We’ve discussed lots of solutions to the housing crisis recently. Different typologies: duplexes, townhouses, small (4 storey) and larger (8 storey) apartments (ToT 167). Ideas for the ‘missing middle’: 6 bedrooms, 6 packs and 6 storeys (ToT 210). And we explored the sustainability of apartments (Tot 213). But what’s the best?

Long time readers will know my love for older low scale walk-up flats (WUF). They are the precedent. Today, I ask you to look past the stark outline, the textured red and orange brickwork and the wiggly wrought iron to see the inherent possibilities. To see in these reviled forms the most appropriate typology for the triple bottom line: modest in scale and costs, socially progressive and highly sustainable.


Let’s try a design. Take a quarter acre site; 1000 sqm (single site in the middle suburbs, or two sites at 500 the outer). 10 off 2 Bed apartments of about 70 sqm each. Ground floor has two accessible apartments, a foyer, main stairs and 8-10 under cover cars. 4 apartments on the second and third floors, central liftwell, modest foyer spaces. 25 people at average occupation. All corner apartments that promote light (and often sun). Located on or near a main transport route to support local and walkable services.


The apartments are less than one third the average Australian dwelling. Smaller dwellings cost less to build, operate and maintain. Modest, simple but efficient plans for affordability, (abolish codes that set minimum room and apartment sizes, derived from our obsession with size).


Apartments driveway and hard surfaces are less than 50% of the site, and NO basement (except water tanks) – leaving 500 sqm for deep soil , landscape, food plants and trees. Allows both private space for ground floor units, and communal ‘backyard’ garden area / open space. The more expensive rooftop gardens are still possible.

Accessibility / Livability

20% of apartments (ground floor) are accessible (forget adaptable - that never happens), for the elderly or infirm. All apartments would be minimum silver livability – wider doors, better circulation. With a mix of plans to suit a variety of needs.


Each unit takes the equivalent of 100 sqm of site area, a gross density of 100 dwellings per hectare (dw/Ha). That’s 60 dw/Ha net allowing for roads and parks, which is as good or better than the ’Goldilocks’ density for sustainability - not too cold at 10 dw/Ha for detached homes; not too hot for high rise over 150 dw/Ha. Proximity to services (education, health, shopping and so on) will reduce car dependence.


10 units makes a ‘just right’ group, a manageable strata; a community within the community: know your neighbours, look in and care for them, share resources; not overwhelmed by innumerable people around you. The key social indicator is to belong, be supported and be supportive.


Three levels and 10m tall doesn’t need a lift, encouraging fitness on the stairs. And doesn’t need sprinklers, a pump room and a Meccano set at the front. Being 12m from the neighbours allows sun and light to all. Faster and cheaper per square metre to build than 4+ storeys, and less disruptive in amenity to the neighbourhood when built.


Exposed balconies are expensive, poorly used, ersatz outdoors, not needed on all units. Here they are better as a closed-in fully-glazed sunrooms in winter, and then opened up as a verandas in summer. Less balconies can benefit better landscapes.


Limiting space hungry on-site vehicles is important: 10 cars are possible, but better to reduce the numbers according to proximity to public transport; by adopting car share on, or nearby, the property, and promoting bicycles. Often parking areas are used for storage, not cars.


Designed to meet the 3Ls: long life, loose fit and low impact. Current marketplace says traditional ways of brick, block or concrete walls and concrete floors, are more cost effective. But reverse construction with lightweight high-performance cladding. Or prefab units using CLT floors and walls. Low pitched lightweight roof to minimise overshadowing. Solid construction has good acoustic qualities; provides good thermal mass and comfort with better insulation.


Apartments designed for maximum thermal comfort / minimal energy use: ‘outsulation’, high thermal mass, natural light and ventilation with every apartment on a corner having two outside walls – as does the small open central circulation area. Single AC to each unit, powered by roof mounted PV panels.

Without internal corridors, basements, lifts, mechanical exhausts, excessive carparking, it has a low energy demand.

In conclusion

There is much to learn from the ugly duckling (even if we can’t love them). Interpretation not imitation. We can improve these much-maligned buildings for another eighty or more years, and there are key lessons for the new buildings in the next century.

Title image: 1970s 3-storey apartments in Randwick NSW. Image TW

This is Tone on Tuesday #217, 02 July 2024. Next week: why the 3 storey walk up is the best housing solution, and why all the rules and regulations are stacked against it.

Researched and written by Tone Wheeler, architect / Adjunct Prof UNSW / President AAA. The views expressed are his. Past Tone on Tuesday columns can be found here. You can contact TW at [email protected].