High-rise accommodation must be done right

High-rise apartment blocks are already a dominant feature of our major capital city skylines.  It’s somewhat inevitable that an increased population will bring with it greater density in inner-city areas and skyscrapers will bear prominence. The recent announcement of the new “super tower” planned for Melbourne’s CBD – the tallest skyscraper in the southern hemisphere – reaffirms this.

Melbourne in particular has undergone a recent boom in unit construction, leading to record levels of supply in this sector of the market.  Most of the accommodation has been sold to foreign investors who have no restrictions when it comes to purchasing off the plan – and without knowledge of Australia’s housing market and our home buyer predominant preference for detached dwellings, or “boutique” apartment buildings, overseas buyers often see high-rises as an attractive investment venture.

From an owner-occupier perspective, unless the purchase is for one of the “luxury” units in a high-rise block, the relatively small one- and two-bedroom apartments featured as “affordable” tend to fall into the investment sector of the market due to tight lending restrictions banks impose on first-home buyers.

In addition, the high owners’ corporation fees set aside to service the lifts and other security features necessary in tall buildings tend to deter a large proportion of owner-occupiers from downsizing into high-rise accommodation rather than smaller apartment blocks or townhouses.

It’s therefore no surprise that much of the accommodation is set aside as serviced apartments or student rentals and as such, offers limited investment potential for capital growth-seeking buyers.

Anyone who follows my column will know I’m not a fan of high-rise accommodation – however, I concede there is a market for it – albeit a somewhat limited market. The restrictive provision of inner-city land supply necessitates we go up rather than out (although this needs to be balanced with an adequate supply of lower-density inner suburban developments to fulfil requirements from families).

However – if we are really to maintain our “liveable” status – particularly in Melbourne (currently holding top spot on most “best/liveable city” surveys) we must get it right.

Planning Minister Matthew Guy is currently responsible for shaping Melbourne town and he certainly hasn’t resisted getting his hands dirty with some pretty hefty reforms.  To be fair, he hasn’t got an easy job – over the next 40 years, Melbourne’s population is set to expand to some 6.4 million – all of whom have to be accommodated.

In his current role as planning minister, it’s going to be nigh on impossible to please everybody. Years of poor policy have already ensured we have sparse facilities to attract significant numbers to “fringe” suburbs – the price of commuting forgoes any benefit gained from paying a lower price for the privilege of more space and accommodation further from the city.  However, the current reforms being debated are set to change Melbourne’s character dramatically – and it should concern every Australian who cares to maintain the unique attraction our cities hold on the world stage.

The current tabled proposal for Melbourne’s new planning laws will cause residential zone 1, 2 and 3 become “residential growth zone, general residential zone and neighbourhood residential zone”. For each suggested zone, the density restrictions alter.  You can go here to find a full rundown of the changes – however, in most instances, planning controls are loser, maximum height restrictions have been removed or increased (with the proviso they can also be exceeded) – and the size of land needed for subdivisions reduced.

The plans indicate councils will have some degree of discretion over what they choose to allow, however this is debatable considering Port Philip Council was reportedly “furious” with Guy when he recently took over planning control for the Fishermans Bend renewal contract – an area that will soon be dominated with high-rise accommodation reputedly blocking out many residents’ views, which will diminish the value of their units considerably.

It can only be hoped Fishermans Bend will not be a repeat of Docklands – however at this stage, the prospect is not looking positive.

While I can see the dilemma from both sides of the table – and somewhat sympathise with the economic challenges our housing market present to the “powers that be” – I am increasingly frustrated with poor policy that fails to enforce necessary quality requirements on new accommodation, and more importantly fails to protect existing residents who have purchased their units, only to see an immediate loss of equity when supply is increased disproportionally.

It therefore interested me greatly when I listened to Radio National’sBackground Briefing program on the 28th October, which told the woeful story of  the tallest residential apartment block in Australia – the Q1 building situated at Surfers Paradise south-east Queensland, which it seems, does not comply with Australian Fire Safety standards.

You can download the full program on the ABC website – and it’s also worth logging on to see some of the reader comments in relation to the story.

For example – one viewer writes:

“I have carried out approximately 100 mechanical, i.e. stair pressurisation, air-conditioning shut down and fire mode operation inspections, in Queensland. In three years I have found only one building that complied with the Building Fire Safety Regulation.”

There are other comments from readers claiming to have direct experience of the “incompetence” surrounding Queensland Building Authority, which is worrying – especially when you consider Surfers Paradise is awash with high-rise accommodation and currently has over 1,200 units up for sale (including those off the plan).

If there is any suggestion that the design of any residential tower is “unsafe”, it should concern us all.  The ABC report mentions “a growing concern” in the fire protection industry over current standards and quotes technical director of Fire Protection Australia, Matthew Wright, commenting:

“At the end of the day someone needs to check that the design demonstrates compliance before construction commences.”

Clearly in the case of the Q1 tower this was not achieved and we have to ask, how many others have fallen short of the mark?

Roughly 3 million people across Australia (estimated to be around one in eight) live in strata-titled accommodation.  Furthermore, contractors of new multi-storey (high-rise) buildings (anything over three levels) are not required to arrange home warranty insurance in respect of their work.  And when it comes to the much advocated “due diligence” of gaining an independent building inspection report prior to purchase, you can guarantee the inspector engaged to assess an individual unit will not be climbing on the roof, checking for cracks in exterior walls and making sure fire exits adhere to safety requirements.

It’s not just safety that should concern us, it is also design.  The exterior of a residential tower can be viewed from miles in all directions and needs to fit into the overall panoramic view of the city skyline.  Additionally, it’s also essential the accommodation provides a quality of lifestyle that lasts long after the initial shine has worn off and fits in with our environmental responsibility to build “green”. This means incorporating items such as solar power, rooftop gardens and ensuring each unit gets a daily proportion of natural light.

This is a challenge – and not one currently front of mind for developers cashing in on the high-rise craze.  Recently The Age featured an article that demonstrated the level of demand from Asian property developers, all with their sights well and truly fixed on transforming our cities in to Hong Kong-style metropolises.

In the report, Jeff Xu, a young Chinese developer, suggests Melbourne needs to learn the “Asian” approach and “enable high-density housing to bloom”. In this respect, he makes it clear that Docklands (our biggest “underperforming” high-rise suburb) doesn’t come close to the vision holds for the world’s most liveable city!  However, unlike China – where in some areas buildings of more than 30 storeys are completed on average one every 12 days – our population demands are comparatively insignificant.

As the report correctly pointed out, the Chinese buyers who reach our shores with property investment in mind easily outbid Australian developers who struggle to get finance and cannot match the wealth Asian investors currently sport.  Moreover, our current requirements for planning approval pale in comparison to some cities in China, which in order to do as Xu suggests and enable high-rise to “bloom” – demand each building obtains a standard number of hours sunlight in the winter months along with good “air” and/or a good view.

In Melbourne, the suggestion from one developer – which plans to build an apartment block just three metres from its next door high-rise neighbour, thereby causing the balconies opposite to fall into constant shadow – is to incorporate mirrors to reflect sunlight onto the windows.

This requires developers to incorporate it into their initial design and town planners to guarantee it will remain so when neighbouring buildings are constructed.

The developer obviously assumes this is an adequate solution, however, can you imagine how you would feel if you had purchased one of those units, which is set to have its once sunny outlook obscured and natural light beamed down via a leaf-shaped mirror?!

Hours of natural Aussie sunlight, air to breathe, a view of a little more than a neighbouring wall, and most importantly, safety, are standards a home buyer would consider basic when purchasing into a large development. However, when it comes to the nuts and bolts of providing or guaranteeing the above list, we are clearly falling short.

It’s important not to paint every developer that hits our shores in a bad light.  Some actually want to build what Australian’ home buyers wish to purchase – smaller boutique blocks, in which all the above requirements will be taken into account.

If we’re going to protect the “liveability” of our cities while making skyscrapers part of the solution for any proposed population boom, it’s vital we have the correct regulations in place to ensure eagerness from developers – which understandably want to fit as much accommodation as possible on small CBD sites – does not risk undermining the standard expectations of every Australian home buyer.

If we don’t get it right now, years down the line Melbourne and other Aussie capitals risk becoming residential ghost towns – plenty of office foot traffic during the day, but an abundance of poor-quality high-rise apartment blocks, which fail to attract anyone other than short-term renters.

Catherine Cashmore

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