How to choose a healthy apartment – a checklist for buyers, renters and designers


apartment healthy

One of the many new insights making their way into residential development thinking – or that need to – is how the design of an apartment, the building itself and its urban context can either promote or discourage a healthier lifestyle.

There are a few touchpoints to watch out for if you’re looking to cash in on the cooling property market. 

For instance, tall buildings can offer great views, which appeal to many buyers, but if the floorplate of the building is too wide and deep you may not get the cross ventilation in each apartment that you’d hope for. And people living in lower rise apartment buildings, such as three-storey walk ups and mid-rises, are more likely to get regular exercise using the stairs.

Older buildings, such as those built in the 1940s and 1950s, were designed before mechanical ventilation and air conditioning became widespread and, therefore, often feature ample natural light and good natural ventilation. Ceiling fans, thermal mass from brick or solid masonry construction and other energy-saving elements are also typical of the era.

Big building footprints, or “fat” buildings, as some people are calling them, can have poor natural lighting because the scale of each floor is so vast, even when the individual apartments are small. 

Apartments in “fat” buildings will generally only have a single aspect (unless the apartment is on a corner), which makes cross ventilation difficult to achieve. Cross ventilation means air can flow freely from one aspect to another. If there is just one aspect, open windows can allow for a change of air but not cross flow to ventilate the entire space. 

Unfortunately, “overweight” buildings are fairly common in Australia because developers are always looking to maximise the number of apartments on the site to maximise returns.

There are a number of things to look out for when selecting a new place to live that will serve your health and wellbeing – and some red flags to watch out for as well.


Try to avoid single aspect apartments wherever you can. President of the NSW Chapter of the Australian Institute of Architects, Andrew Nimmo, says that developers can do clever diagrams showing how cross ventilation works in these apartments, but it is unlikely to work unless it is a corner apartment.

The sealed building envelope in some buildings means issues with condensation can occur, leading to health risks. To counter this, make sure exhaust fans in kitchens, bathrooms and laundries are fit for purpose and can perform adequately.

Generous windows also make a difference to both ventilation and natural light. And make sure they can be opened!

Natural lighting

Ideally, an apartment shouldn’t need artificial lighting during the day, apart from, maybe, laundries and other service areas that you don’t spend much time in. All living areas, including bedrooms, should get natural light.

The University of New South Wales’s Dean of Built Environment, Helen Lochhead offered up a useful tip: when you’re inspecting an apartment, turn all the lights off (the real estate agent will most likely have turned them all on) to see how much natural light each room will get.

It’s also important that communal areas get ample natural light.

Avoid apartments with rooms deep in the floorplate where light and air are not readily available. In Melbourne, there has been a trend towards bedrooms with “borrowed light” that is, no windows but light penetrating from an adjoining corridor or room. That’s not ideal.

Context is key

Look for an apartment block that has a sense of place. How the building relates to the street and the surrounding landscape is important.


Amenity is not just how comfortable you are in your home, it’s also about the relationships you have with fellow residents.

Creating a vibrant community in residential apartment buildings can be challenging. At the very least you need inviting, well lit communal spaces, such as corridors and lobbies where you feel safe.

Having “your eyes on the street” – the ability to see the goings-on outside from the windows and balconies – can also contribute to the social fabric of a building, as well as making you feel safer.


How you get around from home to work or leisure is important for your health and the environment. Look for public transport within walking distance.

Some buildings might offer car share access and cycle parking, and if you are really thinking ahead, ask whether there is charging for electric vehicles, or any plans to have it installed.

Avoid a monoculture

An assortment of people from all walks of life is the key to a dynamic, vibrant locale. Mixed-used developments and precincts, which are rising in popularity, usually result in an interesting variety of people coming and going.

The great outdoors

Access to outdoor space and nature also has a significant impact on human health and wellbeing. This includes private spaces, such as balconies, and communal spaces, where residents can interact with neighbours.

A nice deep balcony is ideal for entertaining and spending time outdoors. But beware, balconies on the upper floors of a taller building are often so windy that they are unpleasant to sit on.


Feeling safe is crucial to human health and wellbeing. Make sure entries and exits are secure. It’s often a good sign when residents can only access the floor their apartment is on, which means you can quickly recognise who belongs there.

Common areas should be well lit both day and night.


Buildings should also be designed in way that is sympathetic to the human need for privacy.

Also consider how privacy interacts with other amenity needs. For example, if you need to have blinds and shutters closed for privacy reasons, this may impact light quality.


Look for thick walls and protection from street noise if you plan on getting any sleep. Check whether windows and glazed doors are double-glazed or have other high-performance insulating glass or other features.

Stairs and lifts

Fire escape stairs can be designed to promote a healthy lifestyle, so check for those that are well designed and encourage you to use them.

Giant car parks underneath apartment buildings also promote insular, inactive lifestyles.

Another downside of underground car parks is that any soil above it, in the courtyard or other communal spaces, is often so shallow that it’s difficult to grow trees and other vegetation.

If lifts are necessary, make sure there are enough to service the number of people in the building.

See these articles in The Fifth Estate to learn more: