Is size more important than quality or is it possible for good things to come in small packages?

Tim Adams comments about the importance of diversity in dwelling amenity and standards

Debate has escalated recently around perceptions of dwelling amenity and standards. Many commentators enter the discussion with preconceived notions about what constitutes an acceptable level of accommodation so as not to be considered as a ‘slum’. Australia – having the biggest houses anywhere in the world – has clearly demonstrated a penchant for size. Other communities, notably UK, Europe and Scandinavia, achieve highly desirable results on much smaller footprints.

There are numerous social benefits that may also be sheeted home to urban occupation in denser dwelling assemblies. People are more likely to have greater interest to participate in communal activities outside the home as opposed to being housebound and socially isolated. Lower mortgage costs, rates and utilities bills result in greater proportions of disposable income being available for entertainment, travel and other activities outside the home. Additionally, the likelihood of being closer to work, shops, services and entertainment delivers obvious benefits for available choices, time and cost involved in transport.

Household structures require accommodation options of great diversity to suit singles, couples, families – small and large – those wanting to be alone and those wishing to share. All ages, young, old and everything in between have vastly different needs and it must be accepted that it is highly unlikely that one dwelling will be suitable for a lifetime. Some look to house vast quantities of stuff accumulated over a lifetime of hoarding, while others have succeeded to successfully de-clutter.

Bedrooms are used in many different ways. Some inhabited by children, students, the infirmed or where part of a share house will be occupied for extended periods throughout the day. Others will be occupied by people who spend 99% of their time in the space with their eyes closed. A prescription of ‘one size fits all’ with respect to access to natural light is not going to meet the needs of all the diverse patterns of occupation. It is clearly unacceptable to make everyone have to buy accommodation that is not suited to and excessive to their needs.

As a starting point, unless there has been a serious shortcoming in the planning and building permit approval, all recently constructed existing buildings must have complied with minimum standards enshrined in our current regulations. In both planning and building regulation spheres those standards are put in place following exhaustive processes to assess and reflect community expectation of acceptable design outcomes.

If it is determined from time to time to review those standards then there are well entrenched pathways to discuss options and confirm acceptable revisions.

Given this understanding, it is unhelpful for those believing change is warranted to target any group in the delivery chain as causing any perceived shortcomings.

Developers are sophisticated enough to understand what level of end product will constitute a commercial success. They are constrained by the realities of risk management which means that access to construction funding is dependent on significant pre-sale commitment. Perceptions of poor quality will undoubtedly dent the reputations of those involved when attempting to embark on projects in the future. If purchasers are not happy enough with the product, either for their own use or as a rental product, they will not be built.

Design professionals are able to assert some influence over results, and have the ability to make the most of any project within the constraints set by clients and regulations. The complex discipline of building design involves a myriad of skills and experience to execute projects successfully. These are generally hard won through application and testing of theory throughout the professional lifetime of individual practitioners.

Purchasers have the immense power of being able to exercise choice and influence projects with their feet and wallets. A minor flaw in this avenue to quality control is that the general public are often not well enough informed to identify the important details that predicate quality. This shortcoming can be overcome by acknowledging it, leading to engagement of expert advice prior to making the largest financial decisions that most people will ever make.

Consultation between the BDAV and the State Government Architect during the term of Geoffrey London has been cordial and constructive. The clear understanding has been that the nation leading the building design profession’s registration system in Victoria has served us well, and arguably better than the arrangements in other states and territories. Building designers and architects undertake projects of scale, nature and complexity appropriate to their skill and experience. Incremental progress is then possible over time to undertake larger more complicated commissions. To venture too far outside the comfort zone is a risk that needs to be assessed in terms of threat to reputation and voiding of professional indemnity insurance. Accordingly we have a merit-based system which respects skill and experience, and not one inextricably tied to an academic qualification and application for registration which may have occurred many years ago.

It was, therefore, enormously disappointing to hear the outgoing State Government Architect’s presentation to the IMPA forum on 6th August 2014 where he referenced a NSW planning policy as an example of a potential way forward to improve the quality of built design. In espousing the virtues of the policy, he included that the involvement of architects in the process was ‘crucial’. This was completely contrary to any undertakings he had made in dialogue with the BDAV. The previously enunciated position was that the highest quality design on any type of project was possible from all suitably-experienced registered design practitioners in Victoria.

The result – which is assumed and seemingly endorsed by the outgoing Victorian State Government Architect – by the implementation of policy equivalent to similar provisions, is that we should end up with a utopian built environment filled with abundant examples of architectural excellence. Numerous recent visits to Sydney have provided opportunities to test this hypothesis, and I would have to conclude from observations that the results on the ground are far from conclusive.

A robust community debate around our positions on size, quality and affordability is welcomed. It will, however, only deliver beneficial results to our built environment and meet our future needs if entrenched personal, professional and industry self-interest is put aside. Recognition of diversity with respect to empirical measures and less tangible aspects of aesthetics must be given free rein to embrace every option required to suit the needs and desires of all in the community.

Tim Adams is a Fellow and Past President of the BDAV. He has more than 40 years of building design experience and is as a leader in the field of energy efficient house design. He runs F2 Design, which is dedicated to ensuring that high performance houses and integrated sustainability responses are delivered with no impact on housing affordability.