new design codes set high bar for Perth apartments


  • functional, easy to maintain and long-lasting
  • valued by the community
  • easy to get around, even for a first-time visitor
  • bright, airy and easy to live in
  • a comfortable scale for people
  • attractive and inviting
  • feel safe day and night
  • relate well to the local neighbourhood
  • include room for trees and gardens
  • working with the environment

The controls to ensure minimum apartment sizes, sunlight and ventilation are a big change for Perth – previously there have been no controls over internal amenity.

Another big change is increased separation as buildings get taller, whereas previously there have been no controls over building separation, only simple setback policies.

There will also be requirements around building orientation, tree canopy retention, deep soil zones that allow for planting of large trees and provisions for electric vehicles in parking areas.

Councils will have some ability to amend some of the guidelines in their Local Planning Policies, with the oversight of the WA Planning Commission.

There will also no longer be a “deemed to comply” pathway for a development; previously, if a development fully complied with all state and local planning policies it did not have to go through the development approval process, but could just tick the boxes and go ahead.

Now, how developers meet the requirements is up to them, so the system is in a way more flexible, but relies heavily on design guidelines and review panels.

When people understand what the aim is … they understand and accept that. They have elderly parents who want to have downsize in a community they know and love. Young people want more choices than a house and land package.

Rita Saffioti

The quality of every proposed development will be assessed by a Design Review Panel based in each council.

These are already operating in two-thirds of Perth councils including Vincent, Fremantle and Victoria Park but the remaining councils will all have to establish the panels.

Meanwhile, they can refer applications to a State Design Review Panel of experts who have gone through a selection process. The state panel will be in place by mid-2019.

Even after local panels are established, councils can still refer any major project to the state panel should they choose.

The government says projects will not have to go through both a local and state review panel – though, if changes to a design are required, they might end up before the same panel more than once.

It also says comprehensive modelling was done on test cases in various locations and building types, to ensure meeting these new codes would not add significant costs that could push up prices or be a disincentive to development.

Ms Saffioti said Perth needed to offer diversity of housing choice for older and younger people.

“My Mum is getting older and will need a place to downsize,” she said.

“Right now I need a house with a small backyard for my kids to play.

The Department of Planning considers this building on Money Street, Perth, a well-designed building.

“Then one day, they will need their own place to live.

“There is an ever-increasing need for housing that reflects our demographics and the stages we go through in life.”

But, she said, the government had needed better planning tools. People had too long been seeing poor outcomes – apartment developments that lacked private open space, green space, natural light and ventilation, and so they distrusted higher density developments.

But she said well-planned developments could improve a sense of safety and wellbeing and create opportunities for informal interactions with neighbours, and actually increase people’s sense of connection.

“We need to restore community confidence in some of the housing products,” she said.

“If we are going to seriously address the issue of urban sprawl, we have an obligation to work together.”

She again ruled out setting an urban boundary on Perth as she worried about the potential impact on land prices.

“People need choice in the community … there will be some who want the new house and land package. We will not stop that,” she said.

“[But we need] more options at affordable prices close to existing infrastructure.

“When people understand what the aim is … they understand and accept that. They have elderly parents who want to have downsize in a community they know and love. Young people want more choices than a house and land package.

“I urge everyone in this room not to create unnecessary battles.

“The whole community shares the burden of giving people places they want to live … Perth suburbs need that choice. Our big drive is to create more attractive choices.”

After a three-month rollout to help councils and developers adjust – there are 400 Local Planning Policies in WA that will either be retrofitted or discarded – the codes will be gazetted in May.

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The government will review and if necessary refine the policy as it works on the next stage of Design WA: the medium density code.

This code for lower-rise flats, villas and other smaller-scale subdivisions will potentially bring even wider changes, as these kinds of developments will be scattered much more widely through the suburbs than tall apartment towers.

The Urban Development Institute of WA welcomed a move to increase consistency of standards, but urged the government to move swiftly on the medium density code.

“We believe Perth really needs the subsequent stages released as soon as possible, particularly the Medium Density Code, as we see this is where some of the poorer outcomes are emerging, particularly in infill areas,” chief executive Tanya Steinbeck said.

She also noted that “affordability” was not included as a design principle and said this was of concern, given UDIA believed the requirements would add additional costs.

Research had shown that when a similar policy was introduced in New South Wales it added an average of $150,000 to the cost of an apartment, she said.

She also said there was already inconsistency across local governments when it came to dealing with development projects, and called for support and training for council officers in interpreting the new guidelines.

“There is capacity for local governments to amend various and very significant parts of the policy document via their local planning policies and we don’t want to see inconsistency reign,” Ms Steinbeck said.

“This will require close monitoring and ensuring that local governments understand the realities of getting a project off the ground.

“Where the guidelines might result in design element objectives that conflict, we need a pragmatic approach by decision-makers with a vision for the broader outcomes of a project.

“We can’t have a one-size-fits all decision-making process that does not allow for innovative design outcomes and the testing of new ideas.”

The final part of Design WA will be the precinct planning guidelines to help councils rezone the Metronet precincts, while the government continues work on other reforms, including the Liveable Neighbourhoods policy and the wholesale review of the planning system.

Emma Young covers breaking news with a focus on science and environment, health and social justice for WAtoday.

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