Application of Victoria’s apartment standards ‘useless without architects’

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Upper House by Jackson Clements Burrows received the Frederick Romberg Award for Residential Architecture – Multiple Housing at the 2015 National Architecture Awards. The project is an example of applying design intelligence to achieve benchmarks for amenity.

Upper House by Jackson Clements Burrows received the Frederick Romberg Award for Residential Architecture – Multiple Housing at the 2015 National Architecture Awards. The project is an example of applying design intelligence to achieve benchmarks for amenity. Image: John Gollings

The Victorian government has released the new Better Apartments Design Standards, which have been met with disappointment from the Australian Institute of Architects.

The standards cover a range of controls, such as building setbacks, room sizes, natural ventilation, private open space, accessibility, energy efficiency and communal open space. Some of the key standards are listed below.

It does not, however, mandate the use of an architect, nor does it provide any details on a proposed design review process – two things that Vanessa Bird, Victorian chapter president of the Institute, said are “critical” for “safeguarding the quality of the built environment for the future.”

“The real concern is apartment buildings remain long-term building stock because they’re held in so many hands due to strata titling,” Bird told ArchitectureAU. “So there’s even more need for them to be really well designed and that hasn’t happened.”

Bird acknowledged that the standards do contain some liveability initiatives that “are an improvement on the previous [draft] standards.” These include minimum dimensions for bedrooms, living rooms and bathrooms, mandatory storage spaces and noise attenuation.

However, Bird also pointed to some “weaknesses” such as the ambiguous language used in the guidelines. “The use of words like ‘adequate,’ [for example] . This leaves VCAT to decide on the definition of adequate and adds to the cost of housing. The most likely outcome represents no change to the status quo on many standards, and confusion on standards like ‘building setbacks’ where a ‘reasonable distance’ will be determined by VCAT in municipalities that don’t have Design Development Overlays.

“The standards can only go so far,” she continued. “They’re a bit useless without a decent architect. Without architects doing the design and experts assessing the design there won’t be any innovation, which is necessary to protect the public interest and the future of our city.”

She argued that minimum metric standards are just one of a trifecta of tools that together work to achieve best-practice outcomes. “From the outset, we have always said that you need experts doing the design and you need experts assessing the design,” Bird said. “That means architects should be mandated for all buildings over five storeys. For us, that really sits in line with world’s best practice. All the cities around the world [that the government researched in preparing the standards] had architects mandated and they’ve failed to do that in the Victorian standards.”

The implementation of the standards will be supported by an education and training program, comprising a number of free sessions for council and private-sector planners and building and design practitioners, as well as an apartment buyers and renters guide.

But Bird is not convinced the training will be enough. “I don’t think you can train people to assess design in a week or a weekend. The expert panels that they use at the Office of the Victorian Government Architect are not only considered to be eminent people in their field who have high qualifications, they also have years of experience that qualifies them to be the experts on design review panels. To think that you’re going to get statutory planners and give them a weekend course to become able to make qualitative assessments on design is quite misguided.”

The Better Apartments Design Standards will take effect from March 2017. It will apply to all apartment developments in residential and non-residential zones. To view the standards, click here.

Key standards at a glance

Minimum internal room dimensions for bedrooms

Main bedrooms should be a minimum of 3 metres by 3.4 metres. All other bedrooms to be a minimum of 3 metres by 3 metres.

Minimum internal room sizes for living areas excluding dining and kitchen areas

For studio apartments and one bedroom: 10 square metres with a minimum width of 3.3 metres. For apartments with two or more bedrooms: 12 square metres with a minimum width of 3.6 metres.

Room depth

Maximum ratio of 2.5 times the ceiling height. Up to 9 metres if the room combines living, dining and kitchen spaces (with the kitchen located furthest from the window) and a minimum ceiling height of 2.7 metres.

‘Snorkel’ bedrooms

While the draft standards stated that “snorkel” bedrooms (where the window in an external wall is connected to the bedroom via a long corridor) “will not meet the standard.” The final standards permit “snorkel” bedrooms provided that the width is at least 1.2 metres, the “snorkel” has a maximum depth 1.5 times the width and window is clear to the sky.

Storage

Minimum requirements range between 8 cubic metres for a studio apartment and 18 cubic metres for apartments with three or more bedrooms.

Natural ventilation

At least 40 percent of dwellings (down from 60 percent in the draft standards) should achieve effective cross ventilation. Ventilation openings are required to be on different orientations of the building, with a minimum breeze path of 5 metres and a maximum breeze path of 18 metres.

Minimum sizes for private open space

For apartments at natural ground level: 25 square metres (with a minimum dimension of 3 metres). At podium level: 15 square metres (with a minimum dimension of 3 metres). At rooftop level: 10 square metres (with a minimum dimension of 2 metres). All private open space is required to be within convenient access from the living room.

Minimum sizes for balconies

For studio or one-bedroom apartment: 8 square metres (with a minimum dimension of 1.8 metres). For two-bedroom apartments: 8 square metres (with a minimum dimension of 2 metres). For apartments of three or more bedrooms: 12 square metres (with a minimum dimension of 2.4 metres).

Communal open space

Developments with 40 or more dwellings should provide a minimum area of communal open space of 2.5 square metres per dwelling or 250 square metres, which ever is lesser.

Accessibility

At lease 50 percent of dwellings should comply with accessible design requirements.


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