How to make apartments more affordable – put residents first and ‘just say no’ to unnecessary add ons

One way to make apartments more affordable for owner-occupants may be to adjust the end-user / architect relationship.

In the current developer-led paradigm, architects generally have no direct contact with the eventual occupants of apartment buildings. Residents are not involved in the earliest design stages, where significant decisions that will influence their everyday lives are made by a complex array of stakeholders including the developer, regulatory authorities, financiers, and marketing agents. Often these decisions make it difficult for apartments to be both affordable and liveable, by design.

Speaking in Brisbane earlier this year at the State Library of Queensland in the 2017 UQ Architecture lecture series, McLeod outlined these conundrums and presented the rationale that his practice, Breathe Architecture, used to develop a disruptive model for procuring higher-density, multi-residential buildings in Melbourne.  See: 

McLeod and collaborators have developed an open-source scalable and repeatable process known as the Nightingale model where architects work directly with residents to develop and build affordable, well-designed apartments in low energy buildings that combine the best practices of energy efficient specifications with climate-responsive form.

Breathe Architecture designed and developed The Commons in Melbourne’s Brunswick. This modest apartment building with 24 two-bedroom apartments, ground level commercial space, and no car parking for residents won a National Architecture Award in 2014.

It is located beside a suburban rail line a stones’ throw from the station, is designed to be naturally ventilated rather than relying on air-conditioning year round, and has few of the usual high cost extraneous ‘frills’ associated with apartment design. Instead of chrome-plated tap-ware and built-in linings, funds were invested in high quality acoustic windows and doors. Instead of a laundry in every apartment, The Commons has a shared laundry on its roof-top, along with under-cover space for air-drying.  With this one move, residents chose larger living rooms over individual laundries, and their balconies are free of the ubiquitous drying racks. The expansive roof deck is big enough for everyone to share and find their niche whether it is relaxing, socialising or gardening.

That is all very interesting, but the exciting part is not only that it is great architecture; it is that Breathe has applied a rigorous analysis to the procurement process and exposed all the issues and items that the current developer-led paradigm has framed as ‘essential’ in an apartment building and made them unaffordable for mostly everyone.

‘Value management’, a term favoured by many in the development industry comes to mind. Ironically, ‘value management’ rarely results in better liveability qualities for the eventual occupant. In the case of The Commons, the architects demonstrate what can happen by rethinking the relationship between cost and value. McLeod used a simple but effective graphic to illustrate the effect on housing affordability of taking this approach.

Nightingale Cost Value Graph

Comparing The Commons’ procurement process with a business-as-usual process, the costs associated with acquiring land, consultants’ fees and construction costs are on a par with the general paradigm. The point of departure is the series of extrinsic services that add no real value for residents and have nothing to do with design for liveability over the long term.

By eliminating services such as costly marketing strategies, sales commissions and high profit, and focusing instead on principles of urban sustainability, energy reduction and the value of community, the architects facilitated a group of people to achieve their modest aim of living in the city in their own home.

The design process specifically adds value for the residents and the wider community, by bringing down the development costs and the ongoing costs of occupation (for example lower energy bills and less capital equipment to take care of). These architects have seriously addressed the issues that make housing expensive economically, socially and environmentally, and have produced a proven viable alternative to the developer-led paradigm that dominates the housing sector.

According to Jeremy McLeod, the next question is how to convince architects to ‘just say no’ when a stakeholder who is never likely to live in the building they design,  insists that everyone wants floor to ceiling glazing in every room, no shading over said fully-glazed external, walls and continuous air-conditioning rather than cross-ventilation in their apartment dwelling.

Architects have the skills and knowledge to objectively resolve the perennial tensions between ‘yield’ for profitability and ‘form’ for climate-responsiveness and liveability. Now more than ever these skills are needed.

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