With its $2 billion Southbank project still in the pipeline, developer Beulah will first deliver 15 highly sustainable homes located along Merri Creek in the suburb of Northcote, about five kilometres north of central Melbourne.
By going 100 per cent electric and drawing on solar power and energy efficient design, the developer hopes to make the homes, known collectively as The Wilds, carbon neutral in operation.
Beulah co-founder and executive director, Adelene Teh told The Fifth Estate her company was looking to innovate in the residential space, and aiming to go carbon neutral was a logical next step in terms of where the industry was headed and what buyers were looking for.
“I think definitely, across the industry, that’s the direction many people are moving in, but it is still challenging in some ways to make it efficient and feasible,” Teh said.
“As a company, we wanted to explore a carbon neutral offering and we felt it aligned strongly with the sustainably-minded suburb of Northcote.”
Teh, who is the daughter of veteran Malaysian property developer Datuk Teh Kean Ming, said while the industry had come a long way in terms of sustainability, the success of projects that push the boundaries relied heavily on market appetite.
“It’s still a case of whether the mass market would accept it – and pay extra if it’s going to be more expensive,” she said.
The company is counting on buyers who will pay more, not just for the sustainability credentials, but for the development’s location in the highly sought-after boutique Westgarth precinct.
The former light industrial site cost Beulah $12.6 million and the three, four and five bedroom homes are priced starting from $1.9 million.
Innovative Melbourne architects, Edition Office, were brought on board with the aim of creating structures that were not just energy efficient, but made the most of the surrounding environment to create a product worth the price.
“The cardinal principle is that we want to respect the surrounding and we looked for an architect that will be able to do that for us,” Teh said.
Construction is expected to commence soon on the development, with a 15-month schedule expected to be completed towards the end of next year.
Challenges of carbon neutrality
Development Manager Chris Hatcher said aiming for carbon neutrality came with its drawbacks. Aside from higher upfront costs, from a marketing perspective Hatcher said getting customers to do away with gas remained a challenge.
“We don’t have gas, and while that may be acceptable for some people, other people require some education,” he said.
Hatcher said there were also clashes between the central concept of creating great views for residents, and designing homes to be ultra sustainable.
“The main decision behind buying the site was actually its rarity and the direct frontage with Merri Creek, so we have a number of houses that face west onto the creek to maximise views,” Hatcher said.
“But then that obviously generates issues in relation to heat and controlling that within the architecture. So that’s probably one of the big challenges from our end is managing those competing objectives.”
Installing motor-operated blinds on the western facing windows was one of the ways to help mitigate heat effects. All of the homes also have double glazed windows and doors, additional slab insulation and are designed for cross ventilation to reduce heat.
Efficient water usage is another key mandate of the project, with a 5000L rainwater tank catering for gardening, toilet and laundry needs.
In addition water-sensitive landscape design techniques were applied, using drought-tolerant and indigenous plant species and permeable paving in common areas with an underground water detention tank, to minimise stormwater discharge and improve its quality.
Beulah is working with a sustainability consultant and the Victorian Residential Efficiency Scorecard to rate the properties and determine carbon neutrality.
“I think from a marketing perspective it’s very easy to claim that you are carbon neutral, but it’s different to actually be carbon neutral in operation,” Hatcher said.
The homes will run off solar power during the day and draw energy from the grid when needed at night. The option to install batteries and EV charging capabilities is also open to residents.
Hatcher said one of the side aims of the project was to improve the health of Merri Creek, which like many urban waterways is a longtime victim of runoff and other pollutants.
“Over time there’s been a number of industrial uses along the Merri Creek that used to spill pollutants into the creek that are now being regenerated and converted to be more sensitive and appropriate,” Hatcher said.
Being a former industrial and unique site, the planning approval process was relatively intense, factoring in regeneration, cultural and community concerns.
“We’ve gone through a process of assessing the former use of the site, preparing a cultural heritage management plan, working with the Merri Creek Group, Melbourne Water, the Council, obviously the neighbors as well, on what’s ideal for this site,” Hatcher said.
“As part of the process we are implementing a three meter, regeneration landscaping corridor, all the way along the Merri Creek in front of the site. Ultimately, it will improve the health of the creek.”
Setting the trend
While Beulah caters primarily to the top end residential market, Teh says she sees opportunities to push the industry forward by creating adaptive offerings that incorporate mixed-use and potentially more affordable models as well.
The company’s recently-completed Paragon building in Melbourne features the largest vertical installation of solar panels in Australia, as well as the country’s first indoor urban forest.
“We don’t claim ourselves to be doing just luxury products or just affordable products. I think we’re always about responding to what the market wants, but also where the market’s going to,” Teh said.
The ambitious Southbank project is what Teh called “hyper mixed use”, and she hopes with its clear benefits, particularly during the pandemic, more of the hybrid typology would emerge moving forward.
“I think there’s changing lifestyles, changing demands, especially in recent times during the pandemic. Someone like myself might not want to travel too far to go out somewhere.”
“I think the mixed use typology is really game changing in that way. You’re saving a lot of commute time but yet you’re surrounded by all these amenities. You don’t have to travel out too much to enjoy art and culture or retail shops or fresh food or great restaurants.”
With the Southbank building in the design development phase and looking to go to market by the end of the year, the company is hosting a series of experimental events in association with the development, called Beta, exploring the future of home, work, retail, food, sustainability and more.
“There will be recycling, upcycling, reusing waste materials for clothing for fashion or for furniture. So there’s quite a lot of things that we’re exploring and putting a lot of energy to try and create something that hasn’t been done before.”