As the team at Intrapac Property celebrates 40 years of developing inspiring places to live, I have been reflecting on how the development industry has changed and evolved during the last decade. As CEO of Intrapac and Immediate Past President of the Urban Development Institute of Australia (UDIA) National, I have a holistic view of the factors affecting the industry, particularly on the nation’s ability to provide affordable housing at scale.
The following article explores the key challenges, discusses how we’ve remained successful in the face of change, and looks to our future goals and aspirations.
Planning policy is often implemented without consideration of economic constraints or consumer needs and preferences. The classic example is the continued push by policymakers to increase densities in established suburbs, particularly with medium-density development of up to 6 stories.
Such policies can be worthy in principle – we can’t necessarily keep expanding existing cities outwards indefinitely. Many world cities have grappled with these challenges to varying degrees of success, but it remains critical to consider local conditions when applying them in an Australian context. The fact is that such a policy ignores the fact that building affordable, family-sized apartments in buildings of these heights is not viable for the bulk of buyers. The high cost of land and, more critically, vertical commercial construction methodologies mean that 3-bedroom apartments cannot be delivered to the market feasibly, at a cost that would translate as an affordable or desirable option for purchasers.
The development process
Increasing complexity and time is the new normal for property development. Ever-growing planning legislation, the siloed oversight of development and construction approvals, the high cost of labour, increasing construction and corporate compliance requirements, and NIMBYism are all contributing to a new residential housing sector that continues to become more expensive for property buyers.
The last decade has seen an ever-growing number of varying and often competing requirements added to the development approval process, severely increasing the time it takes from project inception to delivering a new home.
Developments must meet complicated planning scheme requirements, deal with numerous (and increasing) overlays and ever-changing servicing authority requirements, and deliver on economic, cultural, environmental and operational outcomes.
These components are presided over by the siloed state, local and sometimes federal government departments, authorities and their representatives, lacking a coordinated approach which is responsive to market and community needs. The time taken to navigate and negotiate the minutia of these myriad requirements contributes significantly to the rising cost of housing.
If we believe housing is a national priority, which in a growing housing crisis has to be the case, the system needs to be capable of managing and assessing these diverse requirements holistically, enabling issues such as affordability and timeliness to become driving objectives.
Living in a civilised society like Australia, which remunerates people appropriately and is highly focused on creating fair working conditions, also has a natural consequence: our construction costs are high by world standards.
This is not a criticism but a statement of fact; with a high labour cost, building new, affordable housing at scale will remain fraught. Addressing this challenge will require substantial research and investment into prefabricated or automated building systems, which reduce the labour component and improve productivity in construction.
As I write, the housing construction industry remains years away from realising the efficiencies such approaches could theoretically yield, not to mention overcoming the related logistics issues. Even businesses in larger markets like the USA or Europe have had limited success on this front, and delivering results will be even more challenging in a smaller, more fragmented and geographically spread market like Australia
Related to the labour challenges, timelines for civil construction for a subdivision have grown from as low as 14 weeks for a stage slightly over a decade ago, to 40+ weeks today for a project of the same scale and complexity. Over that time, the development process has created many additional, arguably unnecessary steps and delays that require an ever-growing investment of time and money. While this might assure a marginally better quality outcome in fringe circumstances, it also materially increases development costs, ultimately leading to higher consumer prices.
Australians have a tendency to forget or ignore that their home was once part of a subdivision or development. It’s as if the place they live now was always exactly like it is today and should never change. I understand the tendency to fear change, but it is inevitable and has, for the most part, been a real positive for building communities and the nation.
I think it’s incumbent on every Australian to reflect on the fact that we are a country built on migrants and that growing the population has been one of the country’s key success factors. So, with that opportunity also comes the understanding that our towns and cities must evolve to accommodate this growth.
While coverage has been given to a rising YIMBY (Yes In My Back Yard) movement, at a local level, the media still has a strong bias towards negative reporting, often amplifying the voices of the tiny minority who vehemently oppose a project. This attitude sows’ distrust of developers, prevents progress, and contributes to costly project delays, leading to greater housing inequality and costs.
Why we continue to thrive
At Intrapac, our carefully selected project pipeline and funding model ensures we have the necessary cash flow to support protracted development approvals and construction processes. This large pipeline has also provided in-depth experience across geographic jurisdictions and different contexts, exposing us to complex site characteristics and remediation processes, and has seen us problem-solve every conceivable project issue.
Our talented team is made up of high-calibre experienced people from whom we expect a lot and can rely on. That is critically important for our operation, as we choose to operate a lean team relative to the breadth of projects we deliver.
We also have excellent internal collaboration with a very flat business structure. David and I know everyone; they’re part of the extended family. People know what they need to do and know we trust them, and we give them the space to get the job done.
Over 40 years, we have built long-term relationships with landowners and funders who invest in our projects and share in the returns we collectively generate. This allows us to take on complex projects, undertake detailed due diligence, and acquire land in a considered fashion, which can involve undertaking complex land remediation or grinding through rigorous and lengthy approval processes.
Relationships are key. Whether it be staff members, financial partners, or consultants, we develop trusting, long-term relationships imbued with trust and respect, facilitating innovative solutions and the ability to collaboratively resolve challenges.
Our team shares our commitment to delivering vision-led project outcomes through meaningful placemaking. There hasn’t been a single project in 40 years that we are not proud to be associated with.
What the future holds
With urban infill sites of suitable scale and zoning becoming scarce and quality greenfield sites becoming even rarer, we are increasingly looking to regional locations and infill, medium-density development. It will be interesting to see how further population growth will be accommodated, particularly given the cost and affordability challenges that continue to grow.
We will inevitably need to move towards a greater proportion of multi-residential built-form projects, or perhaps we will see days where again, new brand cities and towns will be established across our vast continent.
In the immediate future, we continue to develop and refine our Avant Townhome products for construction and energy efficiency. We seek the sweet spot between affordability and giving people the space, configurations and lifestyle options, they need.
Sustainability remains front of mind. Having achieved a world-leading 6-Star GreenStar Communities rating for Kinley demonstrates our commitment to sustainable outcomes and is a testament to the team’s strength and capabilities.
The whole industry is now focusing on tackling the net zero challenge. However, there is still a lot of detail necessary to deal with systemic barriers. I expect new measurement tools and solutions to enable this over time.
Whatever happens, we are here to thrive in the long term.