How Sydney’s new apartment buildings are leaving a ‘problematic legacy’ across the city

Busy transport corridors like Canterbury Road, Princes Highway, and Pacific Highway are lined with squat, repeating residential complexes built close to the street, unsurprisingly with empty storefronts on the ground floor.

The structural defects and poor building practices that led to the disastrous Opal Tower, Mascot Towers and countless other developments across Sydney have also shaken confidence in the quality of new residential buildings.

Arterial roads in Sydney are lined with huge blocks of flats that all look the same.

Arterial roads in Sydney are lined with huge blocks of flats that all look the same.Credit: James Brickwood

Doing away with Sydney architecture is a time-honored tradition: Harry Seidler’s Blues Point Tower, completed in 1962, was on the list of buildings for former New South Wales Prime Minister Dominic Perrottet to demolish. “A depressing eyesore for a pristine haven,” he wrote in 2020. “The best part is you can’t see it from the inside.”

Perrottet’s hit list also included the Greenway Apartments council housing complex in Milsons Point and the Sirius building in The Rocks, which was controversially sold to developers in 2019 for $150 million.

Architect and former Sydney Councilor Philip Thalis says residential buildings of up to eight stories should be built instead of “those clusters of towers lining the metro area skyline – totems of developer manipulation of planning and profit”.

“There are certainly well-designed buildings being built, but unfortunately they tend to be in the minority,” he says.

Philip Thalis has called for an end to the cluster of bulky towers that dominate the Sydney skyline.

Philip Thalis has called for an end to the cluster of bulky towers that dominate the Sydney skyline.Credit: James Alcock

According to Thalis, the blame for poorly designed apartment buildings – large, bulky buildings that he has previously dubbed “Godzillas in the suburbs” – is that developers choose a “cheaper and more compliant architect”.

He also points to poor planning and the inflexible application of abstract rules with little concern for design quality.

“We hope that the Labor Government will study and implement the proposed changes to ensure that housing across the economic spectrum is a great place to live,” Haddow said.

According to Haddow, NSW houses are built to the highest quality in Australia because they have the most detailed regulations.

The Lumina housing estate in Penrith, an example of good design.

The Lumina housing development in Penrith, an example of good design.

“By and large, if you go to Paris or Barcelona, ​​the residential buildings in those cities have a certain degree of design consistency – precisely because of the culture and the climate,” he says.

According to Oldfield, mediocre Sydney housing is the result of a development model in which architects design for developers looking to maximize their financial returns.

“Often those who buy the apartments don’t live there but are investors instead,” he said. “This means there are limited opportunities for architects to connect directly with the people who will actually live in an apartment building and design it to their specific needs. That is why we end up sticking with standard apartments.”

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Shaun Carter, former president of the NSW branch of the Australian Institute of Architects, said in 2019 that tall, thin towers are preferable, but squat buildings are cheaper to build: “The less skin you have, the less glass you have.” need to insulate and waterproof and the less expensive materials you use.”

Developers are also unhappy, blaming complicated rules that increase construction costs, limit consumer choice, and lead to extraordinary deadlocks.

Steve Mann, NSW executive director of developer lobbying group Urban Development Institute of Australia, says that the strict application of the apartment design guide by community planners forces all apartment buildings to be of a similar shape: “It hampers innovation and individuality in design.”

Mann says it’s important to have basic minimum home health and safety requirements, but the design guidelines should be reformed by the Minns government “if they’re serious about tackling the housing supply and affordability crisis.”

“It’s initially intended as a guide, but is applied as rigorous development standards, leading to homogeneous, consistent results,” he says. “Also, the cost of building new housing increases significantly, which has a negative impact on affordability.”

The NSW Productivity Commission said in its 2020 Green Paper that the design guidelines created economic costs by “unnecessarily limiting” the number and variety of possible construction projects.

“These include the overly complicated cross-ventilation requirements, excessive shading and insolation times and dates, and dwelling size,” Mann said. “Some homebuyers would be willing to trade the size and light of the home for affordability.”

Tom Forrest, chief executive of the Urban Taskforce, says there are significant improvements in the design and construction of housing in NSW thanks to NSW Building Commissioner David Chandler, who was appointed by the Berejiklian government in 2019 following a series of scandals over poor housing development gave Sydney .

Forrest also says the bureaucracy in Sydney has resulted in a template-style apartment building.

Arkadia under construction in the Sydney suburb of Alexandria.

Arkadia under construction in the Sydney suburb of Alexandria.

“The overly prescriptive guidelines for housing design and development control plans, and their rigorous application by many communities, result in a pattern architecture with little opportunity for increasing innovation,” he says. “It’s wrong to blame developers for this – it’s the result of prescriptive regulatory scrutiny.”

But the news isn’t all bad. Oldfield offers three examples of quality apartment buildings – Jolyn Place in Rosebery, Arkadia in Alexandria and Verve in Newcastle.

“They also use just one or two materials with care and craftsmanship,” he says.

Oldfield is less enthusiastic about the Lego-like Meriton Suites in Zetland and the colorful apartment complexes in Ryde: “Sydney seems to be seeing a surge of apartments trying to use several different materials at once to reduce the bulky size.” , and that rarely works.”

Jolyn Place in Rosbery receives an honorable mention for good design.

Jolyn Place in Rosbery receives an honorable mention for good design.

Oldfield says housing design regulations have improved the quality of the poorest settlements.

“But I also think it’s because of the suppressed design innovation that has led to us having too many generic apartment blocks,” he says. “I don’t think they need an overhaul, but they do need to be reconsidered.”

Oldfield would like a move away from long corridors with apartments on each side – an approach that contributes to ‘bulk’ and limits ventilation and lighting as the apartments are back on corridors rather than on exterior walls with windows

“I’d like to see more design innovation in Sydney apartments, with flatter floor plans, fewer core accessible units, more dual aspect units and even a return of things like shared terrace apartments,” he says, pointing to The Arc -Apartments in Bondi.

The Arc Apartments in Bondi go against the current.

The Arc Apartments in Bondi go against the current.

Sydney Architect and Councilor HY William Chan says input from urban planning experts and the Council’s competitive design policies have resulted in more thoughtful buildings like the Greenland Center residential tower on Bathurst Street in Sydney’s CBD.

“It pioneers outdoor living room typology for high-rise apartments and responds in a unique way to Sydney’s climate,” he says. “These angular balconies are very popular with residents because they passively regulate ventilation while providing wind protection and rain management.”

However, Chan criticized the previous state government for currying favor with developer lobby groups and neglecting planning reforms.

“It is critical for the new state government to set clear standards that ensure Sydney’s residential buildings meet the needs of residents and make a positive contribution to the urban landscape,” he says. “A renewed focus on outstanding design is necessary.”

Former New South Wales planning minister Rob Stokes wants Sydney to change its focus on housing.

Former New South Wales planning minister Rob Stokes wants Sydney to change its focus on housing.Credit: Brooke Mitchell

Former Planning Minister Rob Stokes says Sydney should move away from high-rise housing near transport hubs and instead to a “soft density” of terraced houses, townhouses and low-rise mid-rise units.

Similarly, Guillermo Fernandez-Abascal, an architect and University of Sydney practice fellow, says a solution to Sydney’s housing problems could be found in suburbs like Campsie, which have hundreds of walk-in apartment blocks that are often derided as unattractive, utilitarian and cheap .

Still, these apartment blocks have highly sought-after design features, such as narrow footprints that allow for cross-ventilation, flexible floor plans, and minimal use of shared walls, he says. “We rarely find such features in residential construction projects today.”

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According to Fernandez-Abascal, most of Sydney’s new apartment blocks have large footprints, insufficient solar access, poor ventilation and a poor relationship with the street.

Still, the Parish Council has earmarked Campsie for thousands of new homes in towers up to 20 stories high.

Fernandez-Abascal is not in favor of razing aging blocks of flats in suburbs like Campsie, when the density could be increased by creating common spaces, adding balconies and adding new apartments to the buildings without detracting from the neighborhood’s character .

“Most of the new housing being built these days is of very questionable quality,” he says. “It’s going to be a problematic legacy.”

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Justin Scaccy

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