PAUL MOONEY writes that we should rethink how we build and live in apartments.
At this time of the year I set an assignment for first-year students in the Property and Facilities Management degree run by DIT and the SCSI. Typically with first years, I have set a straightforward rent or buy task. This has been quite apt as the course has only been running since the property crash, when negative equity left a bad taste in the mouths of many boom time purchasers, and with the private rental sector experiencing dramatic change since then. This year I set a question on ‘freehold or leasehold’, or specifically, whether to buy an apartment or a house.
My reasons for this were particularly personal and selfish. I have been involved in property management for over 20 years and am a self-proclaimed urbanite. I love cities and I love Dublin. I love what Dublin has become over the last 20 years. It has become a vibrant, welcoming, living city and is no longer the foreboding, fearful, dull place I first knew in my 20s when family, friends and colleagues refused to understand my choice to live here.
Delivering a modern city
I firmly believe that the city’s evolution is now at a crossroads where the decision makers, and in particular those involved in the building industry, have an obligation to take the opportunity to deliver a modern city for the future. As with any modern city, this will require us to deliver well-planned, high-density housing to satisfy demand. We should resist the prejudices of our culture to shun apartment living and instead embrace co-operative living to make it work.
In 2007, for the first time, the global urban population exceeded the rural population. It is anticipated that the population living in urban areas in Europe could reach 80% by 2030. In the US, high-density or common-interest housing has grown from 1% of housing stock in 1970 to 18.8% in 2008. This represents a growth from 1% of the population living in apartment blocks to 19.6% over the same period. One-third of Dubliners now live in multi-unit housing.
What was interesting in the students’ assignments was that the obligation to pay service charges did not rise to the fore of any argument. Indeed, when the costs of owning and maintaining a house were measured against a prudent service charge scheme in a multi-unit development, apartment living won out. The difference in this is simply that when you buy in a multi-unit development, you forgo the choice to allow your building fabric to decay, your bins to overflow and to neglect your lawn.
“I believe that Dublin’s success is dependent on its urban evolution and keeping the city alive and vibrant.”
Re-think who apartments are for
Dublin culture appears to have continually associated apartments with the first step on the ladder or a downsize equity release before leaving this mortal coil.
I argue that the significant issue with apartment living for families lies with design and planning. Delighted as I was to see the Department of Environment, Community and Local Government (DoECLG) issue new ‘Planning Guidelines on Design Standards for New Apartments’ in December, I cannot help feeling that there is something missing.
Working in multi-unit development management for over 20 years, I believe that apartment buildings develop personalities over time based on the demographic of the occupiers and owners, which in turn is determined by location and apartment design. Once again we have design standards suggesting that apartment blocks should have specific mixes of one, two and three bedroom units, and strangely that studio apartments are acceptable for renters but not for owner occupiers!
“I firmly believe that the city’s evolution is now at a crossroads where the decision makers, and in particular those involved in the building industry, have an obligation to take the opportunity to deliver a modern city for the future.”
I believe that greater attention should be given to ultimate occupation and how different demands on accommodation are satisfied. I find it bizarre that we demand that apartment blocks are designed with a mix of apartments, implying that some would be suitable for family occupation, when we do not make similar demands in low-density suburban housing, even though we might expect there to be a demand for single occupancy housing in these areas. Is the solution not to simply designate entire multi-unit developments as family blocks, with other buildings designed for single occupancy, giving an environment where demographic groups are drawn together?
This approach would also deal with one of the other major impediments to apartment living (according to my small cross section of students) – neighbours’ behaviour. Put simply, families in the city and single people differ in lifestyles and tolerances – so why do we insist on putting them in the same building?
We have now learned to house students in their own building, we are pursuing an integrated social housing policy that does not discriminate, yet we are not seeking to allow micro-communities to develop with neighbours who are more likely to have common ground. Building blocks of family-oriented apartments would also enable amenities designed for families and built with children in mind. Similarly, buildings designed for single occupancy or non-family occupants, can offer other design features such as gyms, tranquil landscaped areas and exposure to more vibrant streetscapes.
“Communities develop through interaction between neighbours and friendships evolve through shared interests and common ground.”
Communities develop through interaction between neighbours and friendships evolve through shared interests and common ground. Even in suburban districts friendships develop with parents of children in the same class, on the same street or even simply sharing a route home from the local school. In apartment communities, families can often feel isolated and that they don’t fit in because of our cultural prejudices that children don’t belong in apartments.
When my wife and I bought our house close to the city, we had no children. Now we have three and have witnessed our busy road become populated with more and more families over the last ten years. It’s a small world for our children; school is close, the hospital they were born in is passed by regularly. Grocery shopping is done in the city and they rarely visit shopping centres. I believe that city living, particularly in what Dublin is becoming, should be embraced and encouraged through intelligent planning, urban design and specific demographic goals for family-oriented apartment buildings.
“I love cities and I love Dublin. I love what Dublin has become over the last 20 years. It has become a vibrant, welcoming, living city and is no longer the foreboding, fearful, dull place I first knew in my 20s.”
Keep our city alive
I believe that Dublin’s success is dependent on its urban evolution and keeping the city alive and vibrant. The delivery of this, similar to all great urban centres, requires striking the balance between commercial operations and a strong and diverse urbanite population. When I meet people from other cities I am never shocked or dismissive of their choice to live and raise their family in an apartment. In Dublin there is a significant shortage of apartments suited to family occupation and this must be addressed in order achieve a modern, welcoming city.
All this being said, to pull the plug on my ideology and hope, my five-year-old daughter turns to me as we walk past the giant kango pulling down Bolands Mills and asks: “Do people live in apartments while they are waiting for their house to be built?”
Director of Benchmark Property