Australia faces the prospect of lower growth rates, lower demand for higher-value properties and higher demand for lower-value properties in the residential sector in the next decade relative to the previous decade. There is also a need for more cost-conscious specification, smaller size and higher density housing for our growing population.
In this more competitive and potentially lower growth environment, how will residential property investors and developers prosper?
All of the usual rules about location, proper due diligence, efficient procurement and risk mitigation hold true, however one aspect of residential property that has often been neglected in previous decades, and which will become increasingly important in the coming decade is ‘good design’.
Let’s start with the question, what is good design?
In general terms, good design provides for outcomes that function, that feel right, that are striking, that last the test of time and are cost-effective to use and maintain.
In specific terms, good design includes high ceilings, flexible spaces, high-quality fixtures and fittings, good natural light access, cross-flow ventilation, double glazing, low-energy lighting, a high level of insulation, a high level of sound separation, non-toxic building materials and robust and low-maintenance surface materials.
There are many more aspects to good design, and too many to list here, however in summary good design is as much about what you cannot see, as it is about what you can see.
In saying this, what I also mean by good design, is that it must be accompanied with good construction in order to be effective.
So why are we not as critical about the design of our homes as we are about the design of our cars?
In cars we look for safety, fuel efficiency, reliability, acceleration, serviceability and looks – all measured through ratings and reviews that everyday consumers can access through reputable sources.
Surely we should know at least as much, if not more, about the home in which we live? While we might not know as much about the design of our homes as our cars, occupiers are becoming more sophisticated in their understanding of design and investors and developers will therefore need to respond in order to prosper in this increasingly competitive residential sector.
So, what is the value of good design for investors?
In the next decade, investors will no longer be able to rely on riding the wave of strong returns that we saw in the residential sector in previous decades. Capital growth will still be available, however it will be harder to achieve.
Along with selecting a location with good fundamentals, the design of residential property will be a key factor in determining property investment returns for the following reasons:
1) Increasing sophistication of demand
As has been the case for many other industries, such as fashion, hospitality, cars and technology, the demand for residential property is becoming increasingly sophisticated.
As the population continues to grow, the preference for inner city living persists and the affordability of detached dwellings in the inner city decreases, occupiers will be increasingly looking for apartments and townhouses that are well designed and can address their functional and lifestyle needs in a smaller footprint.
2) Large supply of homogenous product
Despite the increasing sophistication in demand, the supply of new residential property has been largely homogenous.
In the off the plan (OTP) apartment sector, the homogeneity of the product is largely a result of a combination of two reasons:
- Firstly, the composition of demand has been roughly 70 per cent investors over the history of the market.
- Secondly, the relative strength of the residential property market over this period, has allowed investors to enjoy strong returns, without needing to invest in better quality product. A consequence of this has been developers have not had the incentive to supply better quality product and they have therefore, in the majority, followed a similar formula to deliver investor-grade product project after project.
3) Growing awareness of maintenance and running costs
Investors are becoming more aware of the higher maintenance costs associated with poorly designed residential investment property.
For example, delaminating cupboard doors, replacement of cheap fittings and fixtures, faulty appliances and repair of building façades are common and expensive maintenance items in poorly designed apartment buildings that can be avoided if an investment in good design is made from the outset.
Similarly, occupiers are becoming more aware of the higher costs of running poorly design apartments. For example, an instantaneous electrical hot water system is cheaper to install than a gas hot water system, however is significantly more expensive to run. Another common example is poorly insulated walls which result in higher heating costs during winter.
Logically, as awareness of these issues grows, occupiers will be prepared to pay higher rents for residential property with lower running costs relative to those with higher running costs. This will particularly be the case in a market with higher vacancy.
4) Changing market dynamics
If there continues to be investor fatigue as we approach the end of the current cycle in the OTP apartment sector, could owner-occupiers comprise a higher proportion of demand in the next cycle? If this happens to be the case, consider the next question. While you might be an investor in today’s market, who will buy your property when you decide to sell? Will it be another investor or an owner-occupier?
Keep in mind that there are fewer incentives for investors to buy established apartments and indeed most foreign investors are prohibited from doing so. For these reasons, owning a property that appeals to owner occupiers is a sound approach, particularly in the current climate. As a consequence of these four trends, we expect to see lower vacancy rates, higher rents, better capital growth and, therefore, better returns, for well- designed residential property relative to lesser designed residential property.
Accordingly, this is why we think there is value in good design for investors in the residential sector.
What is the value of good design for developers?
In a market where investors are increasingly seeing the value in good design, and where owner-occupiers are likely to comprise a higher proportion of demand than they have previously, we think it will make sense for developers to supply well-designed product to the market for the following reasons:
1) Higher prices and/or faster sales
Selecting the right design team that can deliver good design which is differentiated and caters to the needs of occupiers will benefit developers through either higher pricing or faster sales when compared to homogenous product.
These benefits justify the additional investment in the right design team and the right design process upfront. More than just higher prices and/or faster sales, and particularly in the current OTP apartment market, where there are concerns about oversupply and fatigue in investor demand, good design can in fact be the difference between a project succeeding or failing, and there are many recent examples of this.
2) Better planning outcomes
Councils and the broader public are becoming more design literate, and as a result, the quality of design is increasingly an important factor in the planning process. When one proposes a design that is larger than the preferred site outcome set by council, the justification for increased yield shifts to the quality of design, environmentally sustainable design outcomes and the contribution the development proposal makes to the urban context.
Clever design can result in improved yield by shifting the debate away from height to articulation and material design. Evidence of the increasing importance of design to councils, can be seen in the issuing of ‘conditional permits’ that require developers to retain the architect for the life of the project. The intention of these conditional permits is to mitigate the risk, which often eventuates, of the built outcome being inferior to the design specified in the original planning permit.
3) Cost-effective design solutions
There is a common misconception that good design always equates to more expensive construction costs. While this can be the case, it does not need to be. A high quality design team can deliver creative solutions throughout the design, documentation and construction phases, resulting in a building which meets the highest design standards, while also being cost effective. Poor results often arise when default and generic solutions and materials are introduced to reduce costs, rather than exploring solutions that work with the design while also being cost effective.
4) Mitigating construction risk
High quality and detailed documentation prior to tender is the best way to assess the scope of works for a project and manage the expectations and competing interests of the client and the contractor. The alternative, of going to tender with only design development or partially documented drawings, often results in either expensive variations or dilution of quality, depending on how well the construction contract is structured and drafted. More often than not, this results in the client ending up with a building that costs more than what was budgeted and/or a building of lower quality than was expected.
5) Focusing the design team
A high quality outcome does not necessarily constitute good design if it is not aligned to market demand and project feasibility drivers. The design team needs to be well briefed about what to design. Then the process needs to be managed and constantly focused on designing the product to fit the specifics of the relevant market segment. With good property advice and information about the target market, along with constant management and review of the design against project feasibility and value drivers, the design process will be most efficient and the outcome optimised.
In summary, we would like to share with you a quote from Paul King, Chief Executive of the Green Building Council UK that articulates the value of good design and summarises our perspective on the matter:
“A green building is simply a better quality building. All too often we get hung up on what is green and what is sustainable, but actually, if you think of it as a better quality building, a more efficient building, a better day-lit building, better ventilated, a healthier, nicer place to live, to work or to play – it’s not difficult to make the link between that and a building being worth more to people.”
Across the Charter Projects team, we have executives qualified as architects. By the nature of Charter’s business, we also work very closely with and are exposed to the ideas and design of a variety of architects and consultants, and place a high priority on ensuring that our clients have the benefit of our experience and understand both the importance and therefore consequence of good design.
Our daily professional challenge involves the review of many development proposals for suitability, market acceptance and ultimate viability and we recognise good design as a fundamental that equally, as much as any other influence, determines the degree of success that any particular project will enjoy.
It is of course preferable to have the right design team involved from the outset, but it is never too late for review and if necessary the introduction of alternative consultants.