‘Build less, give more.’
Melbourne, VIC, Australia
Enter stage right: a housing affordability crisis, climate change, and disconnected community networks. Enter stage left: Breathe Architecture.
‘Build less, give more.’
Simple but powerful, Breathe Architecture’s mantra permeates everything they do.
Perhaps most renowned for their Nightingale apartment projects that flip the script of Australia’s building development status quo, at the heart of their work is a singular priority: people.
Their mantra itself is less about structures and more about providing generous solutions through design. This philosophy has the effect of promoting a dramatically different approach to housing as a tool in which to do so. Particularly in their Nightingale model, they are able to tackle some of the most pressing challenges in Australia today, such as sustainability and economic prosperity. However, their solutions ultimately come back to improving the quality of life and wellbeing of everyone involved, taking their responsibility to the wider community very seriously.
The first Nightingale building, dubbed Nightingale 1.0, came to life recently in Brunswick, north of Melbourne’s CBD and is a wonderful example of the Nightingale Model at work. It aims for financial and design transparency, and part of realising this involved the design team consulting the owners and residents for design decisions. This move played a role in reducing the construction cost overall by removing assumptions and unnecessary inclusions. ‘Nightingale is the embodiment of the idea ‘build what people need, not what you think they might want’. We’re constantly asking ourselves – ‘Do we need it?’, if not, we take it out’ says Jeremy McLeod, founder and director of Breathe Architecture.
Typically, residential developments of this kind are used as speculative financial capital, favouring maximum profit margins. Methods of achieving this vary but prioritising profits often has detrimental effects on quality, design value and the natural environment. Breathe Architecture’s approach differs by prioritising people seemingly above all else. The result: environmentally responsible, community-driven and affordable housing that prioritises key workers such as nurses, teachers and police as residents and owners. After moving in, residents were presented with the cost savings of the development, which ended up in excess of one hundred thousand dollars. This was possible because the Nightingale model is not-for profit, turning the current development status quo inside out. Remarkably, Breathe is also licensing this model to share with other practices, allowing their solutions and learnings from the development of the Nightingale Model to become more widely available.
Perhaps a result of the collective design decisions, there also seems to be a real feeling of community between the residents in these buildings, with the goal ‘for every future Nightingale to champion community building within its walls and beyond.’ Of course, that is not all that the architects set out to do. Breathe has adopted a triple bottom line approach to sustainability in this model, meaning that they have incorporated considerations for environmental sustainability with social and financial sustainability into their Nightingale model. This is a logical step, as the three areas are all mutually beneficial. For example, the Nightingale buildings will be thermally comfortable and also cost less to run due to the effective energy efficient strategies implemented.
For Nightingale 1.0, this includes an 18 kilowatt solar array for on site energy production, and for those familiar with the NatHERS energy rating scheme, it achieved 8.2 stars, with the minimum for all Nightingale projects a minimum of 7.5. The building includes water harvesting and productive gardens, and materials used such as the locally made brass tapware were carefully chosen to minimise their embodied energy – i.e. the energy required to produce, transport and install them. ‘For us, it’s constantly looking at sustainability through the lense of reductionism, at functionality through the lense of simplicity.’ says Jeremy. ‘The aesthetic is simply how we tie all these things together in an elegant way’. This aim to do more with less material and in doing so achieve a simple minimalist interior saw Breathe nominated at the Australian Interior Design Awards for Nightingale 1 in 2018 and The Commons in 2016.
Clearly, gorgeous interiors are common throughout their work, not just the Nightingale apartments. Simultaneously, the smaller projects coming out of the Breathe Architecture office still exemplify big ideas that the Nightingale Model represent. The use of simple, often raw materials in a clever way creates some fantastic moments and details that add a sparkle of joy to a space that might otherwise feel utilitarian. These minimalist gems ultimately become backdrops to the routine drama of daily life. In the Double Life house, it is an outdoor shower with bare concrete walls and foliage for a more tangible connection to the natural world; in the Halo House, it is a plush window seat drenched in natural light. Many features are reminiscent of Scandinavian or Bauhaus design, which originally aimed to make design accessible to more people. It is their mantra at work once again, a contemporary iteration of the timeless ‘less is more’. This approach sees them using design as a tool to leverage available resources in a socially responsible and sustainable way to create something beautiful.
In a time where the right to shelter and to a healthy natural environment are making their way onto charters of human rights, and Australians are struggling to afford housing in our major cities, Breathe Architecture places sustainable housing at centre stage. Increasingly, it becomes unethical to design in any other way. Commitment is key in these developments – empty rhetoric is not welcome. For Breathe Architecture, the dedication is evident across the board, from the company culture, to the design concepts and the final interior finishes. They are leading the change, and making the future of architecture in Australia genuinely exciting.