The 'owning' dreamtime is over!

Owning your own home is usually described as the 'Great Australian Dream', and housing affordability usually means house prices rather than rents.  Usually discussion centres on whether first home buyers can afford a median house in the area of their choice, and a little back of the envelope analysis usually confirms that young couples can't afford to buy unless both of them are in good jobs and can afford to pay up to 50% of their total income to service a big mortgage.  And the number of Melbourne suburbs with median house prices over one million dollars is growing every time they are surveyed. 

Those who do manage to get on the mortgage ladder are often not choosing detached houses in outer suburbs like their parents, and many of them are purchasing inner city apartments and town houses instead, because of their lower cost and more convenient locations.

However, the automatic assumption that all Australians have a God given right to own their own homes persists and is slow to change.  Yet a fundamental change to this view is required if we are to deal with Melbourne's population growth and housing crisis in a fair and sustainable way.

The fifty years after the 39-45 War was the time of the 'Owning' Dreamtime, but increasingly it's the dreaming of a time that has past, a dream incapable of fulfillment for most younger people.

As a society we have to face economic facts and embrace lifetime renting as the norm like most world cities.   However there is currently a dire shortage of housing at all levels of the rental market in Melbourne and Sydney that is pushing up rents. Most new houses and apartments are being built for sale rather than rental, and what's more, most of the apartments are small and not suitable for families.  

The evidence is that very large populations in other industrialized countries have accepted renting as the norm and get along just fine. There are even some advantages such as greater disposable income earlier in life, easier mobility and not having to pay for repairs.  

An example from New York:  My brother-in-law, a media consultant in demand to speak at conferences world wide, and his wife, who runs her own interior design consultancy, have lived in the same apartment in Brooklyn for 22 years.  Their apartment is on the top floor in one of a row of 4 storey brownstones owned by a private investor.  Their building is not covered by rent control (many NY buildings are), is well maintained and the rent, which is reviewed annually, appears to be in line with Melbourne rents.  They have raised two university educated children in this apartment, and I'm told that their story is common to most middle class professionals in New York, who do not expect to own their own home.

Many younger Australians will probably see rental housing as a come-down from the 'owning' past of their parents, and while this may be true in one sense, it may also be a changing fact of life that owning simply isn't affordable for most Australians any more. 

There is no reason why the normal development model shouldn't also apply to rental apartment buildings; a developer builds a building, and when it's fully let, sells the building to an insurance company as a long-term investment.  They would be profitable long-term investments where, like the NY example, stable middle class tenants will rent and bring up their children for twenty years or more.

And don't have any delusion that we are any different to rest to the world as far as the growth of our cities is concerned.  Like our refugee problem, our city growth problems are modest compared with the rest of the world.  Istanbul for example, went from 1 million to 12 million, Mumbai from 1.5 million to 12.5 million and Sao Paulo 1.3 million to 10 million.  Melbourne ???????

I find it interesting that the number of apartment buildings submitted for the annual AIA awards was considerably down this year with only 9 entries in the Multiple Housing category compared with 17 last year.  Jeremy McLeod, chairperson of the jury for this award concludes, a bit pessimistically,

 ' We couldn't help but wonder whether it was due to two problematic factors: that architects are not the ones designing the multi-residential projects that are being built, or even more troubling is that if architects are designing them, they know they are not worthy of entry into the Institute's Awards program.'

 Having said that, one of the better buildings that was recognized is a good residential tower called Upper House, designed by Jackson Clements Burrows Architects.  It's in Carlton somewhere I think, but I can't tell you the actual address as the AIA doesn't reveal the locations of award winning buildings.  How's that for a smart piece of architectural marketing?

Fortunately, there has been belated recognition that many new apartment buildings in Melbourne are sub-standard in design and quality.  In response to public concern, the Department of Planning has issued, 'Better Apartments',a discussion paper aiming to improve the internal planning and design of apartments.  That many current flats leave much to be desired is amply confirmed by the appallingly bad examples in this report.  

Bureaucratic moves are being made to evolve better standards, particularly in the areas where the highest numbers of apartments were built in the period 2011-2014. They were the City of Melbourne (18,420), Stonnington (5088) and the City of Port Phillip (4066) and these councils are all moving to improve standards. 

It's hardly rocket science and it's hard to see why there such a fuss is being made about consultation.  The real issue is not 'what' but the exact numbers put on the different elements below, and they will of course, inevitably become a political issue.

For example, the minimum ceiling height should be a desirable 2700 mm. (9 feet), but I suspect 2400 mm. (8 feet) would be the 'affordable' choice of most developers.  It's an expensive choice of course, adding that extra foot, but the extra height makes a quantum difference to the quality and 'feel' of a small apartment.

 The basic standards required are:

•  Minimum floor areas for studio, 1, 2 and 3 bedroom apartments.
•  Minimum ceiling heights.
•  Natural light and ventilation to all rooms except bathrooms.
•  Solar shading required for all large glazed areas.
•  Minimum depth of external balconies.
•  Defined mandatory sustainable energy requirements.
•  Walk up access not to exceed 2 storeys without lifts .
•  All building roofs to be gardens accessible to tenants.

Should there be a requirement that the external face of all windows must be able to be cleaned from within the apartment?  
Yes, simply by specifying horizontally pivoting windows. 
Should full height glazing only be permitted when opening onto balconies?  Yes. Should all rooms be fitted with ceiling fans?  
Probably yes, as air-conditioning shouldn't be necessary with better design but air movement aids sleep on those few hot, still nights.  And lots of other details but those listed above are the main ones at risk, ostensibly for affordability, but mainly to improve profitability!

I'd particularly like to see a requirement that each apartment has dedicated solar panels generating enough electricity for its own cooking, space heating and hot water.  While this would increase the building cost modestly, it would substantially lower energy costs for tenants to almost zero from Day One for the next 20 years of their tenancies.  And we would all benefit forever by not needing as many coal-fired power stations polluting the world; it could be the start of a sustainable society! 

All the standards will need to be rigorously defined in the small print of course, or they will be subverted and bent by some developers and designers.  For example I presume the minimum gross areas set down would include all wall thicknesses, but it needs to be defined precisely or it will be rorted.

And just writing down the barest requirements highlights that, although standards are clearly necessary in a world where internal rooms without windows are becoming common, it's really better design that is needed.  Exactly what would satisfy the requirement for good natural light and ventilation in all rooms? 

Alas, as we all know, it's difficult to legislate for good design.  Some Councils have design review panels of experienced people to give helpful advice to improve the designs submitted.  In my experience they don't always have much clout if the applicant makes a few cosmetic changes and is determined to ignore what the panel suggests, but I understand they work well in some places.

Conventional apartment building plans with apartments on either side of a central corridor have the basic flaw that if one side faces north and the sun, the apartments on the other side of the building get no sun at all, and apartments on both sides of the building are prevented from getting proper through-building ventilation by the internal corridor. 

There are better design solutions where all apartments run the full depth of the building and all of them have daylight, natural through-building ventilation, and outlook on both sides of the building.  For some reason these equal cost solutions are not common in Melbourne yet, so these precedents, well-established elsewhere, must be brought into the Melbourne housing repertoire somehow. 

A suggestion that demonstration buildings should be built to help improve public awareness of these new types of apartment plans and design standards, was made in my recent 'Open Letter to the Minister for Housing'  but he's a busy man and hasn't responded yet.

Assuming that good apartment standards are developed, the next question is where they should be enshrined.  If they are made part of a statutory planning scheme, a complex legal process that involves approval by the Minister for Planning is required to change them. 

Less desirably, they are often simply made part of some Council-adopted Code that could be subject to political change at some later date.  For example, the Urban Design Framework that was developed for the Triangle site in St Kilda set down planning controls that defined sight lines from surrounding streets so that views of the Bay would never be blocked by buildings.  Developed with considerable community input ten years ago, the UDF was simply scrapped recently by resolution of Port Phillip Council, despite the fact that the Triangle remains undeveloped and planning guidelines are still desirable.

A Victoria wide set of legally enforceable standards would be preferable to control by Council code.  We should also insist on adopting better standards and not let the development industry water them down.  There will be anguished cries about affordability of course, developers particularly hate sustainability measures that increase the sale price; it makes the flats harder to sell they say, and unsaid, that the long term energy savings accrue to the tenants not to them.  

We have to hold fast to the long-term importance of investing in these things. Long after all those current short-term politicians who equate coal with civilization have gone, our legacy will be that our great-grandchildren will be better placed to cope with a climate-changed world.

What is really important is to secure much better design, and the Minister for Housing and the architectural profession should be put on notice.  Not that it's all the fault of architects.  For example, the Upper House building that won an award is a 16 storey tower with four (for sale) two bedroom flats per floor served by two elevators, an elegant solution determined by a small expensive site and flexible height limits. But it's certainly not the most economic solution if you have a concern to keep unit costs down.

Flexible building heights inevitably encourage 'ambit' claims by developers, claims that are fostered by the Docklands way the last government could only think in terms of tall residential towers being built with the sole aim of maximizing profits. 
Let's hope the current Labor government takes a different view; politicians are such suckers for tall buildings in my experience!

It is highly desirable that building heights be fixed and that we evolve a new 'renting' dreaming!  How about a fairer, more equitable society where everybody can rent decent housing at a level they can afford?

Or am I the one who is dreaming?

Don Gazzard LFAIA

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