A Breath of Fresh Air
Housing Australia Series V01
Brunswick, VIC, Australia

Dianna Snipe

Railway Facade - The Commons by Breathe Architecture

Railway Facade - The Commons by Breathe Architecture. Photos: Dianna Snipe.

For those living in Australia’s booming capital cities the term ‘housing affordability crisis’ is a frustratingly overused catch-phrase, but one which does succinctly encompass the severe shortage of quality affordable residences in the nation’s rapidly expanding cities. A shortage that can be difficult to fathom when one considers the landscape of cranes and mushrooming apartment complexes spreading out ever further from our central business districts.

The uncomfortable reality however, is that many of these apartments will sit empty once completed, serving as little more than parking for the assets of wealthy speculative investors. Indeed as many as 20% of newly constructed Melbourne apartments lie vacant according to a Dec 2015 study of water usage by Prosper Australia.

Furthermore, the condition of those apartments that do make it to the housing market is such that quite often, we would wish that they simple hadn’t. Small cramped spaces, minimal ceiling heights, minimal requirements for natural light and fresh air, these are the norm – the tired reworking of identical plans, perfectly engineered models of profitability for developers that trump any conscionable needs for the eventual residents.

The role of architecture and design in such projects might best be described as ‘marketing’, a quirky façade to generate visual interest, some fanciful drawings and hyper-realistic renders and ultimately novation to a dominating construction company for project delivery. In short, a general abdication of any and all responsibility for the well-being of our cities by a good many architects in favour of cashing in on the current boom in multi-residential construction.

However there is also a vanguard amongst the architectural profession pushing back in the opposite direction, approaching these challenges through a ‘design like you give a damn’ mentality. We spoke to one such voice of reason, Jeremy Mcleod, director of Breathe Architecture and a leading figure in the Nightingale Housing social enterprise about the challenges and opportunities of delivering quality affordable apartments housing in Australia.

 

Front Facade - The Commons by Breathe Architecture

Front Facade - The Commons by Breathe Architecture. Photos: Dianna Snipe.

“We were frustrated by working with property developers, feeling that we weren’t part of the solution, but part of the problem instead. We decided to take control of a project and build a precedent to show that there is a market for owner occupier apartments that do all the right things, that we intuitively already knew was there.”

Entrance Lobby - The Commons by Breathe Architecture

Entrance Lobby - The Commons by Breathe Architecture. Photos: Dianna Snipe.

The result was The Commons in the Melbourne suburb of Brunswick. Completed in 2014, this mixed-use collection of 24 apartments & lobby café and studio spaces took a ‘triple-bottom-line’ approach to its design, affordable, sustainable and socially responsible. In practical terms, The Commons is an exercise in reduction, giving people more by building less.

Communal Rooftop Gardens - The Commons by Breathe Architecture

Communal Rooftop Gardens - The Commons by Breathe Architecture. Photos: Dianna Snipe.

This thinking is evident at every level, in each and every design decision Breathe made on the project. Building a communal laundry on the roof lowers costs by minimising services to each apartment, which also benefits from the space saved in this way, but even more it serves a valuable social function by providing the opportunity for interaction between residents, fostering a shared sense of ownership and community.

Apartment Courtyard - The Commons by Breathe Architecture

Apartment Courtyard - The Commons by Breathe Architecture. Photos: Dianna Snipe.

There is no air conditioning, an environmentally friendly cost-saving measure perhaps, but neither is there any need for it. The apartments are instead designed with basic common-sense passive design principles; a high quality thermal envelope, access to light and fresh air from 2 sides, benefit from solar shading and can be easily cross ventilated in summer.

Apartment Kitchen - The Commons by Breathe Architecture

Apartment Kitchen - The Commons by Breathe Architecture. Photos: Dianna Snipe.

This thinking spans from the macro-to-micro level with no detail going unnoticed. Chrome plating of fixtures and fittings is an incredibly toxic process that is seldom considered due to mass-market expectations, Breathe worked with manufactures to pull tapware and door hardware off of production lines as raw brass before it could be chrome plated, bolstering the sustainable credentials of the development, but also providing a sense of authenticity.

Apartment Living - The Commons by Breathe Architecture

Apartment Kitchen - The Commons by Breathe Architecture. Photos: Dianna Snipe.

The project is a commitment to authenticity and the consideration of every decision, what you see is what you get, right down to the exposed services. Residents are in essence being asked, would you rather pay for a bulkhead and plasterboard sheeting or a more generous living area? This philosophy of reduction enabled Breathe to do more with the parts of the building that will truly matter to residents.

Apartment Entry - The Commons by Breathe Architecture

Apartment Entry - The Commons by Breathe Architecture. Photos: Dianna Snipe.

“We thought about where people are going to really ‘touch’ the building, apartment thresholds for example. Each entrance contains a recycled timber door jamb and black-stained plywood door, each number has been hand-painted and is unique, no two doors are the same. The floorboards used in the apartments are also recycled, but each comes from a different batch of timber and so tells a different story, a different species, width and colour. The boards are also top nailed not glued, it feel and sound like a real floor, and in 20 or 50 years can lifted up and reused somewhere else.”

Apartment Balcony - The Commons by Breathe Architecture

Apartment Balcony - The Commons by Breathe Architecture. Photos: Dianna Snipe.

With The Commons, Breathe have delivered a project that has been thought through on every level, whose beauty derives from the strength of the narrative that underpins it and which meets truly ambitious standards for affordability and liveability. It was clearly a winning combination, as all the apartments selling did little to slow the stream of inquirers from potential purchasers.

This interest in turn led to the creation of the Nightingale Housing model, a not-for-profit social enterprise that exists to support, promote and advocate high quality housing to build on the achievements of The Commons. Nightingale shares the intellectual property that has been collected with architects who can demonstrate through their body of work a commitment to quality design and social sustainability.

From humble beginnings only a few years ago there are now more than 20 Nightingale projects in the pipeline, with several having already received approval or begun construction. And word continues to spread, already over 2300 people have signed up to purchase a Nightingale apartment around Australia, with demand far outstripping supply.

Nightingale is a model for improved urban communities that is replicable around the country and provides hope for a grassroots revolution in the Australian housing market. With architects in control and developers, real estate agents and other financially incentivised middlemen removed from the equation, there is finally a chance for design-driven solutions to develop through a dialogue with residents, rather than about them.

For more information please visit Nightingale Housing.

Ground Floor Plan - The Commons by Breathe Architecture

Ground Floor Plan - The Commons by Breathe Architecture

Level 1 Plan - The Commons by Breathe Architecture

Level 1 Plan - The Commons by Breathe Architecture

North and South Elevations - The Commons by Breathe Architecture

North and South Elevations - The Commons by Breathe Architecture

Credits

Architect -

 Breathe Architecture

Photographer -

 Dianna Snipe

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