Open Journal continued the conversation on High Density Happiness with a panel discussion on Elevating Apartment Standards in partnership with Open House Melbourne. The panel, including Jill Garner, the Victorian Government Architect, Esther Anatolitis, Director of Regional Arts Victoria, Katelin Butler, Editor of Houses Magazine and Lochlan Sinclair, Design Manager of Neometro joined the Editor of Open Journal to contribute their diverse perspectives on the topic.
The consistent theme throughout the discussion was that an apartment is a home, and should be designed with as much attention as any stand alone dwelling, regardless if the resident has a mortgage or is a tenant. A small footprint has no limit to functionality, when space, storage and outlook are given apt consideration.
The tension that emerged from the discussion in shifting apartment standards is where the force for change lies. Whether it be a top-down approach with increased government regulation, including minimum size requirements, or whether it will come from a bottom-up approach, where buyers see design bringing value to not only their experience in the apartment, but contributing to greater equity in the long term. The consensus was a pragmatic combination of the two.
A major issues amidst the apartment development boom over the past 10 years is the inflated marketing budgets designed to dazzle buyers with glossy brochures that skim over the details. Buying off-the-plan is an important way forward for development, with financial advantages in regards to stamp duty savings,and in some instances the first home buyer grant, but purchasers need to know what the essential questions are to ask.
Swept into marketing jargon, the word ‘amenity’ has become problematic. It is too often misinterpreted into communal pools, spas and rooftop areas instead of a focus on amenity in the living space within the apartment itself.
Jill Garner spoke of the shift, “the prime functionality of a house has changed from being a home to being an investment which is a huge shift in the idea of housing. This financial shift is the root of the affordability challenges around purchasing a home now. Hence, now, houses are built with the investor in mind as a commodity rather than a home/a comfortably liveable space.” Based on a recent report, it was cites that approximately 83,000 apartments in Melbourne are vacant due to investors opting to leave them empty, either to forgo the labour of property management or to avoid tenants compromising the future on sale value.
Four of the five panel members are happy Melbourne apartment dwellers, most have lived in notable apartment cities around the world. For Esther who lives in a 1 bedroom apartment in the CBD, “I am thrilled when I get home after work or after time spent traveling for work, but I shouldn’t feel lucky to feel that, everyone who returns to their apartment at night should feel the same.” Esther has big windows facing north, a large functional kitchen, a well designed bathroom with large shower, a 2m long table and operable windows. “I choose to live in the city because living amoungst density is important to me. I believe in being an active citizen who takes part in the community and takes interest in others’ lives.”
There is not doubt a generational shift occurring, whereby younger people are happy to sacrifice space for being close to work, friends, the local pub, and the CBD. For Katelin Butler, the question when moving into a smaller space should be: what can I live without? Decide and focus on what you can fit into. If you only require one bathroom, don’t be talked into buying an apartment with 2, just because the real estate market deems a 75sqm apartment requires you to do double the cleaning.
A underlying issue in the current property market according to Jill Garner is a “lack of generosity in design.” Windows in corridors was an initial example, being a top level addition that brings natural light through internal spaces and does away with the electricity required to light dark, narrow hotel-style corridors. The same generosity and human consideration must be applied to attract and cater for a broad spectrum of resident.
The market preoccupation with 1 and 2 bedroom apartments must go beyond the formulaic approach of providing 1 car space and a communal dining room to accommodate the narrow demographic segments of first home buyer, owner occupier, downsizer and investor. Apartments must strive to equally encourage singles, couples, group households, families of all definitions as well as the elderly and those with a disability.
Children for example need more space, so there needs to be communal play areas, without strange angles, in Singapore it was cited, they will put communal gardens on levels 10, and 20 as well as the roof etc to have space between apartments for play. In cities such as Barcelona, Paris, New York and Hong Kong, central courtyards and local parks provide spaces for a wealth of young people to meet amoungst the activity of dense urban environments.
Of course, “it is naïve to think that a family can live in one particular apartment for their whole lives as they will need a smaller apartment before children and with small children, then a larger apartment with teenagers, and then back to a smaller apartment once the children move out. Consider an apartment building which has a mix of 1, 2, 3 and 4 bedroom dwellings where people can move/buy/swap/lease apartments within the same building as required, or have the ability to join two apartments together to create a large apartment,” said Jill.
Lochlan agreed, adding, “apartment design needs to allow for furniture re-shuffling, not being too prescriptive so people can use the space how the want and need to. There needs to be design flexibility as the space will need to change over time as the requirements of the space move and shift.”
Greater mix in apartment types and increased flexibility in their layout emerged as an important factor in supporting inclusive, diverse communities within apartment buildings. A number of international models were cited that encourage in regions such as Singapore, Scandinavia and Germany, there are have policies that require young people to put money aside for a deposit between the ages of 15 and 26 years old, much as they would for tax and superannuation. Once they are 26, they have enough to put a deposit down to purchase their property. Whilst other states have a development levy whereby developers need to provide a percentage of social housing per square foot of their development in order to receive planning permission. Such models provide viable case studies to imagine new housing frameworks for Australia that support accessible, resilient and sustainable vertical communities.