Sustainable homes for sustainable communities

Affordable housing, delivered sustainably and with an emphasis on social connection, helps create thriving communities

Jeremy McLeod is an architect and the founder and Managing Director of Nightingale Housing, a group of architects who design affordable, high quality, sustainable apartment buildings, including the award-winning ‘The Commons’ site in Melbourne.

At a recent ANZ event, McLeod sat down with CEO Shayne Elliott to chat about environmentally, socially and financially sustainable urban housing development. Below is an edited version of the discussion.  

They started by talking about the history and purpose of Nightingale.

JMcL: The interesting thing about big towers in the city is once you get beyond a certain height the wind speeds become so great they create vacuums as they pass the building. They can suck furniture out of the building. 

“We are interested in housing people in the community and doing so sustainably.” - Jeremy McLeod

This means in most cases everything over level 40 can’t be open to the air; they are sealed units like commercialised towers. 

In 2001 I started Breathe Architecture with the simple idea every bedroom would have a window you could open. Not much to ask, right?

We’re listed as sustainable architects. When you googled sustainable architecture in Melbourne in 2001 there were six of us. Now everyone is. It’s magic.

The way we've achieved that I guess is we started doing single houses for very wealthy people. So architects design houses for 3 per cent of Australians. They’re the most privileged Australians.

So we were interested in housing other people in the community and doing so sustainably.

It’s a much more nuanced discussion. You go to a planning panel and say ‘We have 40 residents moving into a building’ – but two of them are disabled, one has muscular dystrophy.  He has particular requirements related to his apartment. One of them is sight impaired.  Only 10 of them own cars.

So we design a specific apartment building to meet those needs. It has specially built apartments. It has 10 parking spaces not 40.  But when you go to council they say ‘our rules say this’.

Our planning system is built for a speculative market. If you’re building a single house you can ask for what you want but not when you try to build someone’s apartment in the sky. 

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The Commons in Melbourne. Pic: Peter Clarke

SE: So when we talk about sustainability, what does that mean? It can’t just be about zero emissions. What makes one building sustainable and another one not?

JMcL: It’s a big question. We think about it deeply and a lot in the way we practice at our firm.

We ask the question ‘what’s needed?’ At our Nightingale and The Commons projects it’s about building less to get more. We ask – what is it the communities which will live in these buildings actually want?

SE: So rather than just saying the physical structure has sustainable components to it, you’re saying through the design you are encouraging or nudging people toward a sustainable lifestyle at the same time?

JMcL: Yeah. Obviously we don’t want to dictate how people live but the idea is we would build the building for people to occupy and give them the ability to be able to occupy it in a sustainable way.

So what we’ve found at The Commons, for instance, as a result of people shopping closer and locally, the site now has 35 litres of waste per resident per week, which is the lowest amount of waste for anyone in Australia. 

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Rooftop view of The Commons in Melbourne. Pic: Peter Clarke

We have productive gardens on the roof; we have worm farms downstairs. So there’s kind of this closed-loop system.

SE: So what are the unique challenges for this project? Are there barriers in Australia that might not be factors overseas?

JMcL: So the big barrier here has been funding. Trying to take something that doesn’t even come close to a 20 per cent return on costs is hard. There’s a big red flag in there.

So initially, getting funding was tricky. The fact we sell to owner-occupiers, not investors was tough.

Trying raising equity on something when we say ‘we’re going to ask the residents what they want’ – and that means if they don’t have drivers licences and probably never will, we won’t provide car spaces -  is hard.  Our planning system has always demanded car ownership and home ownership as a couple. 

Our housing system follows the financial system. If you see the impact the banks have had on lending to smaller apartments, it’s been incredible.

Historically we’ve been chasing construction finance or housing finance, but we’ve been put into development finance.

At the moment the cost of equity is about 15 per cent. If we can lower that to 10 per cent we can reduce the cost of housing.

SE: At ANZ (in Melbourne’s Docklands) we’re surrounded by apartment buildings. What we hear is there’s little sense of community – people hardly know their neighbours. What is different in your space?

JMcL: Basically we looked at the day to day tasks people undertake.

Importantly we limit numbers. What we know is that when there’s over 75 people in one building, you can’t remember everyone’s name, their kid’s name, and that builds a sense of anonymity. 

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Rooftop view of The Commons in Melbourne. Pic: Peter Clarke

So we limit the amount of apartments. In the commons there are 51 adults. Everyone knows everyone. We have a communal rooftop laundry. There is no clothes dryer so everyone hangs their clothes up.

If you think about walking down the back streets of Venice or Rome, it’s quite beautiful. The clothes lines between people’s houses.

It’s a thing that says ‘we’re all human’. It’s not perfectly curated; we’re just human.

We bought the slowest lift money could buy – it’s actually quicker to take the stairs. That way people stop and talk to each other.

We keep the number of apartments per floor to about six or eight so you know your neighbours.

All of these things build a sense of community.

Shayne Elliott is CEO at ANZ & Jeremy McLeod is the founder  and Managing Director of Nightingale Housing

  • Nightingale recently received a Victorian government grant, the first to be awarded as part of its $A1 million Social Impact Investment for Sustainability Program. 

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

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