Analysis: Minister dumbs down apartment guidelines

Kelly denies rules on design will catapult Dublin and other cities to ‘shoebox living’

You’ve got to hand it to the estate agents. When Gandon Close, a neoclassical scheme in Harold’s Cross in Dublin came on the market more than 20 years ago, the choice of apartment types on offer was a studio called “the Continental” or a single-bedroom unit called “the Empire”; one was 35sq m, the other 40sq m.

Similarly, Liam Carroll’s mock-Georgian development on Bachelors Walk in Dublin city centre was sold by Hooke & MacDonald as offering “not just an apartment – more a way of life”, even though 85 per cent of the 335 flats were small single-bedroom units laid out along artificially-lit corridors only 1.27m wide, much like rooms in a budget hotel.

Minister for the Environment Alan Kelly has denied his new guidelines on apartment design will catapult Dublin and other cities back to “shoebox living” conditions. They permit studios of 40sq m, just 2sq m more than the minimum standard set in 1995, and they cut the minimum floor space requirement in other types of apartment.

In a drive for more flexibility in design, the guidelines ostensibly aim to cater for “households with a child or children; students; older people; and an increasingly mobile workforce”, while also seeking to ensure affordability in construction for developers through “the application of a nationally consistent approach”.

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Others see Kelly’s initiative as a knee-jerk response to intensive lobbying by the Construction Industry Federation, Ibec’s Property Industry Ireland division and developers from overseas, such as the Texas-based Hines group, which has plans to develop managed “build-to-let” schemes in Dublin’s Docklands and elsewhere.

The Minister decided to intervene because he apparently accepts the lobbyists’ view that higher standards for apartment design adopted by Dublin, Cork and Galway city councils – however worthwhile in themselves – have been a major contributory factor to the low level of housing output in these cities over the past few years.

Knowledge-economy workers

There was also the fear that, after bagging companies such as Google, Facebook and Twitter, IDA Ireland’s efforts to attract more of this type of foreign direct investment (FDI) had been hampered in the past year or so by a growing perception that Dublin lacks the type of accommodation that “international knowledge- economy workers” prefer.

“There have been instances that FDI companies have recently been opting to locate their European headquarters in Berlin or Copenhagen, in preference to Dublin, for this reason,” one source said, referring to a wish-list among highly mobile tech-company staff for amenities such as gyms, chill-out zones and full-time concierges in apartment blocks.

It certainly could not be an issue of size alone. In Berlin, the minimum size of a one-bedroom apartment is 48sq m – marginally more than the 45sq m specified here – while, in Copenhagen, the standard size of a one-bedroom apartment is 70sq m. In both cities it would also be normal to have extra storage areas in the basement of a block.

It’s on storage that Kelly’s guidelines are the meanest. “As a rule, no individual storage room within an apartment should exceed 3.5sq m”, the document says, adding that developers “may provide” separate basement storage areas for bulky items such as bicycles, skis, baby buggies and children’s outdoor toys. But there is no requirement to do so.

Windowless kitchens

One of the characteristics of earlier schemes of “shoebox” flats was that kitchens were windowless, tucked into the back of livingrooms. The idea that they should have their own windows, rather than relying on mechanical ventilation, was regarded as preposterous by estate agents, who warned that any such imposition could undermine the market.

But “dual-aspect” apartments, with windows facing in two directions to guarantee good daylight, became the norm after new design guidelines came into force in 1995. So did the standard of having no more than six apartments per floor served from a lift and stairs.

Both of these requirements are dumbed down by Kelly’s new diktat.

Only an “absolute minimum” of 33 per cent of apartments in any scheme need to be dual aspect. “Ideally, three-bedroomed apartments should be dual aspect,” the guidelines say, adding that even these minimal requirements “may be relaxed where it is proposed to refurbish an older building in a constrained urban context”.

Similarly, the number of lifts is to be reduced. In general, lift and stair cores will now serve eight apartments per floor. This is justified on the basis that “maximising the number of apartments per stair/lift core should assist in ensuring that service charges and maintenance costs faced by residents into the future are kept at reasonable levels”.

Overall, one might expect any new set of guidelines to specify higher standards than what went before, in the public interest. What's remarkable about Sustainable Urban Housing Design Standards for New Apartments: Guidelines for Planning Authorities is that it does exactly the opposite, by enshrining the lowest common denominator.