Last week’s Tone on Tuesday sketched out a prototype three-storey walk-up block of flats, based on the common building type in use from the 20s to the 70s.

The scheme is three storeys, 10 apartments of two bedrooms in 70 sqm, one car space maximum each, communal laundry and 50% site area in landscape and deep soil.

This week we examine why this typology has the highest triple bottom line credentials: the most socially and environmentally sustainable housing at the lowest cost. Let’s look at the key design considerations to see how they stack up to make the building type best affordable.


E.F. Schumacher’s dictum that ‘small is beautiful’ applies across the whole building: apartment area, height, excavation (nil), cars, strata size, and so on. Less is more affordable.

Three storeys

There is a big difference between three and four storeys. Four storeys requires lifts, fire isolated stairs, sprinklers and hydrants, possibly pump rooms. Three storeys needs none of that – if designed well and the common stairs are open to an external area. All of which reduces complexities, extra trades and costs. One storey makes a big difference. And fitness is improved by climbing the stairs.

Apartment area

Not only do we have the largest houses in the world, but thanks to the NSW ADG we now have mandated the largest apartments in the world. In comparison to Europe and Scandinavia, our codes overestimate the amount of space needed to live well in an apartment.

The minimum sizes are excessive, you can’t legally build a 2 bed apartment of 70 sqm (in the prototype), and you can’t build a 30 sqm apartment at all. Shaving 10 sqm off the standards will save money, but with good planning can deliver an equal level of amenity.


There is no need for balconies when the building has adequate open space at the ground level – in nearby parks, on site, (or less desirably, on the roof).  Balconies have a high cost per sqm, in return for usage. Waterproofing failure and water ingress the number one cause of building defects. Clothes drying, bicycles and storage can be handled elsewhere, and preferably communally.


Eliminate basements, especially where wholly underground. They're hard to waterproof, interfere with groundwater systems, demand mechanical ventilation and require large areas of access circulation. Costly, ugly and environmentally disastrous. Avoid like the plague.


Ground level access to communal open space is desirable, particularly for trees, and fruit and vegetable plantings. The landscape should include large areas of deep soil to feed the aquifers. Roof gardens should be a last resort in small projects and only when insufficient ground is available. They area expensive to waterproof and maintain, and have limited uses where the preferable ground level or public open space is available.

Car parking

One car per unit is the maximum. Better to encourage car share (on site), ride on demand or public transport. Less cars = less cost and more ground level space for landscape and amenity. In some cases, hard surfaced car parks can provide outdoor play areas. Parking in the streets is not an alternative option. Costly road surfaces should be used for traffic, or games or communal garden space or other activities, but not for stationary cars.

Adaptable units

We know of no adaptable unit that's ever been adapted for use by the aged or infirm. Units should either be fully accessible from the beginning, or designed to at least the silver level of livability.

Thermal design

The NSW ADG is overly obsessed with orientation, but then again Victoria’s laissez-faire regs have brought about some dim apartments. A mandatory code that requires sun access up to one month either side of the solstice would be more flexible and increase orientation possibilities by 20%. And forget cross ventilation. Maximum air cooling is needed when there is no breeze, and no X-vent. Use ceiling fans everywhere.


Simple plans, with low scale and straightforward forms lend themselves to be assembled in prefab construction. Ground floors should be made in concrete structures for the larger spans (car parking) and then prefab units, either VOLA or KOPA can be installed over. A better standard of construction at a potential lower cost.


10 units can be a self-managed strata and low scale buildings are easier to look after, given there are less onerous maintenance issues (no lifts, mechanical fans, waterproofing etc). Strata issues have become increasingly difficult in large scale buildings and now form one of the major complaints to administrative bodies.

Small is beautiful in every sense.

Title image: 1940s 3-storey apartments in Ramsgate Ave Bondi. Image TW.

Next week: Summer in Europe: A tour of ten top modernist monuments.

This is Tone on Tuesday #219, 09 July 2024. 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].