By Ray Haeren | 8 Dec 2016

The WA State Government has released the Design WA framework for public comment, which closes on 20 December 2016.

Design WA is described by the Department of Planning as ‘an initiative to ensure good design is at the centre of all development in Western Australia. It aims to create cities, towns and neighbourhoods where people want to live, work and socialise, now and long into the future.’ 

Several documents have been released for comment, comprising:

  • Draft State Planning Policy No.7: Design of the Built Environment (SPP7)
  • Draft Apartment Design Policy
  • Draft Design Review Guide
  • Draft Design Skills Discussion Paper
  • Design WA brochure

Urbis is supportive of this initiative in striving towards better design of multiple dwellings in Western Australia.  

Through our Sydney office, we also have the benefit of experience of SEPP 65, the NSW Apartment Design Guide on which much of Design WA is based, and the benefits and challenges of its 10 years of implementation.  We are therefore well placed to advise both developers and government on the practical implementation of Design WA.

Future additions to the suite of Design WA documents will be ‘the missing middle’ – design codes for grouped dwellings, and possibly simpler provisions for single houses, and the inclusion of the revised Liveable Neighbourhoods.

Design WA recognises that Perth’s urban environment is becoming dense, and projected population growth in WA will necessitate an increase in multiple dwelling developments. Design WA is a suite of documents ranging from a state planning policy to broader guidelines. 

The following outlines the intent and function of each of the Design WA documents. 

State Planning Policy No. 7 (SPP 7)

SPP7 recognises the 10 principles of good design that should be used by those delivering projects including – context and character, landscape quality, built form and scale, functionality and build quality, sustainability, amenity, legibility, safety, community and aesthetics.  It is an overarching framework under which the various documents within the suite of Design WA will sit. Its focus is on integrating quality design principles, skills and quality review of proposals.

Draft Apartment Design Policy

This Policy relates to apartments and mixed use developments (including multi storey aged-persons accommodation and student housing) at a density over R40, and will replace the Multi-Unit Housing Code provisions of the R-Codes.  As mentioned, it is largely based on the NSW SEPP 65 Policy.  The Policy will guide the design of multiple dwellings within their immediate and broader context, and with an increased focus on liveability.  Key new features include different provisions for detached and attached dwellings, separating side and rear setbacks, increasing building height allowances, introducing planting zones, introducing deep soil areas for landscaping, and introducing building separation provisions.

Draft Design Review Guide

This guide provides structure and direction for the setting up and operation of design review panels (DRP) through the State.  The emphasis is on early liaison with local government prior to lodgement of an application, to ensure key design issues are identified and worked through, and so that time and costs at the application stage are reduced. 

Draft Design Skills Discussion Paper

The Department of Planning is seeking comment on how design practitioners should be engaged to design and assess multiple and mixed use developments.

Design WA Brochure

This document provides a summary of the suite of documents that have been released for public comment, along with a project scope and timeline.

Future additions to the suite of Design WA documents will be ‘the missing middle’ – design codes for grouped dwellings, and possibly simpler provisions for single houses, and the inclusion of the revised Liveable Neighbourhoods. These documents will be released for comment in due course.

Urbis is supportive of this initiative in striving towards better design of multiple dwellings in Western Australia.

Through our review we have identified a range of key considerations which should be worked through prior to finalising the documents:

  • SPP7 is a predominantly performance based approach to guide the design of multiple dwellings – there will no longer be any deemed to comply solutions, meaning that each development must address performance requirements. The broad range of controls will guide the design outcome and determine if a proposal can meet or exceed the base development parameters – nothing is as of right.  Proposals will be required to demonstrate their appropriateness in their specific context.
  • While allowing a flexible and adaptive approach to design, this approach will introduce a loss of certainty into the development process. Valuation of sites and expectations by the development industry on the development outcome for a particular site will become more uncertain.  Yield and development cost will be dependent on design and the outcomes of discussions with Design Review Panels (DRPs) and decision makers.  There will be a significant loss of certainty in the final outcome for development sites.
  • Like many developers, decision makers generally prefer a more prescriptive approach to development control where there is less uncertainty as to development outcomes. Without significant training on how the Policy is to be applied, and improvements in design skills in local government, there is risk that local government could use the performance based approach as a reason to block development.  Compliance and approval will be a balancing act to be negotiated within the policy framework.
  • As has been found in NSW with the introduction of SEPP65, the cost of development will increase, although the quantum is unclear. The increased cost of development needs to be weighed up against improvements in design quality and liveability, increased attractiveness to the market and affordability.
  • A number of beneficial design controls have been included, for example:
    • Two different multiple dwelling types are defined – attached and detached, with attached preferred given benefits in the use of space and the potential retention of existing vegetation. Encouragement of this type of development is by way of more generous design controls;
    • Storage areas can now be included within apartments rather than in separate locations, with a volume of storage space specified;
    • Greater flexibility in the provision of carparking and other forms of transport is provided.
  • A number of design controls require further review, for instance:
    • The inclusion of plot ratio would seem to be an unnecessary requirement if developments otherwise achieve design objectives;
    • Common areas are proposed to be reintroduced but have been found in the past to be unpopular with the market – land/floor area may be better allocated to individual units;
    • Deep soil areas for tree planting will be problematic in very dense development scenarios, and may be better replaced with requirements for roof gardens or green walls for example;
    • Privacy controls are still onerous and suburban in nature;
    • Requirements for ventilation and light, whilst providing a significant improvement in liveability, need to be further considered, especially in the context of larger floorplates;
    • Rubbish collection is still based on separate bins for multiple dwellings rather than private collection; and
    • Allowance for specific locational conditions needs to be better provided for (such as near railways, or areas with certain views).
  • Further, the Policy needs to be more explicit in defining Table 1, which sets out such factors as setbacks, plot ratio, and building height, as guidance and not prescriptive requirements. Given the way the Table is structured and worded there is a high risk that the intent of the table will be misinterpreted as prescriptive requirements.
  • Implementation and governance will be the biggest factor in the success of the Policy. How effectively the decision maker (local government, DAP, WAPC etc) is able to assess the proposal on the basis of a performance based response will determine the outcome for developers.  In our view, if a development is well designed, the development bonuses provided for by the Policy should be as of right and not the subject of discretion.
  • There is a strong reliance in the Policy to pre-lodgement meetings and DRPs. Whilst both can be highly effective, they can be unproductive if there is inconsistency in attendance, lack of design competence, or an unwillingness to constructively participate in the assessment process.  There is also currently no mandatory requirement for local governments to have design review panels.  This is considered to be essential if the Policy is to be consistency applied, and applied by those with appropriate design skills.  How design is approached by each DRP and how commercially realistic the DRP is, will be vital.
  • Further consideration of the implementation process is essential via a possible additional discussion paper added to the suite of documents setting out the implementation strategy, actions required, timeframes, and clearly defining the responsibilities of all parties.
  • Training for those involved in the process, from local government officers, to designers, DRP members and decision makers is essential, to ensure implementation and interpretation occur in a consistent manner.   

There is no question that the policy will deliver good results in the design of multiple dwellings, if executed appropriately.

In our opinion, there is no question that the policy will deliver good results in the design of multiple dwellings if executed appropriately. 

Some of the development provisions, however, are highly onerous on developers and if read as a minimum requirement would increase difficulty and cost of development. Requirements such as cross ventilation, solar penetration, deep root zones are good principles but the ability to achieve in all circumstances is questionable.   

The risks relate primarily to governance and implementation. There is great risk of time delays and additional cost in the event decision makers are unable or unwilling to use the policy in the intended manner.


We strongly encourage industry to review the documents and to prepare submissions to the Department of Planning prior to the closing date for submissions.

Should you require further information, or assistance in preparing your submission, please contact our WA property experts below or contact us here.

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