Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Freo under the microscope: What is the ideal building height for Freo?

Dean Cracknell
Dean Cracknell is the author of this post. He is a Freo devotee interested in creating interesting, diverse places for people and is a guest contributor to The Fremantle Doctor blog.

Land has traditionally been pretty cheap in Australia (not any more I hear you groan). So our towns and cities have spread out rather than up. We are just beginning to realise that urban sprawl has severe consequences – environmental, social and economic. So the development industry and governments are shifting their gaze from the horizon to the sky.

There weren’t many tall buildings around when I was growing up in a country town. The tallest building, besides the few church spires, was a two storey pub. Low rise buildings felt like the natural order of things. So it was a bit of a shock to move down to the “big smoke” – more commonly known as Melbourne. But I grew to love the vitality, dynamism and opportunities of the big city. My ideas also changed and adapted – tall buildings now seemed normal. Perceptions of building height are dependent on time and place. What may be tall in a country town would be tiny in a big city.

Why do we need tall buildings?

There are times and places to ask silly questions (my wife would say that I ask more than my fair share). Like, why do we even need tall buildings?They are built because they are relatively useful, convenient and cost-effective. A lot of floorspace can be built on small sites in popular and expensive locations. If the free market was able to operate without compunction there would probably be lots more tall buildings in popular locations, such as close to the beach or river, in town centres and close to employment.

The market (which is basically the sum total of the choices made by many different people) naturally fuels a desire to build taller buildings in Freo because it is popular and has expensive real estate.

What is the ideal building height for Freo?

I am glad you asked (wink, wink). This is a topical issue given the debate surrounding   Scheme Amendment 49 (check out my earlier thoughts here). 

For starters, I (we) have asked the wrong question. There is no such thing as the ideal building height for a whole area. Interesting places will have variety of building types and heights and a diversity of land uses. A single building height produces boring, flat–topped boxes. I think the Council and some people in the community have resorted to simplistic guesstimates of what future building heights should be in the city centre without doing the necessary homework to support their ideas.

There is (or should be) a lot of groundwork to do before new building heights are established. The following list is not exhaustive nor supposed to read as consecutive steps.

Urban design ingredients

What do the current buildings look like? How tall are they? What about the streets? How wide are they and what are they used for? How busy are they? A good urban design rule of thumb is that building facades (or frontages) should be no taller than the width of the street. A 1:1 ratio helps enclose the street while still allowing for sunlight. This standard would mean that a 20 metre wide street could have a building facade of up to 20 metres high. Taller building elements can be set back further behind the building facade if necessary. The standard is clear, transparent and easily understood.

Local context

Where do breezes/winds come from? What about solar access for public spaces like parks? What are the important views? How can buildings be designed to work with the environmental context?

Developable sites

How big are they? Are they regular-shaped? How can they be accessed by cars and service vehicles (planners need to think about access for rubbish trucks, ambulances, removals trucks etc)?

Important landmarks

Landmarks like heritage buildings give a place a unique character. How can they be retained as landmarks and complemented by new buildings?

Desired look and feel

What kind of place should it be? What is the existing character? Does new development need to be a particular character? Why? What kind of uses should be encouraged? What are the community’s ideas?

As far as I can see, Freo currently doesn’t have a desired ‘look and feel’ for new development in the inner east end.

Development economics

It is no good setting rules if no one can afford to adhere to them.

For example, the Building Code of Australia (which is mandatory) requires lifts for buildings over 25 metres high – great idea. But lifts are very expensive to install, maintain and replace. It may not be economically feasible for a developer to construct a building of say 27 metres high, which would require a lift, if the developer is only getting a few extra metres of building height. They may instead propose a building that is 24.9 metres high, or alternatively 40 metres high to justify the expense of installing lifts.

Unfortunately, money often drives decisions, which is not to say that this is a good thing. But the budding height setter needs to be aware of such fundamental issues.

Properly engage with the community

What do locals think? Why? What about others outside the community? The outsiders of today may be the locals of tomorrow (or vice-versa). What are the issues? What does the ‘silent majority’ think?

The key is to involve people early in the process.

Develop urban design requirements

New developments should be built to a high quality and complement local character.

Urban design requirements or guidelines are critical as they specify upfront the Council’s expectations. This removes the guesswork for developers and builds confidence in the community. Design guidelines should be developed in conjunction with setting building height limits.


The list above is by no means complete. But it demonstrates that a lot of thought and hard work needs to go into setting a new planning framework for building heights. Simplistic guesstimates are not the answer.

So what do I think the “ideal” building height for Freo would be? Well, I think 2-4 storey facades along streets, with further building height of up to 9-10 storeys on some sites set well back from the street would be a good starting point.

But that’s a guesstimate, which is being simplistic isn’t it?

Dean can be followed on Twitter by checking out: @city_pragmatist


  1. Building heights always should have been more varied than what PSA 49 now has. They should have been lower near Kings Square, our city square, and go up higher towards Elder Place, the Woolstores and Gas&Coke sites. The Target site is far too high because of its proximity to Kings Square.

    Roel Loopers

  2. Hi Roel,

    Yes, I tend to agree with your comments, which again emphasise the need for a comprehensive strategy/urban design framework for the city centre.


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