Apartments ‘dog box’ fix from state government doesn’t go far enough: architects

568 Collins Street, the first tower Matthew Guy approved in the CBD. Photo: Eddie Jim

New laws on Melbourne’s apartments that set minimum bedroom and living room sizes are too weak and won’t protect future generations, architects say.

But the laws, announced by Planning Minister Richard Wynne, have been welcomed by planners, and the development and property industry.

Developers had feared being compelled to build apartments with a minimum floor size, as has been the law in Sydney for more than a decade.

This would have dramatically cut profitability.

But Mr Wynne has dumped minimum floor sizes across entire apartments – instead specifying that bedrooms must have a minimum floor size of between nine and 10.4 square metres.

Some of the city’s newest apartments have bedrooms smaller than this, making it hard to fit even a double bed comfortably.

Living rooms must also be at least 10 square metres for a small unit, and 12 square metres for larger apartments. And balconies and small gardens for ground-floor apartments should also be built as part of new developments.

Architects have been disappointed by the changes, which one said were merely “benign”.

The apartment standards had done little to ensure there would be adequate setbacks between new apartment buildings, they said.

Another said the government’s new minimum ceiling height of 2.7 metres was little different to what was being built now.

The news follows warnings that Victoria is facing a crisis of faulty, dangerous and leaking buildings, with shoddy materials and poor workmanship now meaning many owners will outlive their apartments and houses.

The president of the Victorian chapter of the Australian Institute of Architects, Vanessa Bird, said the new size rules had not gone far enough to ensure quality apartments.

“The city we build today is the city our children and grandchildren have to live with,” she said.

The institute welcomed the rules on room size, storage – apartments must now have storage space of at least eight cubic metres – noise and ventilation.

But Ms Bird said they did not adequately “protect the public interest”.

The institute had wanted the rules to ensure that architects were needed to design apartments.

Mr Wynne though defended the new standards, saying they struck a balance, “putting a stop to windowless, airless boxes while keeping apartment living affordable”.

“We’ve now got a set of rules that outline specifics, such as ceiling heights and balcony spaces, rather than a blanket one-size-fits-all minimum apartment size,” he said.

The Property Council welcomed the new laws.

“This is a workable policy that the government is to be commended on,” executive director Sally Capp said, although she said some measures like minimum balcony sizes were concerning.

Moreland Council this year asked the Planning Minister to bring in minimum apartment sizes, of at least 50 square metres for one bedroom, 65 square metres for two and 90 square metres for three-bedroom apartments.

Mr Wynne rejected the council’s plan, which would have been far tougher than his new rules, to be introduced in March.

Moreland’s mayor, independent Helen Davidson, said the new rules were disappointing. “It doesn’t go far enough,” she said. The new rules did not have enough separation between apartment buildings, too little guidance on light courts and there was not enough natural ventilation required, she said.

Under the new rules, at least 40 per cent of the apartments in a development must have “effective” cross ventilation. “So basically it’s going to be similar to office towers,” Cr Davidson said.

Despite the watering down of many changes the government had flagged in its draft rules last year, the Master Builders Association of Victoria still said they could stop some developers going ahead with their apartment projects. The changes could make apartments more expensive, chief executive Radley de Silva said.

Planners welcomed the changes, saying the government had listened to those in the industry. The Victorian chapter of the Planning Institute of Australia pointed out that all of the standards were “discretionary”, and that this would allow flexibility for better design.

The apartment standards, Victorian president Laura Murray said, would “not hinder development but allow for better quality design outcomes that are site responsive”.

Ms Murray said the minimum bedroom and living room size were a welcome change, as were rules on storage and balconies. These, in particular, specify that items on balconies, such as air conditioning units, cannot be included in external area measurements. This would, she said, “ensure balconies … achieve a space that is useable rather than tokenistic”.

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