Council inconsistent on apartment design standards 

By Khiara Elliott

The City of Melbourne (CoM) has changed its tune on the State Government’s attempt to establish standards for the design and construction of apartments.

When it first told the government its position in July 2015, the council deliberately promoted general principles.  But, after the matter came before the Future Melbourne Committee (FMC) on September 20, it appears that it now wants specific measurements.

The standards were expected to be finalised and released last month but, according to Planning Minister Richard Wynne, have been delayed until the end of the year.

In its initial submission to the government’s draft Better Apartments discussion paper, the council in 2015 was vague in its language, and shrouded in fluff when calling for “adequate” residential densities, “well designed” common areas and “appropriate sunlight”.

Councillor Ken Ong, at the time, considered this approach to be more than sufficient.

“We’re focusing on performance criteria of apartment design rather than specific numbers to be applied,” he said.

“Whether it focuses on the amenities, the layout, the natural light … I think those are all the interesting, useful criteria.”

However, now that another submission has been made in response to the latest Better Apartments Draft Design Standards document, the council has raised a number of objections.

Key issues identified from the latest submission are based around the need for stricter guidelines – quite an opposite view to the one it took last year.

Key issue 5.5 from the officers’ report to the September 20 FMC meeting states: “The planning provisions should be as clear and measurable as possible to provide sufficient certainty, be easily understood and applied consistently.”

The report goes on to say: “While the draft standards propose minimum dimensions for bedrooms, bathrooms and storage, there is no minimum dimension for living areas or objective regarding the layout and functionality of these spaces.”

CBD News contacted Cr Ong about his current opinion on the draft standards.

“In order to enable clear compliance, there must be clear measurement criteria,” he said.

“I believe that with the draft standards, there needs to be some refinement in terms of how the measurement of the performance requirements of these new standards are done.”

Cr Ong continued on to say that some standards within the draft were now too clearly defined and that this also posed a problem.

“It is also my opinion that some parts of the standards are overly prescriptive, which can actually stifle innovative design,” he said.

“It prescribes light requirement for kitchens and its distance from the windows/light access, this actually does not make sense. It seems like a specific view of what kitchen design should be.”

Deputy planning chair Cr Rohan Leppert is also unhappy with the latest standards document.

“These apartment guidelines have been such a long time coming. On the one hand, they are far too late, but on the other, the draft still needs a lot more work until the industry and community are going to be confident that they will improve on the status quo. This is frustrating,” he said.

Cr Leppert was also critical of the process.

“It’s disappointing that the Minister didn’t release the draft objectives alongside the draft standards,” he said.

“It’s difficult to predict how successful this performance-based policy is going to be without knowing the strength of the text of the objectives.”

“All of the rhetoric from the Minister when announcing the apartment guidelines process was around the decreasing quality of central city apartments. Yet the draft guidelines are really one-size-fits-all guidelines for apartments across the state, which aren’t going to improve upon the existing central city development overlays anywhere near as much as we were all led to believe.”

As Cr Leppert noted, the apartment standards guidelines have been in the works for a long time.

Craig Yelland, director from Plus Architecture gave a speech on the need for better apartment standards at a CBD Business Networking International (BNI) lunch on September 29.

Within the first five minutes of his speech, Mr Yelland noted the ambiguity of the current draft standards.

“Actually, they don’t talk about size. There’s no minimum size,” he said. “But if you abide by the rules then they’re all bigger, so go figure.”

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