Buvette Masthead

Canberra’s apartment boom is a chance to do better

Catherine Carter

Should an apartment be big enough to fit a double bed and a fridge – or should people be content with one or the other?

Are natural light and fresh air essential design elements – or are windows an optional extra? And is a unit without a kitchen a deprivation or an opportunity to dine out every night?

These are the sorts of questions that many Australians now ask themselves as they assess the apartments on the market.

But not in Canberra, right? Wrong. Hong Kong’s coffin cubicles or Melbourne’s dog box designs may seem a long way from Canberra’s leafy suburbs, but they could be our reality.

The National Construction Code applies a minimum standard for human habitation – and that’s what we are relying on in the ACT. Think everyone must have a room with a view? The Code deems it acceptable for developers to give some “wall windows” a miss, provided they install skylights instead. These are relatively rare in apartments but are allowed. A more common interpretation of the rules is to borrow light from an adjoining room through an internal window.

Building our city for future generations shouldn’t be a matter of what’s acceptable. When it comes to creating a city for future Canberrans, we should be aspirational.

In New South Wales, so-called SEPP65 guidelines for apartment design were introduced in 2002, outlining how developments can meet nine design quality principles. These include solar and daylight access, natural ventilation, minimum floor-to-ceiling heights and storage sizes, as well as size requirements for balconies, private open spaces and public space amenities – all of which must be signed off by a registered architect.

Victoria has just introduced similar guidelines after attempts to ‘Manhattanise’ Melbourne led to apartments too small to pass muster in New York.

My beef about apartment buildings isn’t about size – good design can be both big and small. My family loves apartment living and wouldn’t trade our inner-city space for anything. We’re fortunate to live in a high quality, highly liveable home with easy access to all the amenities. We have low maintenance costs and enjoy the lock and leave aspects of an apartment lifestyle, knowing we can return to our home to find it just as we left it after a trip away or a weekend at the coast.

But many people I speak to say the same thing: some of Canberra’s apartments are not up to scratch.

Most buyers aren’t architects or engineers and are not accustomed to reading two-dimensional architectural drawings. People can be swayed by the glossy sales brochure and buy in to poor-quality development. It’s easy to be mesmerised by marble finishes, but can you tell whether a building will stand the air tightness test? Is it well insulated? Is it designed to maximise cross-ventilation and air flow?

These features aren’t ‘nice to haves’ but necessities that lower utility costs and provide more liveable, comfortable spaces.

This isn’t something we can afford to worry about later. Canberra’s apartment market is booming and the trendline is pointing in one direction. In 1992, 291 units were approved compared with 2,611 houses. By 2016, just 1,253 houses got the green light, but 3,370 units.

In March, the ACT Government and National Capital Authority released the City and Gateway Draft Urban Design Framework, which includes a plan to lift building heights along Northbourne Avenue light rail corridor to a maximum of 48 metres and allow the development of 37,000 new dwellings – most of them multi-unit residential.

More densely populated neighbourhoods along transport corridors makes sense. By bringing more people within a stone’s throw of the city, we can reduce car dependence and carbon emissions, ease pressures on house prices and build buzzing communities. But poorly designed apartments are the antithesis of sustainable development.

Meanwhile, apartment approvals continue apace. In March alone, 1,029 units were approved across the ACT, according to real estate agent JLL, increasing the supply by 3.4 per cent on the previous year. In contrast, housing approvals have fallen by 12.7 per cent over the last year.

Are we building enclaves of shoddy units that are not only ugly but downright dangerous? Will these apartments be unliveable within a generation? And can we expect families to spend the next 50 years in badly-designed, dreary spaces?

There is no doubt that there are many high quality, well-appointed and well-designed apartments being delivered in Canberra, and a range of product offerings that appeal to different price points. But it is important to do your research.

Check the track record of the developer and the architect. Ask about energy efficiency. Measure out the spaces with masking tape on the floor and measure furniture to understand the spatial dimensions of what you are buying. Picture yourself in the apartment and how you would use it.

We sit in cars and test drive them as well read the brochure, so when considering an apartment why not try to get a sense of what you are buying and whether it meets your needs before you purchase?

I hear around the traps that the ACT Government is actively considering this issue and is looking at introducing apartment design guidelines for future development. This will be a positive for our growing city.

Poor quality design comes at a huge cost – to people’s health, well-being and hip pockets, not to mention a city’s amenity and brand. And this is something Canberra simply cannot afford.

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Catherine Carter

A lover of books and beauty, a seasoned traveller and a creative thinker, Catherine Carter is passionate about Canberra. Head of the Property Council of Australia’s Canberra office for more than a decade, Catherine now provides specialist business and communication consultancy services with a focus on urban environments, new forms of collaboration, community building and diversity. Catherine was the recipient of the Telstra Business Women’s ACT Community and Government Award in 2010 and the National Association of Women in Construction Crystal Vision Award in 2017. More about the Author