The Sunday Age – Home Style
By Miranda Tay
27th April, 2014
The shrinking of apartments in Melbourne is demanding grander gestures of design solutions, writers Miranda Tay.
The brief from the seasoned traveller for his new two-bedroom apartment in the Docklands was simple: he wanted a seamless space catered to his needs.
It was to be a base for him when in Melbourne, he told Nexus Designs, and it needed to be both an appropriate workplace and a relaxing abode.
Above all, it would need to comfortably accommodate more people, on the occasional weekend when his two teenage children would stay over.
In what is becoming an all too-common template for modern life, architects, designers and developers are increasingly challenged to reimagine the way we live in small spaces.
In a maturing city such as Melbourne, whose residents value being close to work and amenities, changes to planning zones demand localised higher-density housing, says architect Chris Hayton, principal at Rothelowman. And there is “a growing realisation that density, when handled well, is an asset to a city,” he says.
As Melbourne’s urban silhouette continues to spike ever more vertically (and often controversially) towards the sky, so, too must designers create more innovative design solutions to meet its evolving needs.
And for many, the answer is the micro apartment. Seen by its proponents as a greener alternative to urban sprawl, the micro apartment is lauded for its small carbon footprint and for the chance for residents to enjoy central locations with less expenditure.
The downside, however, is the sacrifice made in quality of living: many are designed with lack of direct sunlight; have uninspired, same-same floor plans; and built in levels of box-style cubes so cramped, you couldn’t swing a cat in it, metaphorically speaking.
Indeed, the size of the shrinking apartment may be reaching a tipping point: the City of Melbourne is considering introducing minimum apartment sizes despite the soaring inner-city population and shortage of space, according to a report in The Age last year on the council’s discussion paper, Future Living, aimed at “identifying issues and options for housing our community”.
The report also cited research from Oliver Hume, which stated that among 58 apartment buildings being marketed across the City of Melbourne, one-bedroom apartments were starting at 46 square meters in floor space; and had, on average, shrunk from 52 square meters in 2008 to 44 square meters two years later.
Despite this, micro sizes seem to be not only here to stay, they’re actually among the first to be snapped up on the market.
Michael Fox is managing director of Little Projects, whose developments include ILK and Central in South Yarra, and Halo Apartments in St Kilda. He says, “Our one-bedroom apartments (typically 45-55 square meters) have been the first to sell out across our current developments.”
“People are seeking design, quality, convenience, amenity and proximity to employment opportunities and transportation hubs,” he says. “We work closely with our architects to maximise light, space and function throughout each of our development design.”
The onus on architects to respond to this changing design need is paramount, says Hayton.
Good architects and developers should be skilled at balancing density with amenity. “Architects can contribute to a more complex engaging city through high-quality apartment buildings. Intelligent solutions can realize the latent potential of ‘difficult’’ brownfield sites.”
Hayton suggests the key design solutions in maintaining a quality apartment lifestyle are functionality (“adopting new kitchen designs, movable furniture and walls”). In addition, Rothelowman, whose projects include La Trobe Tower, Hawthorn Hill and Botanica, puts a strong focus on building communities, design excellence and uniqueness.
“The most successful examples of micro living involve a new mindest,” agrees Sonia Simfendorfer, creative director of Nexus Designs, the leading design studio contracted to come up with a stylish solution for the Docklands businessman.
“The challenge is to drill down to exactly what is important for living well. There is a great liberation in stripping things back.”
The Docklands apartment had a workable floor plan: an open-plan kitchen and living zone, facing north through floor-to-ceiling glass windows, flanked by a main bedroom and en suite to the west; and another smaller room, utilities and powder room to the east (see High Flyer project, nexusdesigns.com.au).
But Simpfendorfer’s key design device – a moveable wall panel that glides along the main space dividing work from living zones – was a “eureka” moment that turns the layout from generic to an individualised, multi-functional space. “When I saw the space for the first time, I thought, OMG, that could work. It was how I could get a better connection between the study and living zones,” she says.
The deep olive green wall converts the study, with its specially built-in shelves, table and sofa bed, into a self-contained guest suite when slid shut. This unity of space was central to the design of the entire apartment, whose feel is very much that of a boutique hotel. Custom-designed joinery, the establishment of focal points, judicious use of colour, high-gloss finishes, clean lines and a clever interplay of texture and light all help to enliven the space.
Furniture was carefully chosen to reflect the client’s dual-faceted needs for work and entertainment.
A careful application of scale and proportion in a simple, grand gesture can be very calming in a small space such as the Docklands apartment, Simfendorfer says. “Lots of bits and pieces make an apartment look smaller. When space is limited, being a ruthless editor becomes important. When you unify it, you create a flow of space.
“Micro living demands that you only keep the things that really perform.”