What families want from apartments

Residential apartments in Nairobi's Pipeline Estate. [Denish Ochieng, Standard]

The family-friendly apartment is an idea whose time has come.

The high proportion of families living in apartments in town centres like is often overlooked when situated within suburbs dominated by detached, lower-density dwellings.

The proportion of families living in apartments challenges many assumptions about high-rise living. Apartments are often seen as "stepping stones" for singles and couples on their way to detached houses, or a convenient lifestyle option for downsizers and empty-nesters.

The families in our study prioritise large, centrally located apartments over detached car-dependent dwellings. However, we found there's a lack of larger apartments designed to meet families' needs.

Families see benefits in apartment living

The families we interviewed reported many benefits to apartment living. They valued being close to work, schools and leisure facilities, with easy walking access to diverse shops and services.

These preferences reflect the marketed benefits of compact living. And our research shows a range of households, including families with children, recognise these benefits. This points to a more fundamental shift in housing demand.

These trends are only partly about choice. Participants acknowledged that a detached home would be more spacious but it would also mean they faced the added costs of buying and running a second car.

On balance, participants felt the CBD was the "best place" to live. Their priority was finding suitable high-rise homes within walking distance of schools, shops, public transport and community services - including libraries, health centres and parks.

Supply fails to meet family needs

Without planning controls, the supply of large, family-friendly apartments is unlikely to increase. Developers, juggling their own material and credit costs, will always seek to maximise the number of dwellings they can build on their lots.

Good design matters, as does building quality

Real estate advertising for apartments emphasises skyline views, open-plan layouts and private balconies. But it is less glamorous aspects - insulation, space and storage - that can be crucial for families to live well in a high-rise home.

Good family-friendly design includes space for children to sleep, play and study, and adequate storage for prams and the belongings of larger households.

Adequate soundproofing is also needed to reduce tensions over children's noise.

While state governments experiment with new modes of regulation, consumers bear the lifetime impacts, both financial and emotional, of cut-price construction.

High-rise homes: more than an investment

Societies in which a shift to higher-density living is part of family life must strike a reasonable balance between quality, affordability and apartment size.

Yet these goals seem to be at odds with the reconfiguration of housing in Australia as an investment vehicle.

The protection of owned homes from capital gains tax and lavish subsidies for property investors have led to gains in the value of housing assets exceeding income earned from work.

This sets the scene for finance and construction industries to capitalise on investor-driven demand rather than diverse families' needs.

Reforms on three fronts are needed

Meeting the demand for high-rise housing in town centres requires a triple-barrelled approach. Construction quality, planning control and reconfigured financial incentives are all needed to encourage family-friendly products.

There is little doubt that high-rise dwellings needs a more central place at the national urban policy table. And, at a more local level, there are steps councils can take.

These include introducing minimum requirements for three-bedroom apartments in development control plans and negotiating density bonuses for developers that deliver such apartments.