As Australians move in greater numbers towards more compact city living, design guidelines for high-density buildings will continue to evolve to ensure this trend doesn’t affect the quality of multi-residential buildings.

The New South Wales Government’s  State Environment Planning Policy no. 65 (SEPP 65) was introduced in 2002 to recognise that apartment buildings of a particular size, scale and longevity are a matter of public interest. Its guiding document – The Residential Flat Design Code, has since become the rubric for councils, planners, developers and architects to consider when approving or designing residential buildings above three storeys.

The policy sets standards for basic amenities such as ventilation, natural light and solar access as well as building separation, building depth, unit depth, apartment size and private open space.

Thirteen years on, SEPP65 is considered one of the more successful pieces of NSW planning legislation which has improved multi-residential building standards and amenity. But there have been some small issues with the policy’s implementation across the entirety of NSW.

Inconsistencies between local council standards on things such as mandatory car parking, balcony requirements and the weight of Design Review Panels prompted the state government to reassess the SEPP65 document. A review panel was established and has since released proposed amendments to SEPP65 and the Residential Flat Design Code (renamed 'The Apartment Design Guide’).

“The policy has been around for 13 years, has lifted the bar for multi-residential building design significantly in NSW and has been adopted by the developing industry and certainly the design professions,” said Past President of the Australian Institute of Architects NSW Chapter, Matthew Pullinger.

“But there were certain problems with its implementation that meant it wasn’t being applied universally and there were also aspects of the policy that were unclear and needed clarification.”

Pullinger was on the NSW Department of Planning’s Urban Design Advisory Service which helped develop the SEPP65 policy back in 2002.  He still sees the policy as an integral part of NSW Planning policy and the national yardstick for guiding the design and construction of quality multi-residential buildings.

“SEPP65 is unique in Australia in terms of policy and it established NSW as a leader nationally in recognising that design is a matter of public interest.”

“I’d call the latest amendments a refresh; it’s about taking it and updating it, and maybe stretching it a little further in some areas.”

Port Macquarie architect and Immediate Past President of Building Designers Australia, Ian Bassett was on the latest SEPP65 review committee that advised the NSW Planning committee on suggested changes to the policy. He agrees with Pullinger that the new SEPP amendments are only minor and explains that the most influential changes will come from the document’s wording and clarifications.

“The reality is that the new SEPP isn’t much different from the old one. It just gives it clarity and defines what weight it carries at councils,” he said.


Both Bassett and Pullinger explained that a small shortfall of the original SEPP65 document was its clarity and wording, which meant that it was misunderstood to be code of standards rather than its original intent as design parameters. 

“The Residential Flat Design Code and SEPP65 had a lot of rules of thumb in it that were just guidelines and recommendations,” said Bassett. 

“The problem was that the councils were saying if it doesn’t comply with the rules of thumb of the SEPP then we won’t approve it.”

“Some architects didn’t know that even though the code had a lot of guidelines it also said that if you just demonstrated the intent of what the SEPP was trying to do then it could pass council.”

Pullinger explained an instance where SEPP65 might not have not worked as initially intended:

“The guides are broad, deep and cover a lot of issues. In the case of a balcony guide for example, the SEPP will have a short written description of the objective, which might say that we want residents to have private open space and the ability to live an outdoor lifestyle,” he explained.

“It was then supposed to be up to the architect to prove they have shown this in their design or why they don’t need it.”

“What seems to have happened in the past decades is that guidelines and rules of thumb have been applied as standards inflexibly.”

The rebranding of ‘The Residential Flat Design Code’ to its new name ‘The Apartment Design Guide’ aims to return the document’s focus to its original intent as a comprehensive guide rather than a set of concrete laws.


Design Review Panels

The changes to the Design Review Panel endeavour to make it more functional. They include:

  • Delegation to councils to set up design review panels and amended fees that councils can collect

“In the old SEPP the panels were voluntary on the part of the council but appointed by the Minister which worked, in practice, as a disinterest in establishing them,” explained Pullinger.

“They will still be voluntary on the part of the council, but the council is free to manage and appoint its own council. So we will expect there will be a greater willingness on the part of local councils to take them on and there will be better guidance about how the panels are constituted, managed and run than there was before.”

  • Role clarity, reporting templates and standardised times for feedback to council and architects

“In the new document there is a checklist – a tick the box type thing for your site analysis, which goes through things like aerial photographs, survey plans and street scope elevation,”  Bassett explained.

“There are templates there for the Design Review Panel to maintain a consistent matter of reporting, so when they make comments it is done in a standard format that everybody can understand.”

“This is great because quite often you didn’t get your meeting minutes till a month later and your client was jumping up and down, now they have to complete it in 14 days and they have tightened a lot of it up.”

Shop top housing:

The SEPP65 policy will be extended to include mixed used and shop-top housing.

“It’s a great thing. It still has to pass the other two thresholds; it has to be a building of significant scale (three stories or more), and it has to be primarily residential in use,” says Pullinger.

“But when that occurs on top of a shop, which we see more and more of in and around the city, of course it should also be captured by the SEPP. It’s just a matter of clarification.”

Car spaces:

The old SEPP was silent on the topic of carparking and instead every local council would have applied their own minimum or maximum rates. The new SEPP overrides any local council standards and says there need be no minimum amount of car parks if the market doesn’t warrant it.

“There was inconsistency around metropolitan Sydney and some crazy situations where, for whatever reason, a local council would insist on a really high amount of carparking space,” explained Pullinger.

“Two spaces per apartment, plus visitors, plus this, plus that, and it failed to recognise that this adds a significant amount of cost to the building.

“Carparking is the most expensive and least sustainable aspect of buildings; excavated basement carparks, artificially light, artificially ventilated, and the market was saying that I am buying a two bedroom apartment in Surry Hills, near Central Station I don’t want to pay an extra 80,000 for two car spaces.”

“The new SEPP overrides any local council standards and says there need be no minimum standards. If the market can accommodate no car spaces, then a developer doesn’t need to supply them. These should be the minimum not an artificial made up minimum from local councils.”


SEPP65 designers will now have to ensure every new apartment has a balcony and access to well designed and functional shared open space.

“As we translate our lifestyle from the detached single dwelling to smaller more compact apartments we still have a need for balconies and private outdoor space,” said Pullinger.

“That space should be a properly configured, properly proportioned balcony that you can actually live an outdoor life on, and not some sorry little strip that you sometimes see in bad apartment blocks.”

“Designers will have to comply with these guidelines or, if they are not needed, prove why not or state the case for their alternative.”


The proposed guidelines are open for public comment until 27 October 2014. To view the document click on the PDF document below or visit NSW Planning and Environment website here: