The proposed site of the Seacombe West development, showing salinity impacts

Seacombe West, a new development proposed for agricultural land near Sale in eastern Victoria, is taking a multi-faceted approach to sustainability believed to be the first of its kind in Australia.

Dr Dominique Hes, the director of the new Thrive research hub based at the University of Melbourne, and one of the key members of the design and development team, describes the project as a “regenerative development”.

Dr Dominique Hes

Hes says the aim is to create a community that fosters a love of place and encourages those who live there to value it for more than just the capital value of their property.

The overall design of the masterplan includes regenerating land that has been affected by salinity while still leaving one-third of the site for regenerative agriculture and around one-third for ongoing ecological restoration, research, tourism and nature reserve.

Housing will be located on “the worst land”, Hes says, and ecological restoration will be part of the lot development process. The site is surrounded by national park and state forest on three sides, with the fourth side lake frontage.

The total site is 680 hectares in size, and the proportion set aside for housing is roughly the size of four Melbourne CBDs. The aim is to provide a mix of housing types ranging in price from $300,000 to $1 million, with either waterside outlooks or clustered in “agrihoods” where food is grown on-site.

Hes says the mix of prices will enable the community to have a mix of people and income levels, and this then allows for enriching “bump interactions” as the community evolves to include elements such as retail, hospitality and possibly a “Living Academy” concept for lifelong learning and research.

The infrastructure plans include generating more power and water than the community uses, and using the excess power as a way of supporting low-income, community and education projects.

Housing is planned to be either carbon neutral or carbon positive, and adaptively designed for the resident’s needs not for resale value, incorporating the LJ Hooker Liveability and live well approaches.

The project will leverage several other research initiatives as part of the housing design and delivery process, including a 50,000 component database for home design that takes new owners through the process of designing their own home while showing the costings of each decision, for example, a garage as separate cost.

It is also expecting to engage with the new Training Centre for Advanced Manufacturing of Prefabricated Housing also based at the University of Melbourne, and there is already some cross-over between researchers involved with Thrive and the TCAMPH, including building materials lifecycle expert Dr Robert Crawford.

The foreshore showing salinity-induced dieback

Regenerative transport is also part of the picture, including electric boats using renewable energy for the lake that forms one side of the Seacombe West site, car sharing, walking and cycling.

The economic side of life is also being planned. Hes says that part of the masterplan will include a hub for co-working, video-conferencing facilities and full data connectivity for every dwelling. The aim is that working from Seacombe West will be as good as working from a base in Melbourne, she says.

“The investors backing the project are people who want to change the conversation in the development space, by showing you can have ecosystem benefits while creating wonderful places to live. They are not looking for rapid return,” Hes says.

A percentage of profits from property sales will go into a trust that looks after energy, water and waste in a closed loop approach that will also mean no bills for residents.

“The scale means we can do things at a much more effective level,” Hes says.

The aim is also to capture part of the funds from property sales that will be used to provide micro-loans for residents to start up their own enterprises.

“Money is a flow just like air and water,” Hes says. The aim is to keep that flow circulating within the community.

The project has already attracted a number of investors, she says, and has held two community engagement workshops in Sale and at the site, which have contributed to the evolution of the masterplan. It is expected the development application will be lodged later this year.

Land and water thinking

This will be the second DA lodged for the project. An initial one lodged in 2003-4 was rejected on the basis that the land needed rezoning from agricultural to residential and mixed use plus agricultural. At the point the DA was rejected, Hes said there were more than 100 people committed to purchasing properties.

State government support needed

Because of the rezoning requirement, the project requires state government support. One of the owners of the farmland, Harry Troedel, says it is not clear at this stage whether the government will say yes or no.

Troedel, whose family has owned the farm since 1982, says another of the aims of the project is to get people engaging with the national park and state forest areas. Currently, they are rarely visited, he says, due to access issues.

“We want to bring the national parks into the development,” he says.

Reversing the impacts of salinity – caused by a gradual change in the water of the Gippsland lakes due to the opening of the bar at Lakes Entrance and reduced river flows – is also a priority.

“The theory is to lift up some of the low lying land and regenerate it,” he says.

The research and restoration team are also looking at how to incorporate sea grass beds and freshwater lakes within the development. Reed beds that have been destroyed by carp, erosion and salinity are also a target for restoration.

The land and water team at the workshop

Activating the lake is also something Troedel says is important, as it is currently rarely used. One of the masterplan goals is to have a harbour and marina, as people will be able to use electric boats to potentially reach the Port of Sale, 16 kilometres away.

The project has engaged the energies of numerous academics and researchers.

A two-day regenerative development workshop last week at the University of Melbourne brought up to 40 people together to discuss key aspects of the process of creating Seacombe West. The workshop was led by executive director of the Institute for the Built Environment at Colorado State University, emeritus professor Brian Dunbar.

A core group of 30 worked across five teams looking at ecosystems, land and water, built environment, “governance, culture, people and money”, and innovation looking at ways of delivering on these elements.

Group outcome from the workshop

Troedel, who also attended the workshops, says some quite interesting ideas were put in the mix for the masterplan, with a key message being the way the project will move from initial “ownership” through to “stewardship by the community”. Different financial structures were also discussed.

“Quite a discussion was had around managing the initial transition of the new community, setting up direct two-way trading relationships throughout the Lakes System but also to other neighbouring population centred such as Golden Beach and Lochsport, as well as Ramahyuck,” Troedel says.

Seacombe West is one of the major focuses for Thrive, which Hes described as a “blue collar” type of research hub with industry links including the Property Council of Australia.

She says sustainability is only expensive if it is done as an add-on, rather than it being part of the process from first principles.

This is one of the central premises of regenerative design, as explained in her book, The Architecture of Hope. It’s based on an ecological worldview that is a more holistic and integrated approach than the traditional supply chain view of development, she says.

Hes says that when something like the regenerative approach first emerges, it “starts really small”.

“We need the case studies and examples of change for the momentum for change to occur,” she says.

The central approach of the hub is on developing applied research and visible outcomes that create a better world based on the question: “what are the key aspects that will support sustainable city development in the 21st century – and how can it thrive through future challenges?”

Research positions coming up

Hes says Thrive will shortly be calling for expressions of interest for a postdoctoral research fellow and five PhDs.

These will form the main research appointments to work with the hub academics across five areas: the potential for timber prefabrication to improve building environmental performance; an investigation into the dynamics of relationships between volume builders and their supply chains to support the mainstreaming of sustainability opportunities in mass produced housing; an investigation into the potential for sustainability to underpin future housing consumer lifestyle choices; and exploring options for stormwater harvesting and water retention in water-scarce cities; and translating the smart village concept to Australia, with specific aims to look at the capacity of our built environment agencies to support thriving villages and their social capital.

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