Artist's impression of the proposed Nightingale development.

The Commons apartment building in Melbourne’s inner city Brunswick is now sustainability lore. With its rooftop gardens and bees, no airconditioning and no parking (but public transport passes instead), it has attracted a huge amount of interest. This includes from rival developers amazed at how many golden “rules” you can break and still make a profit.

Now it’s about to happen again, with the rules this time bent even further.

Across the road at 6 Florence Street, Brunswick, Breathe Architects, who led design at The Commons, is about to give birth to the Nightingale, a 20-unit project already ruffling feathers with its financiers because profit will be deliberately kept modest.

Key outcomes will be social, with affordable housing top of mind, Breathe’s Jeremy McLeod says.

Potential buyers have been thoroughly canvassed for their preferences around design and investment spend, completed plans for the block will be given away free, and environmental outcomes will, of course, be ambitious.

But there’s more. Breathe is teaming with some likeminded peers, including Six Degrees, Clare Cousins and Andrew Maynard, to roll out a series of similar projects, with each firm investing in each other’s development, and each taking the lead in turn.

McLeod says the aim is to achieve a new concept in housing that is affordable and focused on social and environmental outcomes. That means lower than regular profit. This has caused some grief with financiers who typically push for a maximum financial returns to “de-risk the project”.

But McLeod is clear: “We’re looking at a reduced profit on cost.”

Asking prices are expected to be between $400,000 and $645,000.

Here’s where some of the savings will come from, according to the development’s website:

Estimated savings:

  • No marketing and sales costs – about $400,000
  • Lower construction costs – $1.1million
  • No marketing team or advertising fees – about $50,000
  • No display suite – about $100,0000
  • No real estate agents – about $250,000
  • No basement car parking – about $500,000
  • No second bathrooms – $200,000
  • No individual laundries – about $150,000
  • No individual services – about $250,000

The consortia could increase the prices if it wanted to, such is the demand, but that’s not the point, McLeod says.

“We’ve got 72 people wanting to buy 20 apartments and that’s after disclosing our pricing.”

More rules will be broken with the project designed to be “incredibly transparent” down to how the money is spent, what the debt is and what the construction costs are.

Give the people what they want – but ask first

Intending buyers have also been intensively canvassed for their preferences in design and investment.

Questions have included, “Would you rather have a communal laundry on the roof and 2.5 square metres of living space, or a private laundry?”

The answer in every case has been a communal laundry, McLeod says, adding that this flies in the face of what developers typically believe the market wants.

A question on balconies: open, or enclosed winter gardens at an additional cost of $5000 for the glazing, surprised. Most (87 per cent) opted for the winter garden, perhaps with regard to Melbourne’s winter, McLeod suggested.

Introverted garden or extravert?

Another interesting question was around the landscaping and whether the potential buyers were introverts or extroverts. It turns out the mix was about one-third introverts, one-third extroverts and one-third ambiverts (a bit of both). So the landscape will be tailored with options for all.

“So if you’re an introvert you can sit with a book and not have to talk to anyone”.

Other features in the project will include a big shed, a landscaped rooftop and a ground floor that engages with the street. Nice for the extroverts.

Environmental credentials

On environmental grounds Nightingale will outperform The Commons, McLeod says.

The worst-performing apartment will be 7.8 star NatHERS; the best 9.5 stars; and the average 8.5 stars, compared with an average thermal efficiency of 7.5 stars in The Commons.

Size will vary from 55-75 sq m.

Wide support

So what is the objective or philosophy behind the Nightingale? McLeod says it’s an attempt at a “new model of housing”. By this he means “architects coming back as housing providers, using development models and not competing to sell cheap investment apartments; looking to house citizens – that’s the idea.”

What tends to happen is a “lost in translation process where the architect talks to the developer and the developer gets advice from the real estate agent and the planner”.

And you end up with conventional product that doesn’t achieve any great innovation and breakthroughs.

Instead of development, he says, “What we are doing is selling housing.”

Support for the project has been huge. The team has engaged with the Robin Boyd Foundation, the Australian Institute of Architects and the Victorian Government Architect. McLeod has also presented the project to the Tasmanian chapter of the AIA.

He says Victorian Government Architect Geoffrey London has been looking at housing affordability as a problem in Victoria and Melbourne for years. The Nightingale concept tries to address those issues. Key in a number of discussions on the issue, he says, is that there is a missing link between architecture and architects who care about the people who will live in the building.

Free plans to all – not a new idea

Another interesting idea is that the plans will be made available free to others.

That’s not entirely a new idea, he says, but references the heritage of people such as Robin Boyd who in the ’50s started The Age small home service, where modernist architects such as Roy Grounds – who designed bespoke family homes – sold the plans for five pounds to all who desired them.

“I’ve done the calculations – it’s about $850 for a set of plans in today’s terms,” McLeod says.

In the 1970s there was also activism by architects, with Graham Gunn teaming up with a merchant builder to build affordable modernist homes.

“Since then the cost of living in Melbourne has got higher and higher and we’re trying to work out what we can do in a continually urbanising society to build affordable and meaningful housing.”

This new project, he hopes, will do its part to show the way.

The Commons. Image: Urban Angles

Disbelief at The Commons

The Commons has acquired its fair share of cynicism.

When The Fifth Estate interviewed its lead architect Jeremy McLeod of Breathe Architects for a community radio program, Living By Design on 94.1 FM in Melbourne, McLeod said that despite the absence of airconditioning the temperatures in the apartments stayed within the bounds of comfort even during an intense Melbourne heat wave in January 2014.

We related the story to a leading Sydney engineer.

“Let me guess the reaction,” McLeod said. “They didn’t believe it.”

That’s right.

“Well tell them to get in touch,” McLeod said. “We’ve got all the data to prove it.”

According to data sourced from the Bureau of Meterology and published on Wikipedia, there were four consecutive days when the temperature was more than 41 degrees and went over 43 degrees on two of the days between 14-17 January.

A resident in the flat above McLeod who “wrote the original sustainability plan, and is obsessive about measuring the temperature” said that after Day 4 the temperature peaked at 27 degrees.

“He turned his fan on and it was 3-4 degrees cooler.”

McLeod said the best news was that when this was happening Brunswick’s old electricity infrastructure “melted down” under pressure of multiple airconditioners turned on, which meant many people baked without airconditioners in buildings not designed to withstand heat.

McLeod recalls going to planning meetings at the design phase where angry objectors would yell, “Would you expect your children to live with no aircon and no parking?”

Quite frankly, “Yes”, McLeod said.

Other benefits of the building include 200 kilograms of honey produced by the beehives, a $750,000 saving by not building a basement car park, and items such as “beautiful timber” doors instead of PVC, and double glazed windows.

McLeod said, “We assumed the buyers would be ’40 somethings’, left-of-centre voting, who cared about the environment, and professionals.

“What actually happened is that most of the one bedrooms were bought by single professional females.

“People wanted to live in a smaller community, not with 99 strangers.”

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  1. How much of the sale price is land costs?

    The last time I looked at Sydney inner suburbs prices (6 month ago) was a medium price of $207,000 per apartment on a basis of 40 apartment development. Land is where the most profit is taken. Cost of land in places where people want to live can be a large chunk of the cost building.

    So it does not matter what the design is able to do land costs still make these apartments not affordable to many.

    What has been designed and built is a step in the right direction for future developments. It is a case of scaling up to reduce costs further without turning it something like the Redfern apartments in Sydney. Can we design and build low impact sustainable urban developments that creates vibrant, resilient, healthy and sustainable urban communities that is all about people?

  2. Really love your exciting plans and link with my old hero Robin Boyd.
    I own a 45mX16m site in Hampton shopping street and am currently sketching up some ideas along similar lines (space/affordability). Would love to come in and say hi some day and hear your views.
    Keep it up
    Jim Hill