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Apartment Design Fundamentals

Higher density living is an alternative housing solution that is on the rise. In the last three years, there has been a significant increase in construction in Sydney and Melbourne. More recently, Brisbane has followed with a flurry of activity in the high-rise multi residential market.  The Gold Coast, along with other regional areas, are showing early signs of an increase in the construction of apartment buildings.  While an upturn in the development cycle can be partly attributed to this phenomena, the reality is that the Australian housing market is undergoing a noticeable and substantial shift in residential preference.  We are becoming urban dwellers and accepting high and medium density living options.    Construction statistics confirm the change. Ibis World Business Research states that the value of construction work performed on multi unit dwellings as a proportion of total construction cost in the housing industry has increased from 32.1% in 2010-11to 40.5% in 2015-16.  The ubiquitous backyard and hills hoist are under threat.

The readjustment of our dwelling options introduces a range of new challenges, including questioning whether our apartment designs are providing for our climatic, lifestyle, and cultural needs.   Six years ago I sold my lawn mower, and my house, and along with the kids, moved into an apartment.  While we have had many positive experiences with apartment living remaining as a dwelling option,  my direct experience confirms that the evolution of apartment design has failed to capture our needs in subtropical Queensland.

Some key observations emerging from numerous interviews with a range of apartment dwellers in South East Queensland and Northern NSW have led to my identification of 10 key issues in apartment buildings.  The top three are described in detail.  The remaining criteria will be discussed in detail in future blogs.

  1. Daylight

  2. Natural Ventilation

  3. Functional living arrangements to suit our climate, culture and lifestyle

  4. Storage

  5. Noise

  6. Green Space

  7. Body Corporate Structures and Costs

  8. Waste

  9. Community

  10. Carparking


Stepped design profiles and careful detailing will provide additional light to apartment spaces that can otherwise be uncomfortably dark and foreboding.

The nature of apartment development is to locate as many apartments possible within a permissible building envelope.   Space, particularly at the perimeter where light enters is at a premium.  Compromises need to be made.

Light plays an important role in healthy lifestyles and contributes to well being.  Additionally a well lit space feels right, appears larger and clean.  Good apartment design should consider and utilise techniques that maximise light penetration into an apartment building.  This can be done in a numerous ways and beginning with the building planning and continues right through to the detailing of walls and windows.  Careful consideration to the location and height of windows and doors and the use of light shelfs can mean the difference between less than average and excellent light levels dramatically within a small apartment.


Creating open verandah spaces at the rear of apartments allows for natural air flows through apartments in hot weather.

The challenges of site density impacts on natural ventilation opportunities. Apartment planning layouts typically involve living units located back to back;  one north facing and the other south facing.  Corridors, lifts, stairs and services are sandwiched in between.  This type of layout reduces opportunities to open a door or a window and allow a cooling breeze to make its way through an apartment.   Apartments designs lack the ability to naturally ventilate rooms, primarily because designers and builders have not really grasped, or needed to, the importance of natural ventilation in our Queensland climate.

Natural ventilation requires areas of  both high and low pressure.  Air currents move away from high pressure areas towards low pressure areas.  Small openings at each of the high pressure and low pressure ends will provide an airflow, similar to the way water will flow from a high point to a low point.  Air flow can be controlled by the size of the opening.  So with some thought, it’s neither difficult nor expensive to provide a ventilated corridor that then allows air flow through the apartment.   Its just not demanded by apartment dwellers…. yet.  Apartment dwellers, are over time becoming less passive and more informed about the benefits of intelligent design with respect to air flows through living areas.  Indeed I propose that, in the future, computational fluid dynamics, (the science of fluid and airflows), will influence the design of apartments.  Understanding natural air flows through apartment buildings will be an essential component of future apartment design. Influencing building form to further facilitate airflows to specific locations must be come an integral part of the designers thought processes.


Apartment design should accommodate a sub-tropical lifestyle both climatically and for our lifestyle events.  Try coming home from a BBQ in the park and washing out an esky in a laundry made for ants.  Let’s take that a step further and try washing and storing surfboards, fishing rods and camping equipment.  Is it really acceptable that apartment dwellers are required to sacrifice our traditional outdoors Queensland lifestyle?  I think not.  Gold Coast building managers are always complaining about the sand brought in by holiday makers.  Is it really that hard to apply the same thinking that exists in housing design to prevent these same problems in apartment design.  Getting shopping from your car can be a challenge – particularly if you’re in a large building and your car park is 50m from the lift.   Careful consideration and design addressing these issues can be accommodated without significant cost.

Space Space Space!  Every bit of space is at a premium in an apartment and there is never enough storage.  There are few things more frustrating than a clumsy storage cupboard, kitchen pantry or a built in robe that has a few poorly placed shelves that limit any flexibility or use.

It’s a fact of life that the majority of apartments are unlikely to have naturally ventilated apartments.  Ducted exhausts are required and their performance criteria are specified in the National Construction code. Every architect, builder and mechanical engineer knows that these systems are insufficient to really ventilate and refresh a non ventilated space, however they are NCC compliant and therefore installed extensively.  Bathrooms in apartments are often damp and unless you squeegee for 10 minutes after every shower.  Mould is a constant issue.  To make matters worse, untrained tilers are unable to obtain falls in your bathroom so the water  makes it way to a floor drain so that your bathroom floor dries. It’s not difficult and with limited or no expense simple design details can counter these issues.

Apartment design needs to adapt to our climate and  21st Century lifestyles.  We need to dispense middle century concepts based on conditions in the southern states and Europe.  Apartment dwellers and buyers will mature and become more discriminating in their decisions.  They will be aware of the limitations the old style apartments impose on their lifestyles.  New and innovative responses will build and maintain value in all economic cycles.

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