Apartments Design in Australia: Innovative flexibility in Architecture and Town Planning

From the beginning of the 2009 Australia cities have witnessed an increasing of resident expanding their suburbs significantly (1).

The Australian building industry has been constantly active since the global financial crisis of 2008 functioning as a launch pad for the real economy. Consequently, the construction industry has shown a solid cyclical growth and the employment in the building sector has raised. It is generally accepted that this scenario is also due to the ability to expand to improve efficiency and increase profits according to the market demand.

The principal detailed building legislation at National level is known as the Building Code of Australia (BCA and embeeds an annual review by a panel of experts named the Australian Building Codes Board. This code, which outlines provisions for fire resistance, acoustics, water resistance, disable access and seismic requirements, it is annually updated and implemented by the board.

The BCA is is to be commented for a thorough and thoughtful mechanism of mandatory rules that introduces. In fact, following the example of some International models of building legislation such as British, Swedish and Dutch, the BCA it is a performance- based code, structured with a hierarchy where the ‘objectives’ outlined in the code are the most important outcome to satisfy via a so called ‘performance solutions’. The performance solutions are the only mandatory part of the code and they can be totally or partially satisfied by the design of the building.

Residences in Broadway, Sydney. View of the courtain wall facade.  Source: Author.

Residences in Broadway, Sydney. View of the courtain wall facade. Source: Author.

By following the Pyramidal structure of the BCA, as presently articulated, it seems that the design of the building can achieve a way to comply with the performance solutions by following the code directly or indirectly, by a building solution which is offering very close to compliance outcome.

This aspect of flexibility it is embodied in the BCA which has managed to introduce that as a key aspect of its structure by reformulating the interpretation of other Internationally known building codes.

Typical interior apartment under construction according to the BCA . Source : Author.

Typical interior apartment under construction according to the BCA . Source: Author.

The flexibility is shown by the main fact that universally any building solution must follow the rules specified in the code. Exceptionally, where those could not be achieved, some space is left in favour of a different interpretation of the same solution that actually shows that the same performance can be achieved with a conclusive second way. For example, there are numerous different approaches that can be used to comply with access requirements to a multi-storey building where a lift is proposed. If the lift could not be provided of the dimensions required by the BCA, the possibility achieve compliance with the code by proposing an alternative solution (a solution that is very close the one intended) is feasible.(2)

In a complementary way to the BCA, all Australian Single States (New South Wales, Victoria, Western Australia, South Australia, Northern Territory and Tasmania) have implemented new legislation, which gives to local authorities, a higher degree of control of the residential sector in particular to new apartment buildings.

Façade and podium of Apartments in Blacktown, Sydney. Source: Author.

Façade and podium of Apartments in Blacktown, Sydney. Source: Author.

Apartment buildings have always been included within Council legislation as a form of development separated from dwellings (single or double of house in a lot or row or grouped houses attached or detached both of one of two story).

The legislation introduced and determined in 2015 by the Department of Planning and Environment of the State Government of New South Wales is called the Apartment Design Guide (ADG). The guide has been object of an intense debate among Architects and Planners and it is scheduled to be amended in 2018.
As the BCA, the ADG conclusively aims to safeguard the quality of life of the residents in terms of good construction and good architectural design which seems to be as much as possible structurally and environmentally sound, functionally liveable in all its aspects and aesthetically pleasurable.

The ADG is also structured by topic which corresponds to numerous considerations when designing apartment complexes. For example, minimum dimensions of units and preferable orientations, solar aspect and air quality, distance from the boundary, privacy and type of architectural components, finishes and materials.

Apartments in Redfern, Sydney. Balconies and priivate terraces. Source: Author.

Apartments in Redfern, Sydney. Balconies and priivate terraces. Source: Author.

In almost a dozen of occurrences, the ADG offers strictly specifications on dimensions and types of building components interconnected or not with the public space around it. (3)
In this the ADG demonstrates a clear attempt to investigateing visually relationship in Architecture and Town Planning by integrate visually the building with the city streetscape and focus on the thematic understanding employed by Architects, of the building line with the open space.
This relationship is taking place on the façade of the building conceived as an element of interface, with the public space of the street where it seats.
Furthermore, the ADG is emphasizing the philosophy, already present in the BCA, that a planning legislation not only derives from a kind of conceptual recognitions but also from visual appreciations. This in the way that the building is ‘looking good’ towards the external environment and therefore visually bound with its space in a unique manner.

Apartents in Redfern, Sydney. Modulation and detailing of  the façade towards the street.  Source: Author.

Apartents in Redfern, Sydney. Modulation and detailing of the façade towards the street. Source: Author.

Within a multitude of interest’s groups mainly Architects and Town Planners, the ADG represents a novelty for the planning legislation in Australia. Since its publication the guide had offered a common platform and an occasion for numerous debates among the professionals. In July 2017 the Department of Planning launched the publication and in September 2018 the Planning Institute of Australia hosted a debate at the Sydney office of the Bartier & Perry law firm titled ‘The Apartment Design Guide (ADG) – Is it a Blessing or a Curse?’.

It seems that the focus of the debate was to answer an important question which regards the relationship between Architecture and Town Planning in general: How far the control of the built form supported and implemented by the Town Planning legislation can contribute to shape the Architecture? Or where is the limit beyond which the Town Planning has no power towards the Architecture as a discipline?

From the design point of view, the latter question seems to be rather ambitious also because involves argumentations over such a broad topic. In fact, as a general matter, it is evident that the ADG is trying to extend the visual control of the space from the boundary road into the private residential space of the building by showing some “fringe” Architectural elements located at the boundary between the building and the street.

In this regard Sydney based Architectural firm Kennedy Associated Architects (4) outlined some difficulties of application of the ADG for Architects in order to achieve a good design. These difficulties are due mostly to the complexity of rules and restrictions that the guide outlines. According to Kennedy Associated Architects a solution could have been to turn the existing criteria of the guideline from an indicative level to a scientific level based on technical quantities or formulas. A set of more specific rules that rather than generic prescription.

However, other Architects such the Sydney firm Architectus (5) seems to maintain that the ADG approach goes beyond the function focusing on purely formal-aesthetic reasons. For example, a point which concerns Architectus is regarding the natural ventilation of building apartments blocks.

The ADG prescribe that a minimum number of apartments must have the characteristics of cross apartments having al list two fronts orientated opposite to each other (South-North for example) or in a corner position (South-East). This is to achieve a natural cross ventilation by opening at the same time windows in opposite or distant walls of the apartment.

Architectus proposes a solution, already experiments in one of the buildings designed by them, which consist of creating a cavity within the floor’s thicknesses of each story with outlets on ceilings of each apartments. This allows the air to be directed and circulate via floors rather via window only therefore with the possibility to change some windows from openable to fixed sash.
Here, a further development of this proposal with a detail engineering elaboration could achieve the delivery of air circulation even if the external walls of an apartment are on the same line as air inlets and outlets points are not connected to windows but are part of an independent system of coendures located to the ceiling of the apartment.

Another issue debated by Architects at Bartier and Perry law firm regards the separation between two tower blocks outlined in the ADG with solar orientation, separation and Setbacks. The tower separation is prescribed in the guidelines as a minimum of 24m between external walls.

Wanting to explore a solution which involves a better living outcome from the point of view of the Architect, Architectus considers single aspects apartments (apartments with their external wall or balconies where windows are placed orientated only in one direction) a ‘poor design outcome’ mainly because of the single views that they offer. This view is limited even further by being so close to the other building which a unit is facing.

The solution that was proposed by Architectus in this case is the introduction of the corner window which for example, located in correspondence of balconies, allowed the resident to widen their view to the outside. A solution made to improve visual connection between the inside and the outside of the apartment in a more detail manner like the introduction of architectural detailed typological elements with detailed consideration on the technological aspect was also considered as a proposal by Architectus. These were winter gardens (a balconies becoming a glazed and openable enclosed space in the winter), green walls and green roofs, showing that a technological solution purely architectural can be included within a regulatory planning tool.

The introduction of technology primarily related to architecture as the way to enhance the body of the ADG can be seen also as a way to introduce a degree of flexibility in the guide. The alternative cross ventilation solution proposed by Architectus suggests leaving to the Architect more liberty in the layout, window design and orientation of the apartments. Ultimetely, this arrangment delivers natural circulation of air internally, thus still comply with the requirements.

Similarly, the inclusion of corner windows and winter gardens is adding to a Town Planning code a variety of combinations with different possibilities which live the Architect with choices rather than with constrained solutions. As for the BCA, Architects are hoping for the ADG to incorporates the concept of flexibility.

It is possible to conclude that the introduction of more detail and ‘Architecturally controlled’ elements in the ADG, cannot be distincted without the inclusion of the concept of flexibility.
In fact, the idea of “alternative solutions”, multiple ways to achieve the same outcame – already embodied in the BCA, represents itself akind of ‘operational flexibility’ in terms of procedure to satisfy the prescriptions of the code. This idea implies a series of detailed investigations to demonstrate compilance with the legislation all of them of innovative nature. For example, visual and technical relationship between building elements associated with Architectural forms in detail.

The innovation that building professionals are hoping to be part of the ADG as rised at Bartier & Perry public debate is therefore a special king of innovation: an innovation which draws its power from the rearrangement of Town Planning rules within recognizable Architectural technologies.

Notes

(1) https://www.ibisworld.com.au/industry-trends/market-research-reports/construction/construction.html

(2) Australian Building Code Board. Building Code of Australia

(3) NSW Government, Planning and Environment. Apartment Design Guide Tools for improving the design of residential apartment development.

(4) Kennedy, Steve. ‘Apartment Design Guide it is a Blessing or a Course’, paper presented at Bartier & Perry Lawers , Sydney 18 September 2018.

(5) Harrison, Michael. ‘New Apartment Design Guide Compilance and Flexibility’, paper presented at Bartier & Perry Lawers , Sydney 18 September 2018.

About the Author

Tomaso Carrer
Tomaso Carrer is a Senior Project Architect at Architectural Projects, an Australian firm specialized in Heritage Architecture and Planning. He is a member of the Australian Institute of Architects and of the Planning Institute of Australia. Former Director of Cityface Group, Tomaso graduated at Università IUAV in Venice, he holds a PhD in Architectural Theory at University of New South Wales and he has received various Australian awards including the UNSW Doctoral Scholarship and the Max Kelly Award of Urban Studies granted by the NSW Ministry of the Arts in late 90'. Tomaso has been a team member for the Sustainable Transport Planning Strategy with NSW Roads and Traffic Authority for the Premier Council for Active Living. He has been also the teaching assistant in Architectural Theory at University of New South Wales and panel reviewer for the Journal of Landscape Architecture.