‘Underwear flapping in the breeze’:Putting Sydney’s balconies to the nude test

NSW award-winning architect Adam Haddow stripped to see if the balconies on luxury apartments he designed at Bondi passed the privacy test.

Haddow stood naked on the balconies to see if their angled walls would allow residents - who have included high-profile celebrities such as Hugh Jackman - to walk from the shower to take in the view without being seen by the public or paparazzi. They worked.

Architect Adam Haddow in his Redfern home.

Architect Adam Haddow in his Redfern home.Nick Moir

It is the same design that Haddow,the principal of SJB in Sydney,deployed to protect residents in new apartments at 9 -15 Young Street in Quay Quarter Lanes overlooked by the new 50-storey AMP block.

Haddow’s own apartment includes a deep bathtub on one balcony and a garden with fishpond and native bees overlooking Prince Alfred Park on another.

The tub is positioned to take in views to the south without being overlooked. “I go for a run,get in the bath,it is amazing,” said Haddow.

As our cities become denser,a good balcony is more important than ever because it replaces the “old front garden”,says architect Peter McGregor,a principal of McGregor Westlake Architecture.

Haddow on his rooftop garden.

Haddow on his rooftop garden.Nick Moir

“It is where the private life of the resident meets the public life of the street,” he said.

On a much tighter budget than the apartments usually designed by Haddow,McGregor said the balconies in new NSW government social housing that his firm designed at St Marys for 53 residents were crucial.

Commended in the latest NSW Architecture Awards,each apartment has its own balcony,and access to a communal garden with a long bench that catches the winter sun.

These spaces are designed for “urban serendipity” - where neighbours bump into each other for a chat.

The balconies were designed as outdoor rooms,said McGregor. They get the winter sun and provide shade in summer,privacy and outlook. The balustrade,made from perforated metal,gets denser where more privacy and protection are needed.

“You could be naked from the waist down,” said McGregor. Like many architects,he says glass balustrades are overdone and overrated.

The need to hide the washing from passers-by drove the project on one level,he said. Every balcony has an inbuilt washing line.

“Australians can’t tolerate seeing underwear flapping in the breeze,” McGregor said.

About half of all dwellings currently being built in NSW are apartments. TheNSW Apartment Design Guide mandates that every one has a balcony. A two-bedroom apartment,for example,is required to have a 10-metre square balcony with a minimum depth of two metres.

Rules on apartments in NSW say they have to have a minimum depth of one metre to be counted.

Rules on apartments in NSW say they have to have a minimum depth of one metre to be counted.Apartment Design Guide,NSW

In apartments on major roads,or subject to high winds,a Wintergarden (a glassed-in room),bay windows or juliet balconies may be substituted.

Many balconies,though,become junk rooms. They are places to store bicycles,toys,and hang out the washing. The guidelines say storage areas on balconies should be in addition to the minimum balcony size.

There are many good balconies,said architect Philip Thalis. But he could see some “pretty lame” balconies on some 60s,70s,70s and 2000s apartments from his office at the University of NSW’s school of architecture where he is Professor of Practice.

Because of COVID and the lockdowns,the public now valued a balcony more than ever,he said. They weren’t popular until the 1960s,said Thalis,a founder of Hill Thalis Architecture + Urban Projects.

He spots a 1960s top-floor apartment that has a balcony without a roof. “If you don’t have a roof,its use is diminished.”

Architect Carolyn Mitchell of Bickerton Masters,a juror on the 2022 Architecture Awards,said she saw balconies in blocks in railway corridors that appeared too close. “Getting sunlight in would be a challenge. You could almost share a drink with someone over the way. They obviously comply,but they do feel very close.”

She said the recent investigations by the Building Commissioner David Chandler highlighted how good design and construction was important.

“You don’t want a balcony that fills with water and turns into a swimming pool on the apartment on top of you.”

St Marys Housing – McGregor Westlake Architecture it was commended in the multi residential category.

St Marys Housing – McGregor Westlake Architecture it was commended in the multi residential category.Brett Boardman

Haddow is a lover of good balconies,and a hater of bad. “A good balcony should be really comfortable ... like a beautiful leather jacket. It’s usable,it’s gorgeous. A bad balcony is like something tacked on the outside of the building like a cheap piece of jewellery that degrades and falls off.”

Many balconies don’t pass the nude test,he said. But even worse was the number of apartments that also didn’t provide enough privacy for a resident to have a shower and walk to the bedroom naked,said Haddow.

Julie Power is a senior reporter at The Sydney Morning Herald.

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