Building setbacks (yards) Print

Design Outcome


Desi​gn Checklist​

  1. ​​The building responds positively to the immediate context and street environment, and the design is informed by the existing or desired character​​

Street setback (front yard)

The setback of buildings from the back edge of public pavement influences a range of issues. These include the perception of the streetscape and the experience of being in that street, the level of activity conveyed by the building onto the street, and the relationship of building's occupants to the street (i.e. the privacy of internal spaces and the potential for occupants to overlook the street).

Street setbacks help to maintain and enhance an area's character. In new areas it will help to establish the character of the street by providing a consistent building line for adjacent buildings to align with. Setback may also occur at the upper storeys of a building, affecting the height-to-width ratio of a street as well as sunlight penetration.

In residential streets front yards also provide privacy for the front apartments of a development. Passers by are kept away from windows and the front yard allows for some landscape screening.

On sites that have commercial ground floors a 'zero' setback is often prescribed. This maintains a strong street edge and provides a direct relationship between the commercial ground floor uses, which are often shops, and the street.

Side and rear setbacks (side and back yards)

Side and rear setbacks provide privacy and daylight for occupants and the residents of adjacent buildings. They may also help to reinforce street character in areas that are characterised by setbacks. 

Front yard setbacks

The front yard setback should establish or reinforce the desired streetscape character, particularly the general height-to-width ratio of the area, or where an existing landscape character is to be maintained.

The setback also helps to define the qualities of the street edge. It can achieve variation or punctuation in the streetscape by altering the setback at specific locations (e.g. at junctions or open spaces), or simply to break up a monotonous street edge. It is important that the setback forms a continuous positive edge to the street that responds to the buildings on each side.

The space between the building and the street becomes a transitional space between the public street and the private building. The design should therefore clearly differentiate between public and private space.

Where no front yard setback is required:
  • ensure any setback enhances the streetscape by providing a high quality open space or maintaining an existing pattern of setbacks along the street
  • ensure the setback supports the intended development use and location (e.g. town centres and business zones will require zero setback);
  • any setback should match that of existing developments. Where some variation is desired, offset the building frontage by a small amount from its neighbours.

Where buildings are built up to the street edge, generally in commercial (shopping) streets, and where no podium is provided, upper level setbacks should be used to maintain a human scale (three to four storeys) along the street. This prevents taller buildings appearing oppressive or dominant.

Side yard setbacks  

The side yard serves several important functions. It: 

  • maintains light, air, sun and privacy  
  • can provide a space for landscaping between developments 
  • allows windows and articulation on the side of the building 
  • provides a transition space between different buildings, particularly if they are different heights. This helps to prevent the dominance of larger buildings over smaller ones. 

The setback can also continue or create a pattern of development that positively defines the streetscape. The spaces between buildings must be designed to be organised and coherent, and not determined by what is left over around the building form.

Rear yard setbacks  

The ‘back to back’ distance between buildings should maximise sunlight, privacy and the amount of usable open space. A large rear setback also allows for more planting, including mature trees. 

Better Design Practice

Rules of Thumb

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