High-density without high stress

Saturday 21 Aug 2010

Good design can prevent trivial disputes, writes Kelsey Munro.

It might be the sound of the giant plasma television your neighbour has installed on a common wall or the red Toyota that steals your carspace. Perhaps it's the clatter of high heels on the hardwood floor above. They are all little irritants that can, over time, make high-density living unbearable. Yet closer living is Sydney's future, and today's trivial disputes could be tomorrow's widespread social problem, new research warns.

''The government is focusing on urban consolidation but if that's going to be successful then quality of life and residential satisfaction in high-density properties needs to be taken seriously. It's a huge issue - it's about the future of Sydney,'' said the study's lead author, Hazel Easthope.

At present, one in four Sydney residents lives in apartments or townhouses. But under the state government's Metropolitan Strategy, hundreds of thousands of new dwellings must be built for an extra 1.3 million people by 2026.

So far, the debate has focused on where to build apartments and how high developers can go, Dr Easthope said. But her report, Living Well in Greater Density, looks at how to make high-density living work for residents. One thing is clear: better building standards, proper soundproofing and smarter design will be crucial.

Apartments have been seen as a stepping stone on the way to living in a detached house. "But with the sort of growth the Metropolitan Strategy is talking about, that's not necessarily an option,'' said Mary Perkins, from Shelter NSW, who commissioned the study. ''Development must be planned that incorporates some sense of it being someone's [long-term] home and what design attributes would help make it that."

The problems were not just about neighbours not getting along, but related to the design of buildings and quality of construction, said Dr Easthope, who is from the University of NSW City Futures Research Centre.

In the literature review and roundtable discussions conducted by the researchers, noise complaints were a key issue.

''Private-sector residents were talking about buildings where the wall only went up as far as the cornice, so every conversation you have is overheard by your neighbour,'' Ms Perkins said.

Crucial design elements needed to be addressed from the construction stage, including soundproofing, layouts ensuring balconies did not face on to neighbours' bedrooms and the provision of adequate storage.

Noise issues could also be improved by community initiatives and education, Dr Easthope said. Some high-rises have had success with creating online communities for residents, with Facebook-style profiles and messaging facilities to connect people with their neighbours.

The report also found a widespread assumption within government and the property development industry that apartments were for childless couples or singles; but this was increasingly not the case, and building design needed to be adapted for families.

Jacqui Swinburne lives in a two-bedroom apartment in a low-rise development in Waterloo with her partner Nick Connelly, their two sons, Taj, 4, and Toby, 2, and their pet cat. Ms Swinburne, who grew up in Paddington, says despite a lack of space for drying the mountain of washing that comes with children, high-density living with little ones can work well.

Crucial to it are having some private outdoor space, buildings which allow pets, good design, privacy and neighbours who are considerate, she said.

''I have friends who've grown up further out who have this idea that when you've got kids you need more space - which would be good -but we have no problem with it, we really enjoy living here,'' she said.

''I can walk to childcare and the local school, and then walk to work. I wouldn't let the kids roam in the common area because it's a big block and I don't know everybody. But we have a little courtyard, it's not huge but it means the kids can have different activities.''

Ms Swinburne is on the strata committee which has run a communal Christmas barbecue and puts out a newsletter to keep residents in touch.

Taj and Toby have the big bedroom and their parents the smaller one, but they are not sure what they will do when the children get older.

''My four-year-old sometimes says we could just buy a bigger place. I explain to him we'd have to move further out of the city and then he decides he wants to stay here,'' she said.

- Kelsey Munro