One key aim of Project Agenda is to encourage an exchange of ideas from a wide cross section of industry players. Architects have a long history with their profession, names and reputation making a lasting impression wherever they work, so it’s a rich area to start.

Milton, Mijollo ArchitectsThis post recalls a wide-ranging and thought provoking discussion with architects Milton Lloyd and Matthew Cumming, the founding partners of Sydney based Mijollo International Architects.

After 40 years in the profession Milton and Matthew started their firm, Mijollo Architects 2 years ago and having worked in 4 different countries together they meld their extensive skills, they have a strong base in multi-unit and mixed-use developments. They also focus on site initiation and are both very experienced across many varied projects.

Getting things started

To me it was interesting that frequently during our conversation the need to initiate new projects should be a topic. Literally ‘initiate’ means action that causes something to begin and over many areas of shared interest we did find comments turning to how much in-action there can be in parts of the development cycle. Delays that clearly have far reaching impacts, in particular on the supply of new projects, finance and the flow on impact this has on the affordability of housing.

Major challenges and hurdles

“To my mind there are clearly two major hurdles we need to face in the design and planning of medium and high density projects, and these are providing affordable housing and the approval times and planning complexities we face.”

In fact Milton Lloyd points to the need for affordable housing as the greatest challenge for architects. It’s a complex picture influenced by market driven requirements, approvals, land cost, construction costs which includes the additional requirements of BASIX (Building Sustainability Index), all of which keeps the focus on smaller units as one solution.

“We believe that it is one answer to housing affordability, and that people will accept smaller apartments, but not if this delivers poor quality or amenity, there must be a balance of quality design, materials and construction.

“ It is all about lifestyle not building in isolation. And quality then also extends to the quality of the location, the relationship between residents, facilities and the wider community and a balance between return and cost.”

When looking at approval times over the past 15 years the entire DA process has become more complex, with almost every application taking longer to process. The entire area of risk and the flow on impact to finance cost cannot be over-stated, and banks are becoming more cautious as a result. Finance is made harder to access because not only are loan conditions impacted, but also over the course of several years market conditions may shift.

The combination of all of these concerns can see projects never starting impacting supply and also affordability. More risk and long approval delays can then only serve to push up prices.

Greater environmental awareness

“ Generally I feel that green initiatives are not yet valued when people buy an apartment, and when you are designing a building that might have 100 apartments, you are always going to get a wide cross section of views and everyone will live a different lifestyle.”

Architects like Mijollo, the client, builders and councils have no ability to control how the residents live in a building. And while councils have for more than 10 years taken a lead in this area there are limitations and there is a need to understand that a project has to have market appeal to an average profile of buyers.

At a very basic level, recycling is working well, but when it comes to other household functions like for example drying the washing on the balcony, the question of visual pollution, which can have a very real impact, has to be taken into account. And so what at first appears to be a very simple ‘green’ idea has limitations.

Because as Matthew Cumming highlighted its not only drying space that is need, but you also need sun-light and sunny positions are sometimes very visible spaces and not even spread across a building.

However, as both Milton and Matthew agreed the biggest design frustration is that ‘green buildings’ can be designed and built, but if the residents choose to live in a ‘non-green’ way then nothing can be done, because it is always a personal choice.

An apartment owner with a through design to achieve cross ventilation which may well be seen as a green bonus, but the owner can still close the windows and install air-conditioning.

But this should not deter the aim of gaining extra ground in the delivery of more green buildings its all a matter of education and over time Mijollo believes habits will change.

Planning for more medium density housing

High density living is now a reality, and the trend is only set to grow and rapidly. According to Mijollo in Sydney the state level planning authorities are doing a good job, there is a high-level aim to improve planning and design. But at local council level there is resistance and in many areas this is because of pressure from local residents.

In Sydney many new developments, such as Australia Towers at Sydney Olympic Park, are being encouraged around transport nodes. Is this working?

“ We think that it works best when tied to transport and services preferably rail, (as heavy use of buses can have a negative impact on the area). Chatswood is a good example where very high residential density has been a success.

“ In other areas the developments are near transport but not near services and local shops, so overall it appears to be working, but people living in these areas are best to judge.”

Strata Title review

After the planners have done their job and long after a project is sold the residents are on a daily basis living within the boundaries and regulations of Strata Title legislation, which in NSW is now subject of a major review.

This review is according to Milton and Matthew important because more people than ever are now living closer together and different lifestyles and the use of common space may create the potential for conflict. An aim of the review might well be clarity in the design solutions of private, common and public space to reduce any conflict.

Strata Laws need to be ‘designed’ to match the modern reality of higher density living and many of the points being discussed here do pin point the need for up-to-date legislation in a fast moving world.

Beyond the inner city

Across many areas of most Australian capital cities there are expanding areas of development, some is high-density and other more traditional Greenfield projects and in every case service delivery is a key challenge.

“ Like everyone we see the big challenge, across the board as infrastructure. Provided at the right time, it’s the backbone that needs to be there and in most areas its not there.”

Design trends

Now our conversation turns to series of pointers dealing with design, and this is where Milton and Matthew see the most change taking place and an area where architects can start to influence the challenge of housing affordability.

Efficiency in the design and the planning of a project can if clearly aimed at the end buyer improve affordability by providing what the target wants, what the target can afford.

“Ecological living is one key area that is becoming a market leader, it is good to see how good design can play a role in protecting the environment and it how more and more it is being valued. But this will be a long, long process and firms like Mijollo hope that it’s not a fad.’

Do people value good design?

“ There will always be a debate about what is good design. But generally most owners in a project would value design. Sometimes design can be seen as the selection of fashionable materials, divorced from the practicalities of fitness for purpose.

“It’s always worth keeping in mind that good design is not only what can be seen. But it extends to building efficiencies, smart planning, technology in building services and in these areas clever design can lead to price reductions.”

Design issues like privacy, noise and light pollution are becoming key issues, and while privacy has always been important as more people live closer together it will be more a focus. And while noise and light pollution are each very much project specific they are becoming a concern that design has to address.

Demographic trends, facilities and re-sale

As the population ages, as more singles live alone and as mixed-families become more common development will need to change and as architects these are some of the issues Mijollo consider.

“ Some of the trends are clear, bigger apartments for older occupants, there may also be a need for smaller (more affordable) apartments for singles, in well-established neighbourhoods with lots of social interaction

“ There will also be a need for flexible apartments, with the right to change under the strata plan from a 3-bedromm layout, to a 2-bedroom plus self-contained layout to allow for aging-in-place. Its really going to be a salt and pepper solution with projects offering variety so that there is a cross section of demographics attracted to buy into the project.”

In-house facilities such as pools and a gym are also tied into demographics, but they are also very much cost driven by the scale of development and hence can impact one of the central ideas in this post, affordability.

Common facilities are also very much a desirable social opportunity for many residents and can be a very important part of their daily lifestyles. The costs to provide and then manage a BBQ area, or some garden space, even a doggy garden are not high, but with few people the cost of a pool and gym could be excessive, while a less expensive garden is still a place for social interaction.

“ If a client plans to build say 200 apartments, its possible to justify the cost of varied community facilities like a pool, concierge, cinema room but for 20 apartments its not generally feasible, and the impact on strata levies has to be considered. In some other examples it may be far better to have access to commercially run facilities where staffing and on-going maintenance is not a body corporate responsibility.

“ The key planning task is to match facilities to the demographic but to also consider how residents might socialise in or near the project.”

Sooner or later in the life of every building the owners will have to sell and re-sale options are generally limited because it is not possible to alter the space. There can also be limitations on how a building or individual apartments might be renovated, after the launch of a project these are factors that subsequent owners may have to face.

“ One of the limitations we face is that for multi-unit projects we need to plan and design for average-profiles. This does not lead to flexibility, but there is some room to move by having open plan living and some dual-key apartments but these will need to fit the lifestyle and investment needs of the market.

“When we think about renovations, we have not seen any dedicated service lifts in modern buildings. But in the past service entrances were common and very useful. In any major building where renovations are concerned its something to consider but these days it normally comes down to a management issue, but generally apartment renovations have less impact than a retail or commercial renovation.”

How would you like to see design further evolve?

Shifting the conversation with Milton and Matthew somewhat we now turn to where there may be gaps and opportunities to evolve the design of medium and high density projects.

“ One reality is that the market is becoming risk adverse and more conservative. And while state authorities are keen to show a lead with design and planning, and while there will always be exceptional projects, if we taken a general thread of activity, then there is a common fondness shared by clients, banks, local councils and community groups to play is safe.”

There is, as has already been highlighted, greater environmental awareness that continues to evolve. Other aspects of design will continue to be mainly driven by each developer and we, like everyone in the industry all contribute to the betterment of design and will continue to do so.

There is acceptance that good design (conceding that this is always hard to define) can usually help sell a project and in a democratic system with a free market, it is the end buyer will continue to put a value on design.

However as a firm of architects Milton and Matthew feel reassured that they can vote ‘A’ for effort across the market. Accepting that many projects are speculative, and as a result there will always be risk in how a project is received by the market, but the general direction is positive and despite the risk better design and innovation is alive.

If improvement is to continue to be made across the entire spectrum of development then at times there needs to be some far-reaching progress and not simply superficial change to capitalise upon a particular trend. There needs to be an ongoing government mandate to address that the long planning delays and the flow-on costs need to be fixed. Fast.

At the upper level of planning there is good progress and sound practice, but at the local level many authorities are lagging.

However it is a very difficult area and it is not productive to simply generalise. The market is very diverse and ranges from project homes on new estates, and then we have budget speculative private apartment market, the premium end of the market and public housing.

“ We are dealing with an enormous number of projects, residents, developers, financiers and councils with activity that is spread over a large area and all have self interests to balance against community expectations.

“However the fact that there will be much more medium density development coming our way it is a reality that needs, debate, planning, good design and leadership from us all.”