Civil construction engineer Joe Bordonaro ventured into developing an apartment project with a very clear goal – to create a sustainable home he would want to live in.
And despite more than six years of hurdles ranging from VCAT challenges, neighbour objections and a sewer pipe that wasn’t where it was supposed to be causing a major redesign at the 11th hour, the former managing director of bridge-building firm InfraCon Group says it has all been worth it.
The market also seems to think so, with eight of the 13 apartments sold off the plan for prices between $700,000 and $800,000-plus. Five are being retained by Mr Bordonaro’s family trust – one for him to occupy, one for each of his sons, and two to be sold at a later date.
“We did not spend a fortune on advertising. All we did was local advertising, and built our own website,” he said.
Mr Bordonaro first acquired the site in Heidelberg opposite the Warringal Parklands in 2008. He was already living in the area, 500 metres from the site, and had decided he wanted to downsize from his current two-storey home to an apartment where there would be less maintenance and no stairs.
“I decided I was going to build a block of apartments for people like me, who want to downsize, and who want the creature comforts of a home, like big rooms,” he said.
“And I found there were a lot of people like me who don’t want to leave the area.”
Mr Bordonaro said the youngest buyer was 45, and the principal of a local private school. The majority were around 60 to 65, and many of them came from the local area.
The strategic planner at Banyule Council suggested he commission Collingwood-based sustainability-focused studio EME Design for the project, as from the outset his goal was a development that would offer residents low running costs for electricity and gas.
Mr Bordonaro asked EME principal Luke Middleton to “come up with something extra-special” for the residents, not something that would appeal to the investor market or for renting out.
The project’s 13 apartments are in two, three and four bedroom configurations, with the smallest 88 square metre internal space plus between 15-16 sq m of outdoor balcony space, and the largest is 167 sq m internal space. All the apartments have outdoor terraces and space for plants or sculpture at the front doors, and 34 per cent of the site is common open space.
The public spaces comprise a mixture of elevated walkways, gardens and light-filled undercroft spaces, and the apartments effectively have both front and back doors with the public spaces acting like a neighbourhood street.
All have genuine cross ventilation, and north-facing internal living areas linked to north-facing external living spaces, all of which have provision for growing produce in raised garden beds and planters.
The average energy rating of the apartments is over 8.5 star NatHERS, with some achieving higher than 9.2 stars. This has largely been achieved through a combination of passive design such as high thermal mass, insulation, double glazing, solar orientation and sunshading, as well as LED lighting throughout and a high efficiency hot water system.
Other ESD features include 100 per cent of the roof diverting to rainwater collection and storage comprising 20,000-litre water tanks that will reticulate for garden watering, car washing and amenity flushing; low VOC paints and finishes; bicycle racks; and provision for common area food production.
The thermal performance of the apartments is high enough that airconditioning use should be unnecessary.
“There’s a huge advantage to sustainability,” Mr Bordonaro said. “You just have to look at power bills for electricity and gas.
“With green, sustainable buildings, there is the initial spend up-front, but the ongoing power bills for people will be a quarter of what they are now. Energy bills are going to be a killer for everyone in the future.
“I felt a sustainable building reduces the overall cost [of living in a home], and reduces the effects of climate. And most energy [production] is also detrimental to the environment.
“All the ticks for me just added up to advantages. To not do it when you have the opportunity to do it is foolish.”
Universal design and long life
Because his plan is to live in his apartment for the rest of his life, universal design for access principles were also brought into play. The lift, for example, is one that has been designed for disabled persons.
Another sustainability aspect he insisted one was design for long life. As someone whose career was building bridges, Mr Bordonaro said he made sure the building was constructed to bridge standards, with a 100-year design life.
“This building will be here long after I, and many of the buildings around it, are gone,” he said.
The structure features post-tensioned concrete slabs and columns, and blockwork walls infilled with concrete. On the exterior, a 50mm coat of styrene was added for insulation followed by two coats of render.
The basement ceiling has also been insulated, which Mr Bordonaro said “cost a fortune, but that doesn’t matter”.
Hurdles to the project
The hurdles the project had to overcome also cost a fortune, he said, and reduced the profit margins on the project significantly.
First, there were issues with council’s planning department that required the design to be adjusted.
There were complaints from neighbours who only wanted townhouses next door, so the top two apartments were dramatically scaled back to 108 sq m.
“That cost me a lot more [of the profit margin],” Mr Bordonaro said.
Heritage considerations due to the proximity of St John’s Church meant they had to ensure the final exterior render matched its off-white colour. A curve ball was also thrown regarding the need to develop an Aboriginal Cultural Management Plan.
The committee of the strata units next door to the site were concerned about overshadowing, so the roof had to be redesigned on that side, with EME coming up with a dramatic folded roof design of vertical Colorbond with European-style dormer windows.
There was an adverse possession claim – also from the strata neighbours – and even offers to buy the disputed one metre wide strip did not resolve it. The design got tweaked again.
Mr Bordonaro said being “generous” with purchasers also added to the timeframes, as he gave everyone the opportunity to make changes to the design of their particular apartments. Changes included moving internal walls or adding a bathtub. One asked if they could have a gas BBQ on the terrace, which the team thought was such a good idea all the apartment terraces were redesigned to add a BBQ, gas, water and light.
The basement storage units that go with each apartment had power added so a golf buggy or other items could be charged.
Mr Bordonaro said these minor tweaks slowed the project down and also added to the costs.
“But this was just not a money-making venture for me,” he said.
“I have spent 40 years in this area, and I had decided the outcome was going to be brilliant.”
There was a plan to reuse bluestone from the site for the front fence, but so much of it was cracked or broken that bluestone facings are now being imported instead and will be affixed to the rocks of the fence.
Sewerage puts a spanner in the works
The obstacles kept coming. The due diligence for water and sewer pipes showed it was 3.5 metres away from the site boundary. The full design was complete – then Melbourne Water asked the team to find the sewer pipe.
“I said, but it’s your sewer pipe!” Mr Bordonaro said.
The water authority still insisted the team had to locate the pipe before a Build Over application could be finalised, which took 12 months and required ground-penetrating radar and physical probing. The pipe was found just within the site boundary.
The result was a need to redesign the basement, move the building’s piles by one metre, reduce the size of the storage by a metre, and $250,000 in added costs, plus delay costs.
Liveability over profit
Finally, in April 2014, site works commenced. Completion is expected to be reached in November 2015, then following the issuing of the approval for subdivision and certificate of occupancy and settlement with purchasers, everyone, including Mr Bordonaro, can move in.
“The costs kept going up and up,” he reflected. “Most developers would have given up. The profit was eroded by all the obstacles, but at the end of the day, I got what I wanted.
“I did not go out there motivated by the money, by the profit.
“There was a very, very strong strain [with this project]… I had to keep fighting and fighting and persisting and persisting. But I intend to live in it; I’m not moving.
“So I stood fast. I had to make some concessions and compromises, because you can’t fight everyone. All the adversity just makes the end product more pleasurable for me.”
Mr Bordonaro said a lot of older people were hesitant to buy off the plan, because unless someone is trained and can visualise what a plan will look like in terms of the finished product, there’s no certainty the buyer will like the end result or get what they expected.
So EME and the developer did extra renders, 3D fly-throughs and animations, and were careful with the detail of all renders so they would be as close to the final product as possible regarding colours, finishes and layout.
He said buyers who understood the rationale behind the design, build quality and sustainability initiatives were willing to pay the prices, and that the stir it has caused in the local market has seen early buyers approached with offers of around $100,000 more than they paid to sell.
Mr Bordonaro said one of the leading local estate agents has told him he was a “trailblazer”, with project having had a major influence on the type of projects being planned and developed in the area.
“A lot of the professional developers who’ve seen what I’ve done are joining the club,” he said.
While the apartment prices are around $200,000-$250,000 more than a “dogbox” style apartment, those types of apartments are designed with investors in mind, not for the people who will actually live in them, Mr Bordonaro said, and there is now a growing appetite for larger, higher quality apartments.
“Now all of a sudden, the landscape is changing, people have understood what I’ve done.”
He supports the idea of mandatory minimum standards for space and amenity.
“They should raise the bar a little more for apartments people have got to live in.”
Instead of arguing that the only way to deliver adequate product is to design and build the “dogbox” style, Mr Bordonaro said developers should inbuild the cost of making apartments liveable – and if they can’t afford to do so, don’t develop.
The project has continued to attract enquiries from potential buyers, and the trust is now taking expressions of interest from people who missed out with the goal of potentially undertaking a second project.
Mr Bordonaro said the key for the next project would be finding the right site – one near parklands and within short walking distance of the area’s shops, restaurants and the river. It’s proving elusive, and the changes to planning laws have seen most of the green space zones “locked up”, precluding the possibility of a four-storey building like Artisan.
“But if I find the right location, I’ll probably have another crack at it,” Mr Bordonaro said.
Designer Luke Middleton said one of the surprising things for him was that the 8.5-plus star apartments, which would have been groundbreaking had they been completed by 2010 as originally planned, were still far “ahead of the curve” in 2015.
The joint vision was to provide a realistic alternative for sustainable, robust and beautiful homes, he said.
“We think that this project serves as a benchmark of what designers and developers should be striving for. Liveable density with minimal running costs, built to last and built for people.”