Let the sun shine in

1st November 2003Sydney Morning Herald

Don’t you just love reading about the Sydney property market? One week we are going through a massive lifestyle shift towards apartment living. Next, there is an oversupply and we are building the slums of the future. Whatever the hype, apartments remain a viable option for those buying their first home or anyone keen to live close to the city.  If you fit into either of these categories and you’re in the market for a new apartment, there are some fundamental design features to look for that will make for more comfortable living.

First, rooms that are adequately separated – bedrooms directly off living areas will never be private. Second, look for an apartment that gets plenty of natural light – a north-facing living room is good.  A balcony off the living room is better and can work well year round. In summer, it forms a break from the high-angle sun.  And in winter, with the sun at a low angle, light can still reach into the living area. A balcony also provides good ventilation, with cooling breezes in summer and less need for expensive air-conditioning. Here are some of the styles that architects and developers are adopting to satisfy contemporary apartment dwellers.

Multi-storey Apartments
The past decade has seen the emergence of a new breed of medium-rise blocks that face north and feature two- (or more) storey apartments in which at least one level runs the depth of the building, making it possible for more residents to get more natural light and air through their homes.   These multistorey apartment types, like mini houses, have a living room on one floor and bedrooms on another. This helps create private, separate spaces within the apartment. Voids can also be used cleverly to create double-storey spaces internally, and externally over balconies, with exciting results.  A development of new townhouses in Renwick Street, Redfern, designed by architects Johannsen & Associates did just this.  The compact plan has only one room per floor and extends over a number of levels to provide a range of spaces. So successful was this concept that it won this year’s state architecture award for multi-unit residential, shared with Mondrian Apartments in Waterloo.

Gallery Apartments
Among the new multilevel breed, the most common way of getting light and air into the block is the gallery style. Think ‘The Bill’-style housing estate maisonettes with a makeover. Gallery apartments typically have a depth of only 15 metres. A corridor (gallery) on one side of the building on every second floor provides access to the front door to each apartment from an internal staircase.  The gallery can be open but the new trend is to enclose it and improve the finishes while retaining the benefits of natural light and ventilation.  The marketing brochures may make this design sound new, but this style of apartment was first introduced in 1920s Soviet housing. While spacious, gallery apartments are also ruthlessly efficient in their ratio of nett-to-gross floor area – that’s developer-speak for not having to build too many corridors, stairs and lifts (which cost money to build, but don’t bring a return). Architects love them, too, because slimline buildings look good – after all, you can never be too thin.  Airia Apartments at Victoria Park, designed by Turner & Associates, is a successful example of the style and a host of gallery apartments have recently been built around Green Square.

Crossover Apartments
These apartments crank it up a notch in the quest for a well-ventilated, medium-rise place to call home. They have an access corridor on every third floor in the centre of the building and each unit runs up and over or down and under the corridor. These corridors are generally windowless so they can have the ambience of a cheesy hotel. That aside, the apartments have excellent cross-ventilation and dramatic double-storey spaces.  The most famous example is the Unite d’Habitation by Le Corbusier in Marseilles, site of many an architectural pilgrimage.  He likened his design to that of stacking bottles in a wine rack. Don’t be put off – his statement may have lost something in the translation. Closer to home, Moore Park Gardens in Redfern East designed by Allen Jack + Cottier is a variation on the theme. It is a split-level crossover whereby the access corridor is only half a level above and below the floors it provides access to.

On the outside of some buildings, adjustable louvred screens are appearing. They can control privacy and provide shade, especially from the summer sun. Sliding screens can be moved out of the way when the occupants want to enjoy the view.   Architects love louvres: they help give the buildings an appealing scale and a degree of adaptability. Developers hate them, as they are expensive. There are many examples around town including The Point Apartments at Pyrmont and the Walsh Bay apartments – both of which have to deal with high reflectivity from the water, a bane of waterside living.

The design of common outdoor space is another way to infuse life and light into an apartment development. And it has come a long way from simply laying some turf and shrubbing up the left-over spaces.  These areas now function as communal spaces for recreation and to provide a pleasant outlook. Often, there are central courtyards with landscaping and swimming pools surrounded by buildings. Republic 2 in East Sydney, designed by Burley Katon Halliday and Marchese Partners is one such example.  The courtyard runs over a series of levels that follow the fall of the land.