Opinion

The Density Debate: Adam Haddow

January 19, 2011

Adam Haddow argues that well-considered government regulation is vital to ensuring Australia delivers sustainable, high quality residential density.

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We have a massive challenge ahead in Sydney, and indeed in most of Australia’s major cities – housing our growing populations and connecting them better. In New South Wales, better public transport (if we’re lucky) will be delivered by the next government. We are all holding our breath that post the 2011 state election, swift and significant investment will be made to put ideas into action, to make good on countless missed opportunities and broken promises. God willing, trams will again be running down Anzac Parade, heavy rail will be extended and simplified to better connect the outer suburbs, a metro system will link our inner and donut suburbs and there will be free connector buses on the outer fringe, ensuring that years of poor planning and infrastructure investment will not continue to isolate our population. This is all achievable. It will take political leadership and a massive overdraft at the bank, but by and large it is achievable. Housing, on the other hand, will be much, much harder.

Housing will be harder to deliver because, unlike transport infrastructure delivery, where we work as a single unit (government) to fund, plan and deliver outcomes, it is the work of many small, discrete leaders and business owners. Concurrently, while the impacts of public transport construction (a new train line next to a previously quiet suburb, for example) can be justified in terms of the greater good, housing and the impacts of higher densities are fought at a more intimate scale, a single battle at a time – the NIMBYs (not in my backyard) against the YIMBYs (yes in my backyard).

It is generally understood that housing exists within a ‘market driven’ environment, responding to purchaser demands. Unfortunately, we are facing a housing affordability and shortage crisis, as outlined by the National Housing Supply Council’s 2nd State of Supply Report 2010, and the purchaser is increasingly becoming distressed, simply wanting somewhere vaguely affordable to lay their head. In this situation, responding to the ‘demands of the market’ does not necessarily deliver product that is robust or of high quality and amenity. There are sharks in the development industry – developers, builders and architects who will do anything to get a building approved, built and sold so that they can lie on a beach in Bali. Disinterested in a long-term legacy, these operators are out to make as much money as possible before the market ‘rebalances’ and buyers wake up to what it is they are actually purchasing.

On a recent research trip to Melbourne to inspect new multi-unit residential apartment developments, I was horrified to find a two-bedroom apartment for sale with both bedrooms inboard, without any natural light or ventilation. This was not a unique or isolated incident; this was a new build and there were a total of 15 apartments designed by a highly regarded architectural firm that contained this design ‘feature’. Indeed, this ‘affordability’ leaver was being pursued in many other buildings, albeit to a lesser extent. In this case, the market driven environment is clearly failing the community. A cheap apartment is only really cheap if it is fit for purpose.

It is hardly surprising that, given the opportunity, a developer would choose to shoehorn more apartments into a plan. Many architects, planners and developers speak about the need for the government to impose stricter environmental performance requirements on development, knowing full well that if it is left up to the ‘feel good factor’ to achieve sustainable outcomes, the market would simply choose the cheaper option. What is required is both a carrot and a stick – the market needs to be forced to deliver on some accounts and left to its own devices on others.

The challenge therefore is to structure a system that balances market demands, value for money and quality, to ensure there aren’t mountains of poor quality, strata titled residential apartments for the next unsuspecting generation to deal with. In New South Wales, the state government aims to control unscrupulous development through the application of the State Environment Planning Policy 65 (SEPP 65), a set of state-wide controls introduced in 2002 read in conjunction with the Government’s Residential Flat Design Code. These aim to provide basic guidelines to ensure liveability both within and between higher density residential apartment buildings. While the majority of the controls are simply good practice, they are an effective way to raise the lowest common denominator. While regulating that buildings with four or more dwellings and over three or more storeys are designed by a registered architect, SEPP 65 creates benchmarks that allow councils to respond to the real issues of apartment living – amenity, rather than concentrating on aesthetics, ultimately resulting in a better quality residential apartment market. In addition, SEPP 65 calls for the integration of Design Review Panels at the local government level – panels of architects, planners and landscape architects, appointed to be independent of politics, providing advice on the quality of design. In my experience, this has resulted in architects supporting architects to achieve excellence. In recognising that not just anybody should be able to design complex buildings for the housing of our community, SEPP 65 shows remarkable leadership by the Government of NSW.

While SEPP 65 and the Residential Flat Design Code are essentially a set of controls, they are structured to allow designers to respond to the goals and objectives of the code – light, ventilation, orientation and scale, without requiring enslavement to arbitrarily prescribed numeric figures. With clever planning driven by innovation, excellence is established without allowing over zealous developers to take advantage of a stressed buyer base.

While this goes a long way to achieving quality, many would retort that it delivers little in terms of quantity, and quantity is the main tenet that will help drive down costs to achieve more affordable product. Affordability is inextricably linked to broader issues of supply and the speed of supply, something that will only ever be addressed if we get the community on board. We need to get to a position where NIMBYs turn into YIMBYs, and support the development of alternate housing options in places that already have established communities – i.e. infill as opposed to greenfield development. Rather than shoehorning our cultural quarter acre block objectives into the apartment living typology, we must better educate the community about the benefits of apartment living by communicating the goals, objectives and positive outcomes (both environmental and financial) of higher density living. This is particularly important now, when a tsunami of baby boomers are about to realise that a four-bedroom house and garden is not quite all it is cracked up to be.

The challenge is for governments to campaign, champion and control. No one likes change or control, but if we’re to balance the sprawl, achieve dwellings of high amenity and make them affordable, we need to spend time properly presenting specific high quality alternatives across the broad urban environment. The Resources Super Profit Tax got more advertising money thrown at it in one week than the issue of higher density living had spent on it in the last 30 years. The NSW Government took its first step close to 10 years ago to improve the quality of multi-dwelling residential buildings, now it’s time to properly engage the community if we’re ever to have the chance of transposing the dream for the quarter acre block into a home with a communal veggie garden, a coffee shop within a five minute walk and a view across the tree tops. It will happen, but only with persistence, leadership and a level of government intervention.

Adam Haddow is a director of SJB Architects Sydney.

  • Louise Noble January 20th, 2011 5:18 am

    The NSW Government have done some really great work RE: SEPP 65 Residential Flat Code.
    The publication “Improving Flat Design: a progress report” is a really effective document for communicating Design Quality principles to non-architects. The use of annotated photographs of case studies to illustrate Good Design Principles is excellent.
    http://www.planning.nsw.gov.au/Programsservices/DesignQualityProgram/ImprovingFlatDesign/tabid/160/language/en-US/Default.aspx
    http://www.planning.nsw.gov.au/programservices/pdf/IFD_book_P1-12.pdf

    Having worked with planners in Development Assessment, this type of document is a great way to improve design literacy amongst our fellow professionals. This in turn helps architects and hopefully encourages better design outcomes in the development industry.

    Adam, I agree that there is a very important role for governments to play in the creation of good policies to improve residential outcomes. Having worked in France for many years, I am horrified also by so-called “luxury” apartments with unventilated bedrooms.

    Thanks for a great article.


  • AM February 1st, 2011 12:10 am

    The biggest hurdle to increasing density is the fact that it has been done so badly, especially in Sydney. It’s not a matter of a PR campaign — the architecture itself needs to convince, and to be preceded by the massive investment in transport infrastructure recommended in the article. We are incredibly far from this point.

    It is over-simplistic to speak of NiMBYs hindering higher densities. When people in places like Ku-ring-gai see old houses with fine gardens and trees bowled over to make way for utterly uninspired developer-driven apartments with huge basement car parks they quite rightly wonder how such buildings can possibly be called sustainable.


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