Twelve months ago, the Victorian government released a document that was intended to enforce higher standards for apartment buildings in the state. ‘Better Apartments Design Standards’ sets out rules and quality regulations that developers must adhere to. They are designed to ensure better outcomes not only for the end user, but for the communities that are impacted by such developments.
Twenty-nine years before these standards were released, Neometro was founded with similar goals in mind. The Melbourne-based development company was well ahead of its time, advocating for a more holistic and sustainable approach to apartment buildings before sustainability became a buzz word. It was an approach in which developers placed social conscience above easy money, and ecological principles over quick solutions.
For many developers – and end users – the Victorian government’s new apartment design standards were necessary to ensure adherence to the basic ethical principles of building. But for what is becoming known as the “new breed” of ethical developers, these standards just reinforced what they already knew: that it is perfectly possible to achieve sustainable and community-minded outcomes without watering down the design or emerging penniless at the other end.
In the lead-up to his talk on ‘High density happiness: Apartment standards twelve months on’ at MPavilion this year, Architecture & Design sat down with the director of the “granddaddy of the new breed of Melbourne property developers”, Neometro’s Jeff Provan.
Are expectations for developments getting higher? Is the industry evolving for the better? And why are we just talking about Melbourne? According to Provan, the industry is slowly but surely moving in the right direction.
Neometro has been around for over 30 years, yet it’s being hailed as part of a “new breed of Melbourne property developers”. When the company first started, what kinds of goals were in mind?
The goal was to provide integrated design and construction for residential projects — integrated in terms of architecture, interiors, landscape, and, more recently, around the sustainability and socially minded parameters to projects. Our philosophy hasn’t changed at all, we’ve just become more diligent and procedural about trying to get these outcomes. We’ve also now got 30 years of knowledge and statistics and foresight into what an apartment or a townhouse should look like, in terms of outcomes for the end user, and in terms of what it should be like to live in it.
Have these values and ambitions evolved over the years?
We’ve been able to be a bit more socially involved, in terms of what a community requires. The core fundamentals and DNA of Neometro haven’t changed, we’ve just become better at it. The core values have been at the forefront of our company for 30 years, and it’s still very much part of our philosophy, our business plan and our future. Those values are what we strive to bring to our projects.
What is a Neometro project? How is it different from other developments going up around Melbourne?
I think the development scene in Melbourne is changing — I wouldn’t say “rapidly”, but we’re seeing a number of other smaller developments and developers really understanding what an apartment is, and the need for a community that goes beyond the parameters of architecture and interiors. There’s a lot more you need to bring to a building — for instance, how it’s going to sustain itself, how it’s going to fit into the community, how the community is going to use it, and what the social outcomes of a building are.
More architects also have a lot more social conscience about what developers should be doing, and this pressure is also coming from the general public. They have higher expectations. This has probably been happening for a while in Europe, where apartment living has for a long time been a way of life, but that’s just starting to develop in Melbourne, and in Australia more broadly. It’s really what the future requires for development in this country. We’re now looking at issues like affordability, at retaining and leasing, and at the sustainability and longevity of a project. We’re drilling down into a lot more of the requirements of the end user.
Could you talk us through one of your recent projects, as an example?
One of the more recent ones we’ve done at Nine Smith Street is a mixed-use development, and has retail and hospitality premises to Smith St at the street level. It also has some small offices and studios. The residential offering is divided into two buildings. What we’ve tried to do there is maximise the amenity for end users with lighting from both sides, and cross-ventilation throughout. Residents don’t just have a front, they have a front and a rear, and there are courtyards at the back of the development.
For us it’s always about pursuing the best outcome for the end users. When you move into an apartment, there’s a perception you have to take back a bit of amenity, but that doesn’t need to be the case. It might be a cut-back in size, but it can still be amenable and calming and peaceful, and Nine Smith St is very much along those lines. The interiors are well thought out; they provide an environment that people can add to, but they’ve got really good bones, and the materials are designed to wear in rather than wear out — timber floors and stainless steel bench tops and concrete ceilings. It’s a really passive palette of materials that will last and contribute to the liveability of the project.
Do you think there’s been more of a push for ethically minded projects in recent years?
Definitely. The public is much more aware of what’s now available, and there are a number of developers around Melbourne now — whether the Nightingale projects or Milieu or Small Giants [Developments] — that are really learning all about this. These developers are coming to a market where expectations are much higher for the end user. This is from an aesthetic point of view as well as from a sustainability point of view, and from the point of view of amenities.
Developers often get a bad reputation for pursuing profit at the expense of quality, and particularly in the current boom climate. How can you reconcile the basic business need of profit generation with sustainable and ethical practice?
I think you’re right, that the reputation is not great, and that’s because a lot of developers have — and really in the boom time — have maybe spent too much on their site acquisition by supply and demand, and this has meant cut-backs for the project design. That’s not really a practice that we want to work to. Of course we all have to go through some value management along the way, but we don’t want to see the design watered down in the process.
There’s a real concern for the purchaser between what is marketing and what is the end product, and sometimes it can be a case of smoke and mirrors. That’s not the case with a lot of developers, but it also tends to be an industry that attracts people who aren’t really developers; who are coming into it perhaps part-time, thinking they can make a bit of money. They’re doing one-off projects, or one every now and then, and they don’t necessarily understand all of the intricacies of an apartment project, or have the experience to understand what it needs to be like to live there. They’re relying on consultants to advise this rather than being driven by their own experiences.
Do you think this model is necessarily specific to Melbourne, or should more cities around Australia be taking up this development approach?
I talk about Melbourne a lot because that’s where we’re based, but I think our core values are something that have perhaps influenced a number of other developers, whether local or interstate. I like to think they’ve used us as perhaps a bit of a benchmark to pitch themselves against, and we welcome that, because high-quality apartments are the best outcome for the community. It’s not about protecting intellectual property, it’s about sharing that knowledge within the industry to provide better apartments. Our core values are pretty simple, so it just takes someone to believe in and understand that. But I think it could — or should — definitely be rolled out interstate. I know Small Giants [Developments] is moving into Hobart [with The Commons project, which originated in Melbourne], which will be good for Hobart, and I know a number of other small developers from Melbourne are beginning to move into Adelaide. Ultimately, it’s about better apartments, and this can be rolled out anywhere.