I have attended many conferences about higher density living. Much of the discourse centres around best practice design, with the audience taken through exemplary flagship projects. New innovative approaches are showcased. These discussions are valuable. They lead to shared learnings and enhanced inspiration for what we, as a profession, can achieve. As a statutory planner who has had hundreds of high density applications come across my desk, I am not surprised by the high quality buildings talented architects and designers can produce.
Unfortunately, my experience is that many (and I stress ‘not all’) applicants seek the absolute minimal level of ‘acceptability’ in order gain a planning permit. The driver is yield, often at the cost of amenity. It is somewhat surprising then, that discussions about minimal levels of acceptability in statutory provisions related to high density living have, until 2015, taken a back seat in Victoria. This is despite endless debates on an application by application basis, across Council planning departments and at the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT). It is without doubt that the lack of minimum standards has led to poor outcomes. Bedrooms with borrowed light, living rooms with an outlook to a five storey brick wall 2 metres opposite, apartments without adequate storage…the list is long.
How refreshing and overdue it was, that the Minister for Planning announced the introduction of the Better Apartments Design Standards (BADS). BADS will be included in all Victorian Planning Schemes in March 2017 and contains 16 standards such as Windows, Functional Layout, Noise and Storage. Most of the standards include metric requirements to guide what is acceptable – the missing ingredient in the 2004 State Guidelines for Higher Density Residential Development. On most aspects of amenity, BADS should result in a significant improvement to higher density living outcomes.
Daylight Access – the key issue
It was not surprising that the top amenity issue raised during the consultation phase of BADS was access to daylight. This was the finding of Moreland City Council, my employer, during the 3 years developing its own ‘Moreland Apartment Design Code’ – due to the lack of metric standards by the State Government.
When apartments are squeezed in width and buildings are too close to other buildings or private boundaries, the parameters are set for poor daylight. This occurs, most commonly, because yield is maximised at the expense of daylight. It’s not rocket science to work this out. However, what is an acceptable level of daylight?
From March, BADS will be where planners, designers, residents and VCAT turn to find the answers.
There are three standards that address the issue of daylight access – Room Depth, Windows and Building Separation. Whilst Room Depth and Windows include metric standards to appropriately guide what is acceptable, Building Separation has none. Building separation should be the first and most important part of the design process. Unfortunately, this key issue has been relegated to the bench, left to an ambiguous standard to ‘ensure adequate daylight’ is achieved – whatever that means.
The Moreland Code includes metric standards for building separation based on technical analysis to achieve minimum daylight factors. Since its adoption in 2015, these metric standards have been applied in the assessment of apartment developments. The Moreland experience is that the metric standards have been a very useful tool in providing certainty to determine a reasonable distance between buildings, with most proposals largely complying. The high number of apartment developments being built in Moreland rebuts the concern that a metric building separation standard would render apartment developments financially unviable.
Unfortunately, without a metric to guide building separation in BADS, the industry in Victoria will be left exactly where we were before – endless arguments and poor outcomes with little (day)light at the end of the tunnel.
Darren Camilleri will be speaking on ‘Yield at the expense of liveability – The case for a stronger amenity safety net’ at the Higher Density Living conference this May. Book soon to secure early bird rates!