HOUSING: Brendan Condon had a passion to create a new eco-development on Victoria’s Bass Coast that targets high sustainability and community outcomes. Finding Danny Almagor and Berry Liberman’s company Small Giants as a backer is finally turning that passion into reality.
Brendan Condon had worked for developers restoring wetlands, rivers and creeks for major estates. As a director of ecological restoration firm Australian Ecosystems he saw that while the landscapes were great, there was a pressing need to improve the built forms volume builders were delivering.
Condon says he tried speaking with developers and builders about the need for more energy-efficient, climate-adapted housing, but that didn’t make things change.
“The big developers said there was not a big demand for it,” he told The Fifth Estate.
“So I thought I’d get off the soapbox and pull together some ethical investors and go and show it can be done.”
The outcome is The Cape, at Cape Paterson on Victoria’s Bass Coast, 140 kilometres south east of Melbourne, near Wonthaggi.
The development is masterplanned for around 220 homes and more than 50 per cent open space. There is also a permit for a 32-apartment building for short-stay accommodation, a conference centre with cafe, community building and community food garden. The project is expected to take around seven years to reach completion.
Condon has known the beach next to the site since he was seven years old; it was where his family holidayed.
About 14 years ago, it came up for sale and with help from ethical investors, be bought the land while it was still zoned as farmland.
The rezoning development approvals took around 10 years, since his plans involved doing “interesting things with sustainability that were new to council”.
“We wanted to push ourselves out of our comfort zone on sustainability.”
Small Giants investing
The project has so far required a $10 million investment to get up and running, with funding provided by Danny Almagor and Berry Liberman’s company Small Giants, and four high net worth individuals looking for a triple-bottom line impact investment.
All members of the board are aligned around the goal of lifting the sustainability standards in housing and represent “patient capital”, Condon says.
Condon also decided to “pull together a good set of brains” to advise the project.
They include Sustainability Victoria; the Alternative Technology Association; Moreland Energy Foundation; sustainable buildings specialist Tony Isaacs, the original developer of the FirstRate Energy Rating software; founder of Floyd Energy and thermal performance expert Wayne Floyd; former chief executive of Beyond Zero Emissions Matthew Wright, now executive director of Pure Electric Total Home Conversions; and Tim Adams, former president of the Building Designers Association of Victoria.
He also gathered a group of architects and building designers with expertise in sustainable home design, including Adam Dettrick, Mark Schipano of Design Habitat, Beaumont Concepts and ArchiBlox.
The project is also offering designs by dKO and Workshop Architecture, and a new design firm based in the area, Adapt Design Group, has formed around the project.
Then the builders were added into the mix, including established sustainable building firm TS Constructions, and local firm Martin Builders.
Condon says around $300,000 was invested in training some of the region’s local builders to deliver “sustainable homes at least cost”.
High sustainability standards
The design guidelines for the project and the brief for the builders mandates a minimum of 7.5 star NatHERS, at least 2.5 kilowatts of solar PV, and an energy-efficient fitout and appliances.
All homes are also to be fitted with a minimum 10,000-litre rainwater tank for garden and toilet flushing, 15 amp electric vehicle charge points, NBN fibre optic to the home and an electrical system that is solar storage battery-ready.
Low and zero VOC paints, and low-carbon construction materials such as rammed earth, radial sawn timber and Weathertex are also being used.
So far eight homes have been completed or are near completion with an average of eight star NatHERS or higher.
A further six lots in the first stage of 32 lots have been sold, and stage two comprising a further 34 lots is soon to launch, with five pre-sales of those lots to date.
The sites sold to date have been a mixture of house and land packages using designs developed by The Cape team and buyers working with the preferred designers and builders to construct homes that meet the project design standards.
Prices for the homes are ranging from less than $300,000 for two bedrooms with study and ensuite and $400,000 for larger double storey four-bedroom family homes.
Team process cut costs and raised the bar
Condon says the development of the initial designs was a “team process” between the architects and builders. There was a to-and-fro process of refining the designs in consultation with the sustainability experts.
As a result, the “prices kept coming down and the design’s quality went up and up”, Condon says.
As part of early works, the first stage of the community garden was completed, as well as walking and cycle paths. Environmental restoration works have also been undertaken, and the restored habitat areas are part of the water sensitive urban design approach.
While the homes are on freehold lots, the open areas are managed by a body corporate. Condon says the body corporate levies will be under $1000 a year because the landscape is resilient and low cost to run.
“Because [Australian Ecosystems] already manages big estates around Melbourne, we have a fairly good idea of how much it will cost to manage,” Condon says.
From coal to kale
The community garden has been drought-proofed with a 230,000-litre rainwater tank that stores water captured from stormwater runoff.
Condon says that since the garden was planted out in September, around $15,000 worth of produce has been harvested over the summer. The figure was established by comparing prices for the same produce at the Coles in Wonthaggi, the nearest town.
As the project evolves, the garden will be expanded, he says. Orchards, beekeeping and poultry are also planned, along with a kitchen in the community building that can be used for food preserving.
“The Bass Coast used to be known as coal country,” Condon says. “Now South Gippsland is on an exciting transition path as a food location.”
He believes the development’s produce will enable it to be part of that evolution. Plans on the drawing board include a food box scheme to sell produce to locals.
Already the first community passata making day has been held to process some of the half tonne of organic tomatoes produced by the garden. The bottles of pasta sauce are to be shared among residents and also given to prospective buyers.
Who’s buying? Let’s talk about e-changers
The development is 10 minutes from Wonthaggi, and will be serviced by a school bus. There is also a bus direct to Southern Cross Station from the area and according to Google it is less than 2.5 hours to central Melbourne.
Condon says this makes the location perfect for those KPMG demographer Bernard Salt has termed “e-changers”.
These are professionals and others that prefer to work from an idyllic regional location and only go into the city now and then for meetings or other reasons.
The one thing Condon says Salt missed in his description of what an e-changer requires is a sustainable home with low operating costs.
Buyers so far have included a number of professionals that “understand good design”, he says.
Others have been local families, tradesmen and active retirees.
For those retirees on a fixed income the ultra-low running costs and active social design of the project have been a major attraction, Condon says.
“The homes [built to date] are generating an energy surplus. People can decouple from rising energy costs.”
He says the homes do not have “high tech specs” and are easy to operate. The builders and project team spend a lot of time with the buyers explaining how to operate the home efficiently.
Builders comparing notes and learnings
As the project unfolds, Condon says he hears some “very unusual discussions I don’t think you’d hear elsewhere in Australia” as the builders compare notes on how they achieve higher star ratings.
“They are now competing on a friendly level on energy efficiency,” he says.
“That is something that I think needs to happen more broadly.”
Courses on sustainable living and employment opportunities
Condon says the conference centre planned for the development will run courses in sustainable living, energy efficiency and energy-efficient housing. Along with the planned cafe and the short-stay accommodation, it is also expected to generate on-site employment for residents.
The centre will also be available for “weddings, parties, anything,” he says.
During the holiday season, the apartments will be leased to the general public.
The centre and accommodation are to be developed as a separate business, and will generate part of the returns for the original investors, Condon says.
They will also help accelerate the rest of the project’s community infrastructure.
This will include three community charge points for the long-range electric vehicles Condon believes are part of the immediate future.
Condon says the team are also exploring the idea of constructing a collaborative workspace to attract innovators to the community.
How regional centres can take pressure off the city
The exemplar community, with fast data connectivity, beautiful location and relatively short distance from a major capital city is an example of how regional developments can “take the pressure of our cities,” Condon says.
The community is also creating a hub of sustainable designers and builders in the Bass Coast region that he says has national significance.
“We have created this new capacity.”
The board has backed the open-sourcing of some of the eco-home designs, so they can be used in any other region.
“We are keen to be a resource to other local communities,” Condon says.
“We have got to get moving on climate change – we are way behind the eight ball.”
With the cost of solar panels going down, and batteries rapidly also coming down in price, and other energy prices rising, Condon says the “economics of sustainability versus conventional housing have passed each other in the night”.
“We are at the tipping point of the clean tech renaissance. I believe we will soon see very rapid wash through our society of sustainable practice based on economics, because the economics stacks up.”