Close encounters: why medium-density living is the way of the future
With a fast-growing population, we need more homes on the block. Michael Green finds out what makes medium density housing work.
Melbourne’s got density on the mind. The state government’s high-profile plans, Melbourne 2030 and Melbourne @ 5 Million, both aim for a more compact city. And even though our suburban boundaries continue to spread, haphazard change is underway.
Medium density housing grew seven-fold in the decade following the 1990s recession, according to planning expert Michael Buxton, and it’s been booming ever since.
Medium density means more homes in less space. It means townhouses, units and flats, where each home is attached to the place next door. Traditional suburbs have about 8 to 15 dwellings per hectare, whereas medium density ranges from 20 to 80. High density – residential development above about four levels – is yet more again.
“People said we wouldn’t embrace apartment living, but we have,” says Dr Buxton, from RMIT’s Environment and Planning unit. “There’s no doubt that Melbourne will continue to intensify its development. The real issue is what form it will take.”
So when it comes to medium density housing, what separates the good, the bad and the inconvenient?
Clare McAllister, from McAllister Alcock Architects, says that with careful design, flats can offer comfort as well as convenience. “If you get it right, a compact dwelling can feel a lot more spacious than its footprint would suggest.”
Ms McAllister is the jury chair for the Australian Institute of Architects award for multi-residential development in Victoria. Among other criteria, the panel considers the level of ‘amenity’ each dwelling affords: “the things that improve the quality of day-to-day living,” she says.
Those things include adequate storage and well-resolved layouts. “You’ve got to look for plans that have no wasted space and no tortuous little access ways,” she says. The design should allow for privacy without inducing claustrophobia, and outdoor spaces must be usable.
Environmentally sustainable design has also become an important yardstick. Ms McAllister evaluates passive solar design techniques, such as good orientation (to catch sun in winter and block it out in summer) as well as insulation and cross-ventilation. “We look for projects where the developer has taken that extra step [in eco-design] without being forced by legislation,” Ms McAllister says.
The jury also mulls over what each development adds to the local community. In the inner city, that might mean cutting edge architecture, or in leafy suburbs, generous gardens. “Often, there’s a lot of angst when you put something new into a neighbourhood, but if it’s well-designed it can make a positive contribution,” Ms McAllister says. “Good medium density housing does give something back.”
Shrewd building design isn’t all that’s needed for urban consolidation to work. As with all real estate, location is crucial. In this case, according to Dr Buxton, it’s all about proximity to public transport. “Increasing density on sites far from public transport isn’t doing any good, because it just leads to increased car use.” Well-located developments also link into existing infrastructure such as schools, healthcare facilities and parks.
Dr Buxton says medium density development in the inner- and middle-ring suburbs is in demand for the access it gives to activities. “Its popularity is related to the perceived social advantages, where people can walk to public transport, shopping and cafes.”
But he says it’s not enough for developments to sponge off the existing range of activities in the area. “We should be aiming for a mix of uses – residential, as well as retail and other employment-generating uses – even in individual developments.”
Other planning measures, such as height limits on development, can improve environmental performance. Dr Buxton says that medium density homes cause the least CO2 emissions, thanks to their modest size, shared walls and low heating and cooling needs. In contrast, high-rise apartment buildings fare the worst. “They tend to be very poor performers, because of the glass construction. They also have lifts, and big foyers and other spaces that have to be heated.”
Adrian Jones, President of the Real Estate Institute of Victoria, says medium density units are popular with the younger generations and with retiring baby boomers. Despite the recession, interest remains strong. Mr Jones expects prices will continue to rise in the long term. “There’s keen demand for units because they’re more attractively priced. It’s a good entry-level way to get into the market.”
He says prices range from about $200,000 for a one-bedroom flat in a middle suburb, up to about $550,000 for a well-appointed two-bedroom apartment with a lock-up garage and small garden.
“People look for a little extra amenity space,” he says, “a pocket-handkerchief garden, or at least a balcony. They also want a garage or a car space. Anything without a car space is a disaster.”
Mr Jones says that while some buyers are wary of living too close to their neighbours and of the lack of soundproofing in newer apartments, higher density living is inevitable – and not only to curb urban sprawl. “As our younger generations get more money, a lot of them will want to live in apartments,” he says. “It gives them more flexibility: low maintenance is a great attraction.”
Close to shops, transport, icons
“The site occupies a prominent position in an iconic location,” he says. “It’s got some very different neighbours: The Palais and Luna Park opposite, and heritage terrace and the McDonalds car park [either side]. I think the building fits into that chaotic framework and breathes on its own. It pays homage to the things around it without deferring to copying them.”
The striking, voluptuous 12-apartment building won the 2009 South East Design award for outstanding medium density housing development and is nominated for the Australian Institute of Architects’ multiple housing award for Victoria.
The design includes rectangular, terrace-style apartments and curved, irregular residences, as well as a green, fishnet-patterned, glass façade. The penthouse roof gardens boast million-dollar views over the bay and beachside icons.
“We felt that the building should reflect the vibrant character of St Kilda – the interest in art and form-making,” Mr Bialek says. “The graphic [on the building] is a tongue-in-cheek recognition of the fishnets of the fishermen and of the hookers’ stockings.”
As well as it’s sculptural form, the building has space for two restaurants at ground level. “Once they open, it will be in the European style where you walk past on the street and you won’t even realise what the building is,” Mr Bialek says.