As buyer mindsets about medium density living continue to evolve, a diversity of well-designed apartments and townhouses among owner-occupiers in Melbourne’s mid ring is a growing market trend. This is underpinned by the Victorian Planning Authority’s strategy to unlock this ‘missing middle’ with medium density housing that is close to existing amenity, services and transport to sustainably accommodate Melbourne’s booming population and retain its liveability.
RPM’s head of Project Marketing, Cameron Yates, sat down with Chris Hayton, Principal at renowned architects, Rothelowman, to discuss the trends and drivers influencing design in this growing market segment.
CY: Firstly, tell us a little about Rothelowman.
CH: We are a national architecture practice. We work across a range of sectors in the development space. In residential, what distinguishes us is the scale of projects we deliver, from smaller projects featuring 20 townhouses right up to multi-building precincts of 3,000 dwellings. We’re exposed to all kinds of markets in all kinds of places. We have considerable intelligence about the residential market and we’re very interested in the evolution of Australian cities.
CY: Are you seeing a shift towards more architect-designed medium density dwellings in the middle ring?
CH: The market for townhouses is very strong. It offers a clean title so it’s quite a desirable home for purchasers. High-quality townhomes have high levels of amenity and are an important dwelling typology for the future of our cities. The market is maturing and becoming more sophisticated and there is a growing appreciation of what good design is – and what it isn’t. The planning authorities are also pushing for higher quality with proposals that demonstrate design quality having an easier and less adversarial path through the planning process. Over time it is possible to provide confidence and credibility through a quality portfolio of projects and it goes without saying that credibility is eroded if developers don’t deliver on their promises.
CY: What factors are driving this shift? (Affordability, sustainability, lifestyle preferences etc.)
CH: Affordability is definitely a consideration. There’s also a real maturing of the city. People are starting to feel more comfortable about higher density living. We have seen a growing trend of clients who have sold mid-ring developments to people who originally moved further out seeking a house on a quarter acre block, but now prefer to be living closer in. With density comes amenity. We are starting to understand that it is a higher density model that facilitates what we might see as a more European way of living, for example, whereby in mixed-use buildings you might have breakfast in the café downstairs. Sustainability isn’t yet a huge driver in Australia. But to be a sustainable city the single biggest thing we can do is make cities higher density. The two go hand in hand. Looking at our lifestyle holistically high-density living generally means less resources and building materials are required per capita than if we continue to live in suburban detached housing.
CY: What type of buyers are you designing for?
CH: It’s quite diverse. Certainly, there are first home buyers, and the next stage such as upgraders who are moving from a one or two bedroom apartment into a three bedroom townhouse. The downsizer market is a growing trend, especially those who appreciate the benefit of a lower maintenance lifestyle. This is very prominent in blue-chip suburbs.
CY: What about families?
CH: This is absolutely a demographic that we’re not capturing, in apartment design at least. There’s real potential for developers to tap into this market. We’re starting to see families move into townhouses but moving from a house into an apartment comprising a family of four is a slow transition. Four bedroom townhouses are something we’ve been asked to look at more and more, incorporating design flexibility to change the use of different rooms, and have suitable outdoor space.
CY: How is design changing and evolving to attract these buyers in terms of how they want to live?
CH: We see a lot more diversity within each development that might cater to quite a broad demographic. Up until four to six years ago, medium density product was heavily targeted towards investors. We’ve matured from that considerably. For example: a development might include one, two and three bedroom apartments as well as two to four bedroom townhouses. When designing residential projects, we operate on 3 levels: 1. To take care of the individual dwelling. Residents want to be sure it’s a great place to live; 2. Within every single development, we ensure there’s a mechanism for a sense of community to develop; and 3. Ensuring a new development connects meaningfully with the broader community context. Developments should make a positive contribution to the wider city. This might be a civic space, medical centre, or, in the case of the RiverEdge development in Werribee, a public library on the first five floors of a 200 apartment tower. Another example is the Aspect residences in Keilor Downs, where the master plan features a network of streets and public spaces. We are very interested in the thresholds between public and private space, designing them so that the transition isn’t abrupt but rather creating zones between of a more ambiguous nature. It’s about having a transitional or intermediary space, such as a middle verandah of a terrace or ground floor lobby space where you have social interaction and feel comfortable talking to neighbours. Tailoring the design to respond to the local environment is also very important. We try and avoid generic solutions and aim to give each project a unique sense of identity that appeals to buyers who want to live there.
CY: What kind of configurations work well for these occupants? What are their key design considerations?
CH: For upgraders, price is very important, but they’re less concerned about absolute space as long as they don’t feel compromised. Downsizers typically look for slightly larger apartments. We consider what’s required to comfortably live in an apartment like proper kitchens, plenty of storage and decent size terraces. For townhouses, we might look at the percentage of a development that offers ground floor living, which appeals to this market. Broadly speaking, downsizers are also less price sensitive. Ease of lifestyle is also important. A key consideration not often talked about is the way in which occupier buildings are managed by the Owners Corporation. Amenities like a 24-hour concierge to collect parcel deliveries are becoming increasingly important as our retail habits change. I had a recent conversation with a building manager who said he feels more like a resort manager!
CY: I’ve seen developments that have a cool room, and an area for luggage and laundry deliveries at the back of the building. It was quite impressive! Are you incorporating many lifts into designs for downsizers?
CH: Not in middle ring suburbs currently but more so in some developments that are 5-12 km from the CBD. We have no doubt that this is an item that will feature increasingly in future developments.
CY: What about pocket parks and open space requirements?
CH: In larger developments of 50 dwellings or more, we seek to provide smaller clusters of housing around shared open spaces, deliberately creating micro precincts within a macro master plan. Research indicates neighbours will get to know each other if a smaller number of houses have perceived shared ownership of the local open space. It could be a pocket park, or specific street character, that offers a sense of identity to a smaller cluster of dwellings. Another consideration is providing multiple amenity for different demographics. Things like a kids playground, BBQ area, and an open area for kicking a footy around to generate space for use by multiple occupants at the same time. There’s nothing we like more than seeing an open space designed in the right way that is packed full of people. Another trend is designing places for people to work from home. People don’t necessarily want to work all the time from a townhouse, but don’t want to go into work every day. So there’s an opportunity to utilise communal space as a workspace too or something that could be used as a small meeting room on the ground floor adjacent to the lobby, for example.
CY: Has there been much improvement in building materials?
CH: Building fabric continues to evolve but the more radical transformation may well be the way in which we build in the future. We espouse the principle of quality materials being the best value in the long term, as you don’t then have maintenance issues. As a developer, you don’t want a reputation for delivering projects that degrade after several years. Owner occupiers stay in their home for longer, so they’re more conscious about building fabric – and it doesn’t have to be the most expensive.