The social separation inherant in ResCode

A classic response to Standard B22 — screening windows to prevent overlooking resulting in a habitable room without a clear view outside = terrible amenity.

ResCode are the planning guidelines used here in Victoria for two or more dwellings on a site. Otherwise known as Clause 55 of the planning scheme, it was brought in 2001 to replace the Good Design Guide, and outlines a number of objectives and associated standards to achieve the objectives. Issues such as siting/massing, amenity impacts, neighbourhood character and detailed design are some of the areas these guidelines target.

The underlying themes that run through ResCode, and indeed the planning process here, have little to do with social sustainability. Rather, it reinforces the entitlements of privacy as a right, protectionist strategies should a neighbour develop and conservatism over innovation.

Here is a list of where I see this occurring:

  • Clause 55.03–10 Parking location objective; Standard B15 — ‘Car parking facilities should be reasonably close to dwellings and residential buildings.’ This prioritises convenience over the opportunity for incidental interaction. The image below shows a common carparking area for a cohousing development, allowing residents to meet their neighbours here or on their way to their unit. This is a key feature to promote interaction, and shouldn’t be underestimated.
Communal carparking in cohousing provides opportunity for incidental interactions with your fellow residents.
  • Clause 55.06–4 Overlooking objective; ‘To limit views into existing secluded private open space and habitable room windows’. The clause continues to Standard B22, which often has its built outcome in opaque glazing, highlight windows or screened windows. There have been some architectural gestures to resolve these issues, however the fact remains that it is designed to exclude residents from their neighbour’s activities.
Screening to habitable room windows; the configuration of the openable part of the windows is only a small awning window slot.
  • Clause 55.04–7 Internal views objective; Standard B23 — ‘Windows and balconies should be designed to prevent overlooking of more than 50 per cent of the secluded private open space of a lower-level dwelling or residential building directly below and within the same development.’ Similar to Standard B22 in outcome, but with greater transparency at 50% rather than 75%. This prevents opportunities for passive surveillance, and restricts neighbour contact.
LILAC cohousing in UK — under ResCode, these balconies would have separating screens between them.
  • Clause 55.05–4 Private open space objective; ‘To provide adequate private open space for the reasonable recreation and service needs of residents.’ The related Standard B28 continues to quantify what is adequate as 40sqm for a ground level private open space, 8sqm for a balcony and 10sqm for a rooftop. The fundamental issue in question here is ‘private’ open space — there are standards as to heights and transparency of fencing here to create a PRIVATE open space; there are no guidelines about any COMMUNAL open space. As a result, typical multi-unit developments feature token landscaping around entrances and large expanses of hard surfaces for car manoeuverability. The idea that residents may choose to spend time together is not a concept that ResCode considers. The image below shows a cohousing development in Quebec with minimal private open space (if any — shared open balconies) and large communal space, seen here enjoyed by the children.
Quebec cohousing with minimal private open space and large well-landscaped communal open space.
  • Clause 55.05–6 Storage objective; Standard B30 — ‘Each dwelling should have convenient access to at least 6 cubic metres of externally accessible, secure storage space.’ Again, the issue here is not the presence of external storage, but simply that it doesn’t consider communal storage options, should residents wish to share their belongings.
  • Clause 55.06–3 Common property objective; Standard B33 — ‘Common property, where provided, should be functional and capable of efficient management.’ Again, this pushes the notion of communal property as a burden, and the extents of it should be minimised. In a cohousing development, communal open space is often expansive and requires copious amounts of maintenance, not ‘efficient management.’ The image below shows steel frames featuring espaliered fruit trees, next to some garden beds and a BBQ area at Westwyck in Brunswick, Melbourne — a good example of ideas for communal property that is not only low maintenance garden beds and hardstands.
Westwyck Brunswick’s productive garden communal space

The Frankston cohousing project is finding difficulty navigating a non-traditional development through a very archaic planning process that only has ResCode as its assessment tool. The planning department at council are as divided as the objectors/supporters around how to best assess the values of the project.

What options are there for projects such as these? Should there be a case-by-case merits-based assessment outside of the boundaries of regular planning legislation for these, perhaps defined by owner-driven developments that are not speculative. An independent review body like CABE who can provide their own design assessment to council’s planning department, understanding the greater issues at play (neighbour response, setting a precedent as a repeatable model). Perhaps ResCode should go beyond its simple built form analysis and have different assessments based upon the delivery model — an owner-occupier or long term tenant will contribute more to the social sustainability of a place than an investor or transient resident. Should the planning scheme not reflect that, or is its role only for economic return and to ‘maintain the peace’ in an existing neighbourhood?

Andrew Maynard Architects’ House House in Richmond — duplex with a sliding fence between the two rear yards, here seen open.

Another project in the office is a duplex for two brothers and their respective families and their mother. Any consideration of communal spaces was deemed too difficult in planning, and the most connection the dwellings will have is an openable door through the separating fences in the rear yard.

Maybe I’m asking for too much — ResCode polices the lowest common denominator of housing developments and its up to our creativity to work within the system to produce good architecture…should it also serve as a tool to foster social connection? I’m not sure that everyone is signed up for that.

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