempt for such a vibrant pocket with a rich industrial past. Brunswick has a distinct style that should be exploited and celebrated through its architecture into the future through the use of good design strategies resulting in housing solutions. In attempting to accommodate a rapidly increasing population, it becomes clear that we need to resolve issues of density and understand what constitutes good housing design. But is this merely an idea that is easier said than done?

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