The Urban Coup group.

A collective of homebuyers looking to create a community have taken on the increasingly sought-after Nightingale Model to guide development of a Melbourne-based project, which they hope to have completed in three years.

Breathe Architecture – led by Nightingale director Jeremy McLeod – has come onboard as architect, along with Architecture Architecture, and a project manager and development manager are expected to be appointed this week with the search for land to begin next week.

Urban Coup was started eight years ago by a group of Melburnians who came together because they couldn’t buy what they wanted in the market. What they wanted, Urban Coup treasurer Alex Fearnside told The Fifth Estate, was space where “community could happen”. They also all wanted “deeply green buildings”.

Urban Coup bases itself off the European model of co-housing – an intentional community of private dwellings featuring a high level of community space (more than 10 per cent in this case) and shared facilities, such as laundries and a shared kitchen and dining space. It’s objective is to be “inclusive, sustainable and diverse”.

“The principles underpinning Urban Coup is deep green,” Fearnside says. “And it’s about strengthening community ties.”

The journey has been a slow step-by-step process. Indeed, we wrote about the group way back in 2010, at which time they expected a development to be completed within two years.

That goal seems to have been overly ambitious, and Fearnside puts it down to an inability to find suitable land.

Initially the group was looking to buy 2500-3000 square metres of land between 5-10 kilometres from the CBD, close to public transport. The envisaged design was around 24-30 households in two-to-three-storey townhouses.

About a year ago the group came to the conclusion that that just wasn’t viable.

“The cost of land was too high,” Fearnside says.

The group was competing with developers that wanted to put hundreds of apartments on the same block of land, so they just couldn’t afford to purchase the land for such a modest development.

The group has now refined its model, and has gone in two different directions for two projects now in the works – “near and tall” and “far and wide”.

Nightingale meets Urban Coup
Nightingale meets Urban Coup

Near and tall

The most progressed model is what is being termed “near and tall” – near because land being targeted is within 4-8 kilometres of the Melbourne CBD, and tall because it will most likely be between 4-6 storeys on a small 500-750 sq m parcel.

“It’s more like The Commons,” Fearnside says. “That’s why we’re partnering with Nightingale.”

There’ll be 24-30 homes that will be a mix of one, two, three and four-bedroom apartments. There’s not a strong sense of the final mix right now, though it’s likely to be around 25 per cent one-bedroom, 50 per cent two bedroom, and 25 per cent three and four-bedroom.

Fearnside says the development will have the ability to support families as they move through different periods of life, growing or shrinking in number.

“The way I see it, people will be able to move apartments in the community.”

Sustainability-wise, there’s all the typical Nightingale features. Apartments built to an eight-star NatHERS rating, no excess finishes, no aircon, double glazing, hydronic heating, fewer car spaces, bike space and share car facilities.

A key component of the Urban Coup model is a propensity of community space – between 10-15 per cent of the site, according to Fearnside. Residents will be able to come together for shared meals, will likely have a common laundry, and have communal space like a rooftop garden (which could even include chooks).

Far and wide

The group is also in “early exploration” stage for a “far and wide” model – a development with a larger land area 15-20 kilometres from the CBD, which is more akin to eco-villages common on the outskirts of cities around the world.

The same sustainability features will be included, though there will be more space available for landscaping and gardening.

Using the Nightingale Model

The Nightingale Model is based on deliberative development, where future residents have a say in decision-making around the design of the project. The financial returns are also limited so sustainability and liveability outcomes can be maximised.

Fearnside says the projects will go further than previous Nightingale developments in regards to the deliberative development aspect, however.

Equity is being brought in early to allow residents a stronger say in the design, which Fearnside sees as a fundamental difference that builds upon the traditional Nightingale Model.

Whereas in previous iterations households were brought in after initial design and planning approval had been granted, the future residents will be engaged from the get-go, and will become key to exactly how the apartments are configured, what community facilities will be included and where they’ll be located.

“We’re involved from the very, very beginning.”

Fearnside is excited to have Breathe and Architecture Architecture on board.

Breathe’s McLeod is a major driving force behind the Nightingale Model and lives in The Commons, so has first-hand experience of what works and what doesn’t, he said.

“Jeremy brings a deep understanding of Nightingale and sustainability.”

Architecture Architecture, meanwhile, has experience in “making small spaces work beautifully”, Fearnside says, which will be important for such a tight space that also needs to incorporate a high level of community space.

Architecture Architecture director Michael Roper told The Fifth Estate this was a first-of-a-kind project, and while there might be challenges with such a large group of people as a client, he saw it as a natural extension of what the practice does in the rest of its work – “paying special attention to the client, understanding who they are, what makes for a positive environment, responding to their needs”.

“What we really enjoy about our work is the human contact.”

Roper says another challenge is that there is no precedent for an urban co-housing development in Australia.

“Establishing what that looks like is new territory. That’s what’s exciting. It’s not going to be a traditional development.”

The Urban Coup project, he says, also represents an opportunity to take the community facility and amenity objectives of previous Nightingale projects to the next level.


Fearnside says the apartments will cost around the same as a typical apartment on the market. While developer profits are capped at 15 per cent, this money is funnelled back into providing a higher sustainability dividend as well as the increase in community shared space.

One-bedders are estimated to start at $425,000 while a three-bedder could have selling prices of between $670,000 to $785,000.

There is, though, like Nightingale, a covenant on the site, so that the increase at which residents can sell their properties is limited to the median price rise of the suburb, which protects against speculative trading.

And the affordability argument can be made on a long-term basis.

With high energy efficiency, shared utilities and the potential inclusion of solar PV, savings of up to $1000 a year on bills is expected per household, while reduced car ownership could save up to $6000 a year. The potential for shared meals and a food co-op could also shave another $1000 of the cost of living.

Sharing a meal
Sharing a meal

The importance of community

To Fearnside community is at the heart of the project.

“Living in a community is a lost art,” he says.

While it is also quite challenging to live in a community, he says, the rewards are numerous, including improved health outcomes, a greater capacity to share, and the ability to age in place.

“People will support you when you need to be supported.”

A range of ages, family types and the number of households in the development are important factors for building community, Fearnside says.

“Having 24-30 households is important. It means you have 30-50 adults. When you have that number you know everybody. When you know everybody it’s easier to be responsible for yourself and others.”

When there’s less people, there’s less opportunity for others to step in when someone is unavailable. When there’s more, it’s less likely that everyone knows each other, which may result in free-riding.

Information sessions

There’s currently 20 households signed up for the “near and tall” model, with an additional 10 being sought. For the far and wide model, there’s a core group of six households and an additional 10-20 required.

Urban Coup will be running information sessions for interested parties on 23 October and 12 November at Collingwood Library.

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  1. I have a 510sq meter block of land for private sale in North Melbourne. Which may suit your needs. There are 4 Apartments on the block.

    1. Hi David. We’d love to talk about the land. Can you give me a call? My mobile is 0434 990 108. Cheers Alex