Home truths: Set the bar higher with storey debate
Dublin City Council was this week debating the issue of apartment heights under the new city development plan. City council chief Owen Keegan suggested apartment blocks up to nine storeys high - roughly what has been allowed for office blocks. Six storeys is currently typical.
But there needs to be a much wider debate about Irish city apartments in all their forms - about how they are designed and laid out and how they function. Thus far, most of the city stock is cheaply built, and the units tend to be small by European and US standards.
While many speakers on the storeys debate talked about the heights which typically work well in foreign cities, there are other aspects of apartment design and function in those same cities that we should also be trying to adopt.
Section 23 has been much maligned - especially by those who don't remember the city centre before its introduction at the end of the 80s. Dublin City Centre was, for the most part, a hollowed-out shell, chock full of unused derelict buildings and wasted sites. At the time of its conception, there was no family housing shortage - the accommodation problem was one largely experienced by students and single professionals. The only small-sized homes were the largely dingy bedsits of traditional Pre 63 flatland.
In its initial years, based on generous tax incentives, Section 23 provided large numbers of well located new homes for singles and childless couples. The standard of construction wasn't always good (to say the least) but 20 small new homes was ultimately preferable to the derelict ruin which a new block replaced. The repopulation of the centre on the back of Section 23 also helped inject new economic life. So Section 23 generally did its original job well. The problems came when incentives continued for the wrong apartments in the wrong places and at the wrong time (during hyper property price inflation caused by a credit bubble).
If the housing crisis has caused families to live in apartments built for students and singles, this is not the fault of the original Section 23 game plan.
But for family living, almost all Irish apartments simply aren't big enough. You need at least 800 sq ft for a family with two children. Another problem typical in Irish apartments in that there hasn't been enough storage space. They didn't come, like semis, with built-in wardrobes. Storage issues cause living environment issues. Washing in the absence of communal laundries (typical in apartment blocks abroad) has caused damp along with windowless kitchen areas and poor ventilation.
Then there's our history of social housing in apartment blocks (commonly referred to as 'flats'). The towers of Ballymun weren't a wholly bad idea either. The flats themselves were spacious and a good size for family living. The core idea was that the high density high rise blocks would provide wide open spaces below for the children to play in. The problem was one of management.
The common internal areas were open to all. If private blocks admitted all and sundry, they too would have drug dealers and vandals in the stairwells. The simple presence of a concierge at a desk at the entrance of each block might have actually solved many of the Ballymun issues.
Lack of private outdoor balcony spaces are another big problem that Europeans and Americans used to living in working family blocks remark upon. Too many Irish units have no outdoor space at all - with double French doors leading to useless cast iron faux balconies. Only very high end apartments in Irish cities have practical and usable outdoor balcony spaces on which people can sit out and plants and gardens can grow.
With balconies comes safety - another huge issue with Irish apartments which have generally not been built with children in mind - as witnessed by the numbers of tragic accidents involving young children falling from them. Grid mesh cover systems and lockable sliding panels are used abroad to ensure the safety of young children. They need to be a requirement here.
Workable family apartment systems in Europe and the USA are also managed well. Generally, the lifts work because there are good sinking and maintenance funds in place.
Management companies are also covered by laws which require tenants to pay their dues into these funds.
Latterly in Ireland, funds are going broke because recession-stricken landlords (often the developers who built them) have been successfully dodging their fees for years on end. In these cases, soon the lifts don't work, then the better tenants leave and soon the block itself goes downmarket.
Americans and European city dwellers expect functioning family apartment systems as a matter of course, and they get them. We need to study their models and legislate to provide them here.