Dumbing down apartment design

Changes to minimum flat sizes are in the interests of the marketplace rather than residents

 

Nobody would wish to revert to the era of “shoebox flats”, of the type turned out in such large numbers by Zoe Developments Ltd, the principal vehicle of property developer Liam Carroll and one-time engine of urban renewal in Dublin. What he and others like him were building at the time were the tenements of the 21st century, and thousands of small units were lapped up by “buy-to-let” investors, none of whom had any intention of living in them.

This didn’t happen in the dim and distant past – “over 30 years ago”, as Construction Federation Industry director-general Tom Parlon blithely stated on RTÉ Radio 1 at the weekend. The high-point of the shoebox flats era was more recent, and was only brought to an end in 1995 by a set of new minimum standards promulgated by Liz McManus, then minister of state for housing and planning as well as being a qualified architect who understood the issues.

The new standards led to a quantum leap in the design of apartments, which now consist of a significant proportion of all housing, particularly in Dublin. No longer were there to be endless, artificially-lit corridors, with apartments opening off them like rooms in a budget hotel. A maximum number of units on each floor were to be clustered around lifts, there was to be a mix of apartment sizes in every scheme and all kitchens were to have windows rather than mechanical ventilation.

In Dublin and Cork, city planners went even further, based on their own detailed analysis of what would be needed in future, specifying more generous space standards to encourage family living. These are the standards that Minister for the Environment Alan Kelly now wishes to set aside – on the basis that they threaten the “viability of new construction” by adding €20,000 per unit to building costs – and replace with a “nationally consistent approach” to apartment design.

The new guidelines published by the Department of the Environment propose lower standards in terms of floor areas, ceiling heights, storage, lifts, daylight, private and communal amenity space, indeed every aspect of apartment design. They also preclude local authorities from “specifying conflicting standards in their statutory development plans” – in other words, aiming higher. If the Minister wanted to give the Construction Industry Federation a Christmas gift, this couldn’t be better.

Mr Kelly has denied that his intervention will result in return to the “shoe-box living” of the past. According to him, it’s all about “delivering good, high-quality affordable housing in sufficient numbers to meet growing demand” and this, in turn, should help to reduce rents by increasing the overall supply of apartments. But there can be little doubt that apartment design is to be dumbed-down, in the interests of the marketplace.

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