Hamish McDonald (HM): What do you make of the NSW State Government’s plan to override council planning regulations to achieve more dense housing in the inner ring of Sydney suburbs?

Philip Thalis (PT): It’s certainly encouraging that the NSW Government is trying to mandate a four to six storey urban scale, which has been the fantastic mid-scale you find in so many of the great cities around the world. This is the scale that’s been so hard to get through local councils across metropolitan Sydney. However, the government needs to better align the floor space (too high), landscaped area (missing), setbacks (will have to be nil) relative to the heights proposed; if done well it could bring a positive urban character as well as density to well-located areas. We do a lot of work at this scale, yet over the last 18 months we’ve had 6 court cases for largely compliant two, three, four and five storey schemes - 5/6 to date since approved. This is the battleground scale for Sydney. By comparison, high density towers are often slipstreamed through the state government’s assisted approval processes. If you want to achieve middle densities in NSW, it is hand-to-hand combat with local councils and their planners for each DA.

HM: What’s the remedy for this?

PT: A glaring problem is that many councils haven’t updated their controls in decades. In areas like Randwick, which is a big council, heights are still calibrated to the old three-storey walk-up flats, with a meagre 0.9:1 floor-space ratio. This isn’t just a Randwick problem, as many other Councils haven’t adjusted their FSR's or floor-to-floor heights either. It's as if they still expect 2.4 metre ceiling heights with 150mm slabs: you can’t do either anymore. For the last 20 years State Environmental Planning Policy (SEPP) 65 (now incorporated into the Housing SEPP) has mandated 2.7 metre ceilings; the building code requires a minimum 200mm thick slab due to structure, fire-rating and acoustic separation. BASIX requires thicker insulated roofs. Council planners seem blissfully unaware of such building rules. All these positive improvements in building performance have not been reflected in Council’s planning standards. This is a chronic problem across NSW, which leads to minor variations being amplified as major non-compliances.

HM: Can’t Councils do more to update their controls?

PT: Certainly - this should be essential micro economic reform! It would remove so many disputes about appropriate heights and densities.

We’ve recently undertaken an important piece of work for the City of Sydney (with Olsson Architecture), commended at this month’s Australian Urban Design Awards. We analysed 30 existing buildings in inner Sydney, including many award-winning buildings and published apartment buildings. Then we tested potential schemes across dozens of difficult sites across the city area, sites with awkward geometries and constraints, not just standard lots. Working with City's expert team, we tested to see whether the controls were viable, across a four to seven storey scale - the very size state government is proposing. The City of Sydney wanted confirmation that these areas in transition could still achieve the floor space ratios, meet landscaped areas, be compliant on solar performance and overshadowing, meet privacy and building separation requirements. Such essential testing needs to be done across swathes of well-located parts of our cities. It would point us to sensible, sustainable urbanism for Sydney, for Newcastle, Wollongong, and regional centres as well.

HM: Could this lead to some sort of conference of council planners with the state government?

PT: The Minns Government and Paul Scully the planning minister are trying to drive change, as state governments must. Councils commonly believe they must resist such change, but we would all benefit from a more co-operative way forward. Instead of the blanket, one-size-fits-all approach put forward to date, more nuanced, place-specific approaches could readily deliver the higher densities being sought. Sydney architects Peter McGregor and Angelo Korsanos have done extensive research and spatial testing on parts of the Inner West and midrise apartment types. We have an acute affordability crisis; we urgently need to embrace well-founded increases in densities, instead of rolling on with more car-dependent sprawl.

HM: Would that approach lead to more affordable housing, or just a lot more luxury apartments?

PT: That’s certainly a risk. The inflated YIMBY/NIMBY polarity being played out in the press misses such realities. We genuinely need to be promoting affordability as a priority when increasing densities through mechanisms such as inclusionary zoning, that effectively tax the uplift rather than gifting windfall profits to existing landowners. In the privileged suburbs up and down the coast – the Northern Beaches, certainly the Eastern Suburbs, Cronulla, all around the harbour – older, smaller, more affordable buildings are being knocked down for opulent, super-sized apartments. It’s undermining existing affordability and decreasing the social diversity in those areas. Compare this to the City of Paris, that has increased their various tiers of public and affordable housing from a ratio of about 13 percent in the late 1990's, to now 25 percent across central Paris. London Councils are mandating 20 to 40 percent affordable housing in redevelopments. The affordable housing percentages proposed here are way too low - just 2 percent in the NSW Government current proposals. Most urgently, we need a renaissance in the construction of public housing in Australia. Compared to comparable world cites, why is making housing fairer and more inclusive so difficult in Australia?

HM: Councils cite the extra services they’ll have to provide, the additional parks, libraries, and the like.

PT: Quite rightly Councils raise this to try to leverage more government funding, because you do need to invest more in social services and public space whenever you increase densities. You also need to update the reticulation of water, sewerage, electrical and telecommunications infrastructures. Our problem is we sprawl too far, so we must endlessly extend runs of streets and services. Instead let's make more compact cities. We shouldn’t be building new estates across western Sydney and beyond. We need to better use the resources of our existing streets, green them with abundant shade, water management and biodiversity, giving priority to landscape strategies over ugly and wasteful traffic engineering and services 'standards'.

HM: They might be affordable but in suburbs like Randwick every street has examples of 1960s, 1970s low-rise apartments that look terrible and not a great advertisement for medium-density housing. Why can’t we set better aesthetic standards?

PT: Unusually for an architect of my generation, I grew up in such walk-up blocks. We lived in a three-storey red textured brick flat building, three boys in one hundred square metres. Even as a 10-year-old I thought we could do better! Walk-up flats resulted from the absolutely minimal controls (unit to site area ratios, rigid setbacks, car parking), which dated back to the 1950's County of Cumberland Plan and which seem to have been translated into Randwick’s first Local Environmental Plan (LEP) post 1979. They have barely evolved since. Having said that, the three-storey walk-ups throughout Sydney's middle-ring suburbs have become the more affordable housing options available. It’s important to make a distinction between the ‘aesthetics’ and the ‘type’.  Aesthetics can always be reconsidered, windows can always been upgraded, shading can be added. What can’t be changed is the arrangement of the apartments to the common areas and lot boundaries - the essence of the site plan that architects define as ‘type’. That is much harder to change and needs to be right – or the building will be deficient for the lives of all future occupants. So planning controls should focus on arrangement and performance. The less that Planning has to say about the aesthetics of buildings the better. Planners lack training in design or aesthetics – but too often feel emboldened to impose their own personal predilections - perhaps described as 'suburban picturesque' - on the architecture in a completely inappropriate manner.

HM: What needs to replace those outdated codes?

PT: Today we need much more intelligent urban models. Instead of the ongoing accumulation of ever more stringent and unrelated rules, we need a rethink from first principles. We need to design the city before we 'plan' it. We need to begin at the scale of the precinct, and then each city block, instead of fighting over one site at a time, or colouring whole neighbourhoods indiscriminately in planning maps.

Our priorities must be to make better-designed, more affordable, more sustainable midrise apartment building types. These types need to have the highest design standards possible They need to love their streets and provide generous landscaped areas that contribute to urban shade, a shared green outlook and biodiversity.  

Planners and construction regulators must talk to each other. They need to get out of their silos. As architects we are sandwiched; starting from the site conditions, into the morass of planning rules, through the fine print and desiccated diagrams of multiple development control plans, then jumping to the minutiae of Australian Standards and myriad alternate solutions in construction codes. Throughout we attempt to balance the totality of it, yet this is becoming increasingly difficult. For instance, planners rightly ask for active frontages: yet look at all the technical services we need to incorporate; substations, fire boosters, meters galore, fire indicator panels, loading and driveway widths and their sightlines, ramps and handrail extensions – each with their stack of inflexible rules, claiming the frontage and diminishing the street presentation of so many apartment buildings. The rules need to be reconsidered and understood as a workable holistic framework.

HM: When a Sydneysider goes to Melbourne, you’re amazed at how regular the layout is, how easy it is to navigate around, and I guess the sites for housing are also more standard.

PT: Out of curiosity, we are also doing some analysis of this. Melbourne has this dominant street grid, oriented just east of north. However similar grids cover perhaps 40 percent of Sydney’s urban area, turned between five and 15 degrees east of north - ideal for solar orientation. This seems to have resulted from edicts dating back to the colonial era. So, the Sydney suburb of Coogee for instance, first laid out in 1836, is based on that geometry, the streets memorably draped over a strong topography. Such grids exist right across western Sydney as well, skipping over the hills and floodplains. But then other Sydney streets follow Aboriginal tracks, some deform to train lines, many were laid out for the tram, some follow sewage pipelines. I love reading the spatial and temporal complexities of the city woven into its structure, its places, its patterns, its exceptions. Each city has its own DNA.  It’s wonderful that its housing responds to that specificity.