The challenge isn’t in knowing how to design better apartments, it’s in delivering these design innovations in a private apartment market that is not geared towards families.

Designing apartment homes for families with children

Thousands of Australian children make apartments their homes, yet apartments are seldom designed with children in mind. One in five households living in apartments in Australia are families with children. The highest proportion is in New South Wales, where a quarter of all apartment households have kids [1]. While families with children in apartments can be found across Australia’s major cities, the number and proportion of households with kids in inner-city areas is growing particularly rapidly, with many of these households living in larger buildings of 4 or more stories.

Growth of families with children in 4+ storey apartment buildings

Source: ABS Census of Population and Housing 2016

Apartments can provide excellent homes for children

Good quality apartments that are well designed can make excellent homes for families with children. A review of existing research on designing apartments with children in mind tells us that the following considerations are very important.

Within the unit:

  • Natural light. Natural daylight contributes to improved child mental health and an increased ability to learn [3] [4]
  • Flexibility. Being able to change the way that spaces are used over the course of a single day and over the years as children get older is important [5]. For this, universal design principals and design that enables future modifications are feasible and cost-effective solutions [6].
  • Visibility. Having a clear line of slight between spaces within the unit and from internal spaces into children’s outdoor play spaces is essential to enable parental supervision [7].
  • Safety. Balconies are usually the only private outdoor spaces in apartments that can be used for children’s play [8]. Balcony safety is a critically important consideration for child-friendly unit design [9].
  • Storage. Families with children require more spaces for storage either within their unit or in an easily accessible location. Insufficient storage has been identified as a major drawback of apartment living for families with children [10] [11].
  • Durability and safety of materials, fixtures and fittings. Families with children need apartments with components that are durable (e.g. washable) and safe (e.g. non-slip and non-toxic) [12] [13].

Within the building:

  • Acoustic separation or soundproofing between units. Kids make noise. One Australian study found that it is almost impossible to be a 'good’ neighbour who avoids annoying neighbours with children’s sound without well designed apartments [14].
  • Direct or visual access of parents from their unit into communal indoor play spaces. It’s hard to directly and rapidly access outdoor play areas from a unit (especially in buildings with double loaded corridors over three storeys). Where direct access can’t be provided, providing visual access is important to allow parents to feel comfortable allowing their children to play outside [15].
  • Safe outdoor play areas. Enclosed and centralized spaces, such as courtyards surrounded by buildings, can make for safer outdoor play areas for children [16]. 

Family-friendly design considerations for apartment entrances

Family-friendly design considerations for safety and surveillance

Family-friendly design considerations for flexible kitchen and living spaces

Why are families with children overlooked?

To understand how we can work towards this vision for child-friendly apartment design, we need to understand how apartments are delivered in Australia and why children are often overlooked when designing them [17]. There are a few reasons:

  • Cultural assumptions that families with children will not want to live in apartments [18].
  • The smaller proportion of families with children compared to other household types living in apartments, although the proportion of households with children in apartments is growing [19].
  • The pressures on developers to sell a proportion of their units off-the-plan, usually to investors who aren’t necessarily interested in child-friendly apartments [20].
  • The fact that most families with children in apartments rent, rather than buy their apartments (see Figure 2). This means that they are often not the purchasers that apartment developers are targeting.

All of these reasons mean that the child-friendly apartments are not necessarily seen as a particularly viable or competitive market for developers.

Another important consideration is affordability. While families might need and want larger units to meet their needs, more floor space comes at a cost that some families cannot afford in the private housing market. This is the broader context in which we need to consider how to better meet the needs of families with children in apartments.

Tenure types of families with children living in apartments in Australia

Source: ABS Census of Population and Housing 2016

What needs to change for better outcomes for families

Design regulations that require child-friendly design at the building scale, as well as across all units, will help to ensure that new apartments are more child-friendly [21]. Planning at the neighbourhood and building scale with children in mind can also have a positive impact. Including families with children in the planning process should assist in this [22].

Planning incentives (financial or otherwise) to encourage the provision of a proportion of family-friendly apartments in private apartment developments may go some way to meeting the needs of those families who can afford to rent or buy those units [23]. But without further regulation, we can’t guarantee that families with children will live in those units rather than other households.

For planning regulations like this to work, they would need to be accompanied by other planning interventions like inclusionary zoning to ensure a proportion of affordable housing in new developments, along with allocation procedures to ensure that affordable child-friendly apartments are allocated to families with children [24].

Alternative housing delivery models also provide some promise of better matching families with children with appropriately designed apartments. These include co-operative rental housing [25], collective self-build owner-occupied housing (such as the Nightingale model) [26] and build to rent housing in both the private and not-for-profit housing sectors [27].

Many families with children make apartments their homes. Apartments can make excellent homes for children, but because they are usually not designed with children in mind, they often fall short of this potential. We know a lot about how to better design apartments to meet the needs of children and their families. The challenge isn’t only in knowing how to design better apartments, it’s in delivering these design innovations in a private apartment market that is not geared towards families. We must do better to deliver safe and comfortable homes for children and their families.

Hazel Easthope

Hazel is Scientia Associate Professor at the City Futures Research Centre at UNSW Sydney. She has qualifications in sociology and geography and has been researching in urban studies and housing for 17 years. Her current research focuses on the development, management, governance and planning implications of apartment buildings and estates and the lived experiences of their residents. She is a leading researcher in this field, and is regularly consulted by industry, government and peak body organisations in Australia and internationally. Underpinning her research is a deep concern with how to enable people to feel at home in the places where they live.

Hyungmo Yang

Hyungmo has a M.D.S from the Department of Architecture at Hanyang University in South Korea. He is currently a PhD candidate and research assistant at the City Futures Research Centre, UNSW Sydney. He has over 12 years experience as an architect working on national and international projects in South Korea and has worked as a senior researcher at Korea Institute of Registered Architects. Hyungmo’s key research interest is the relationship between housing design and human experience, with a particular focus on designing apartments that balance the needs of families with children, and developers.