Friday, 18 November 2011

Review of SEPP65: Design Quality in Residential Apartments

In 2002, the State of New South Wales in Australia introduced regulations intended to improve the design quality of multi-residential architecture. Known as State Environmental Planning Policy No. 65 (SEPP65), its major instrument in achieving its purpose has been a model code called the Residential Flat Design Code. A performance-based code, well structured around issues ranging from regional and local urban design to detailed considerations of building performance and amenity, it has been a significant influence on the residential architecture of Sydney.  An excellent and instructive document, it is well worth downloading by anyone interested in multiresidential dwelling design.

But the experience of working to the code has also been frustrating for many developers and architects. Those frustrations arise mainly from the way it is treated by planning staff of the local authorities who are vested with the powers of approving developments. Untrained in building design, these professional officers tend to look for simple rules, and have generally come to treat the rules of thumb incorporated in the model code as if they were mandated development standards.

A review of the Residential Flat Design Code has been overdue for some time, and is now underway. A comprehensive discussion paper can be downloaded on the NSW Department of Planning and Infrastructure website at

It is tempting to assume that negative experiences with the implementation of the code will be relatively easy to fix. Personally, I have significant doubts. The best thing about SEPP65 is that it lays emphasis on merit-based evaluation of development applications, and accordingly the code is scrupulously performance based. To interpret and apply performance-based criteria, and to make good merit-based determinations requires appropriate training and professional expertise. It also requires trust between the applicant and the determining authority, that they are collaborating in producing meritorious outcomes. This approach does conflict with the more usual expectations of certainty in the development environment and the approval frameworks. In seeking the latter, we are likely to lose the former.

Let's hope I'm wrong. The bathwater may be dirty, but I don't want to throw out the baby.

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