More Australians are living in apartments than ever before. Many of the National Cabinet’s targeted extra 1.2 million homes over the next 5 years will be apartments in multi-storey developments. While the housing debate is focused on housing supply, we are not just delivering housing stock, but homes that need to meet the needs of diverse households over decades to come.

There is a wealth of research that can instruct us in how to deliver well-designed apartments in Australia. The recent High Life study took a comprehensive look at apartment quality across Sydney, Melbourne and Perth, and identified the aspects of apartment design that deliver positive benefits for residents. Their results equip policymakers with essential evidence to push for new policy requirements to improve apartment design, and to defend existing policy that works.

The Cities People Love library provides further evidence on designing the housing we need, including what it takes to design family-friendly apartments, how shared spaces can support social connection between neighbours to tackle loneliness, innovative co-living models to support the rise in solo living, designs that reflect the lived experience of older women, and apartment housing models that can support our most vulnerable community members. We also highlight the importance of good design governance through effective design evaluation of apartment developments.

We invite you all to reflect and learn together on what it takes to deliver high quality apartment living. Harnessing the potential of good design in tackling the housing crisis will deliver multiple, long-term benefits for our cities – healthier, safer, and happier residents and more sustainable communities.

Figure 1: Average extent of design policy implementation for High Life building sample.

The importance of good apartment design and how policy can deliver it

Australian cities have experienced a surge in apartment development in recent years, with more Australians living in higher-density housing than ever before [1]. To address the housing crisis in Australia, the federal government has set an ambitious target to build 1.2 million homes over the next five years, with many of these homes to be apartments [2].

However, reports of apartments that are small, dark and claustrophobic are common [3], giving rise to concerns about the quality, amenity, future versatility and health impacts of the housing stock being developed [4][5]. In response, several Australian state governments have introduced apartment design policies to improve apartment quality, but they provide varying levels of design guidance, and there has been little evaluation of the role these policies play in ensuring good quality apartments are delivered.

Designing the High Life

The High Life study investigated the impact of apartment design policies on design quality and, in turn, the health and wellbeing of apartment residents. We measured the implementation of 96 design requirements that could plausibly impact health from the relevant New South Wales, Western Australian and Victorian policies in 172 buildings across Sydney, Perth and Melbourne [6]. In Sydney, buildings were developed and assessed under an operational planning policy (SEPP65), whereas in Perth and Melbourne, buildings were developed prior to the introduction of detailed design policies (SPP7.3 in WA and BADS in VIC) but were assessed against these policies.

In total, we measured over 10,000 apartments and over 1,300 residents completed a survey on their apartment design and health and wellbeing [7].

Buildings in each city were assessed for their implementation of requirements in their respective state’s policy (Figure 1). Sydney buildings performed best – implementing more of the design requirements, followed by Perth buildings, and lastly Melbourne buildings.

High hopes: residents' priorities for apartment design

Residents were asked about why they chose their apartment. Affordability was a high priority, however other reasons reflected a clear desire for good design. Apartment aesthetics, natural light, and size and layout were highly ranked, regardless of the city or level of area disadvantage. Locational factors, including proximity to shops and public transport were higher priorities in Melbourne than elsewhere. [8]

We tested the relationship between policy and perceptions, finding that residents living in apartments that implemented more of the policy design requirements had more positive experiences of apartment design and amenity – for example, where more indoor space design requirements had been implemented, residents perceived they had a more spacious and functional internal apartment space.

We also found that residents who felt more positive or satisfied with the design of their apartment had higher mental wellbeing – with the strongest evidence for natural ventilation, summer-time thermal comfort, indoor space and layout, and communal space quality in the apartment building [9].

A policy pathway to better apartment perceptions and resident wellbeing

The architecture of mental health

We were also interested in understanding the performance of the apartment buildings in terms of the combination of design requirements that had been implemented. We identified two distinct groups or ‘types’ of buildings based on their policy performance: high policy performance buildings and low policy performance buildings.

Residents in buildings with a more holistic delivery of the policy requirements had better mental wellbeing

Residents in the high policy performance buildings had significantly higher positive mental wellbeing than those residing in low policy performance buildings. This suggests that more holistic implementation of the policy design requirements could promote wellbeing [10]. In these buildings more apartments met the policy requirements relating to solar/daylight access and natural ventilation (e.g., north facing and dual aspect apartments), acoustic and visual privacy (e.g., adequate street setbacks), well-sized apartment rooms and private outdoor space, and buildings delivered green and spacious communal open space, and a diverse range of apartment types. An infographic summarising the design requirements is available here.

What does this mean for Australia's ambitious housing targets?

The High Life Study generated the policy-specific evidence needed to inform the ongoing development and implementation of apartment design policies across Australia that will help deliver well-designed apartments that residents want to live in. Results demonstrate the importance of good design and provide empirical evidence that:

  • Good design is valued by apartment residents when they choose their apartment.
  • Good design – as measured by the implementation of design requirements – is associated with better perceptions of the apartment and building.
  • And vitally, both residents’ perceptions of good design, and the comprehensive objective implementation of design policy requirements, related to better mental wellbeing for residents.

Our results equip policymakers with essential evidence to push for new policy requirements or defend existing ones

The study supports the need for a comprehensive aspirational design policy to deliver well-designed apartment housing that promotes residents’ health and meets their needs. However, there was a stark disparity in the representation of ‘high policy performance buildings’ across the three cities. In Sydney, 86% of the buildings were classified as ‘high policy performance buildings’, but only 53% of the Perth buildings and 9% of the Melbourne buildings were classified as ‘high performing’. The findings demonstrate the positive impact of a targeted design policy for apartments, as Sydney buildings had been developed in accordance with SEPP65 whereas Perth and Melbourne buildings pre-dated SPP7.3 and BADS.

But what sort of design quality can we expect from future buildings now that SPP7.3 (WA) and BADS (VIC) are operational? We identified 51 design requirements that, when implemented in combination, were associated with higher positive mental wellbeing. Of these:

  • SEPP65 (NSW) includes 38 of these requirements and our results already show that SEPP65 is effective in delivering health-promoting apartments in NSW.
  • SPP7.3 (WA) includes 43, suggesting that the policy stands to improve the design quality of new apartments in WA.
  • However, BADS (VIC) includes just 20. In its current form, BADS may be unable to bring about positive mental wellbeing impacts and could benefit from additional requirements.

Design requirements targeted for improvement in future updates to BADS policy

But there are positive signs that improvements to the BADS policy are imminent, with the Victorian state government signalling plans to strengthen its apartment design standards to increase the appeal, comfort, and sustainability of new apartments [11]. Indeed, a recent inquiry into Victorian apartment design standards highlighted how the current policy was lacking compared to other Australian and international jurisdictions. While the review concludes that a largely performance-based approach to apartment design should remain in place, it also recommends the inclusion of more prescriptive design requirements in the BADS policy – including minimum size standards for internal floor areas, private open space, and storage, provisions to maximise sunlight access and northern aspects, enhanced guidance on communal open space design, and strategies for better accommodating the growing number of families in apartments [12].

This strongly aligns with our study findings that provide empirical evidence substantiating the need for an expansion of the policy to enhance the quality and amenity of apartments, and in turn, residents’ comfort and wellbeing. Indeed, our results equip policymakers with vital evidence to advocate for the inclusion of new requirements or protect against the removal of design requirements during future policy reviews.

The High Life summary report is available here.

Sarah Foster

Sarah is an Associate Professor and Australian Research Council Future Fellow with the Centre for Urban Research at RMIT University in Melbourne.She leads a program of applied research designed to influence policy and practice to create healthier built environments. This includes ‘The High Life Study’ which examines the interplay between apartment design policy standards, the design of contemporary apartment buildings, and residents’ health and wellbeing.

Paula Hooper

Paula is an Associate Professor within the Nutrition & Health Innovation Research Institute at Edith Cowan University. Her research studies the influence of the built and natural environments on health behaviours and develops geospatial tools for mapping, measuring, and monitoring these environments to support urban planning policy and practice.

Alexandra Kleeman

Alexandra is a Research Fellow in the Centre for Urban Research at RMIT University. Her research explores the design and provision of high-density housing and the impact this form of housing has on residents' health and social outcomes.