Apartments Designed for Living

I turn off the cycle path into a small lane between two apartment buildings and chain my bike up outside one of them. I’m here to try and gatecrash a tour. Already there are a few people milling around, and several more slowly trickle in.

I’ve seen a number of examples of sustainable living on this bike journey, but they were all houses or cabins in the countryside on big blocks. I’ve come here to Brunswick, a suburb of Melbourne, to find out if there’s an option for city-dwellers like me.

On one side of the lane is the apartment building known as ‘The Commons’, an award-winning example of sustainable architecture. But I’m here to see the building on the other side, which aspires to something greater. It looks like a trendy modern apartment block; a brick first floor and a grid of black steel and glass windows on the four floors above. Vines hang down the apartment edges, their leaves turning red.

There’s a cafe on the ground floor; white handwriting on its window explaining that it’s a social enterprise that runs a hospitality training program, and that all profits go to help homeless young people. It’s the first obvious sign that this place is unusual.

Soon our guide Dominica arrives and begins checking tickets. When she gets to me I give her the spiel I’ve been rehearsing in my head: tour sold out, bike journey, my only chance to attend, etc. She kindly agrees to squeeze me in.

Dominica gathers us all together and begins to explain the fundamentally different approach that was used to create the block of apartments in front of us called ‘Nightingale 1’. The occupants were part of the design process the whole way through.

She explains how it worked: people who wanted to own and live in one of the apartments went into a ballot, and those selected were brought together with the architect two years before construction. They met again every six weeks to review the architect’s design options and give feedback, thereby crafting both their individual apartments and all the common spaces. By the time they all moved in they already knew each other well.

I try to imagine moving into a house and being familiar with all my neighbours from the outset. So much of this building seems to be about building community like this. The laneway we’re in has been turned into a transportable ‘pocket park’, with portable wooden decking, pot plants and benches to provide a space for people to linger and bump into their neighbours.

We set off into Nightingale 1, the group stopping regularly as Dominica describes the various sustainability features of the building. The entrance corridor is paved in recycled cobblestones. The bricks were salvaged from the original building on this site. The timber further on came from recycled Australian hardwood. The greenery is all irrigated with rainwater.

The piping and conduits are all on display along the walls and ceiling, rather than being covered by internal cladding. Our guide explains this is for the sake of minimalism, to reduce resources, and to allow a greater feeling of connection with the functionality of the building.

There’s a large light column in the centre of the building, open to the sky, with ferns at the bottom, balconies above and a staircase wending its way up one side. It’s walled by chains and wire mesh, like a giant cage. Our guide explains that this provides passive lighting and ventilation, as there’s no mechanical ventilation.

At the far end of the entrance corridor is the visitor bike parking, and a locked door accesses the residents large bike parking lot. This is a fossil fuel-free building, so there’s no car park here. Buses and trains are only a short walk away though, and apparently there are several GoGet carshare cars nearby.

Another door takes us into the ‘refuse’ room, filled with bins for all the different types of waste: landfill, co-mingled, recycling, e-waste, garden waste, small glass jars, compost and coffee grounds.

The others on the tour are here to learn about the sustainability features of the building, but I manage to slip in a few questions about the organisation called Nightingale. Dominica tells me a bit about how it came to be.

Dominica’s boss Jeremy McLeod founded Breathe Architecture in 2001, and the company has pursued sustainable design since its inception. But Jeremy felt there was a problem in the way apartments are being built in Australia. Our population is set to grow from 22 to 36 million by 2050, and with most of this growth will be concentrated in the cities, we’ll need to move towards higher-density apartment living. But housing is increasingly unaffordable, and apartments are primarily being built to deliver maximum financial yields to investors, rather than focusing on the people who live there. They’re not designed for living, but rather as a speculative financial asset. Jeremy wanted to turn this around.

Breathe Architecture’s first trial of a new model for delivering housing was in the creation of The Commons. But they ran into trouble halfway through the project when the global financial crisis hit, and Jeremy had to sell the company. The Commons was still completed, but the apartments were then each sold at a high price to investors, rather than owner-occupiers, many of whom don’t live there. It received numerous awards for its sustainability features, but that had only been half of the original vision.

Jeremy learnt that the problem was in the funding model. He tried again, founding the profit-for-purpose organisation Nightingale, and setting forth on the creation of Nightingale 1. Dominica tells us that the name was inspired by the lane which these two buildings are on, called ‘Florence St’. They thought it was fitting to pay homage to Florence Nightingale, a woman who got on with the job of organising medical care for wounded soldiers during the Crimean War, rather than waiting for governments and institutions to do it.

We all cram into the lift and head up to the next floor. On the landing Dominica continues her litany of sustainability features, explaining details such as the source of the materials and the way the air flows through the building.

She’s arranged for us to see inside one of the private apartments, though we’re not to take photos. We walk through an entrance corridor, with two bedrooms and a bathroom on the right, sharing a little enclosed courtyard garden. The corridor takes us into the kitchen, dining, and living space, the far side of which is all windows and sliding glass doors, opening onto another much larger brick courtyard, rimmed by plants. The whole place is very neat and trendy, with built-in cupboards and furniture, and economical use of space.

She tells us about the double-glazed windows, the hydronic heating panels that were salvaged from another site, the ceiling fans instead of aircon, and the plastic panels of the central storage unit made from recycled PET bottles.

The list of features gets more specific and detailed: no grout or tiles were used in the bathroom because of their high embodied energy and tendency to grow mould; no chemical adhesives were used in attaching the wood floor and acoustic layer to the concrete pad; brass fittings were used in the kitchen and bathroom rather than chrome plated ones which use toxic chemicals. It’s all intellectually astounding, but it starts to blur together. I find myself playing with the cupboards and light fittings, and get promptly told off.

We pile back into the lift and head up to the roof, one half of which has a green park with lawn and a sheltered barbecue area. Wooden hatches reveal small sandpits for children to play in. There’s a nice view from the railing looking over The Commons and the surrounding neighbourhood.

On our way through to the other side of the roof we pass the shared laundry to our left, with several sinks and a line of washing machines — apparently none of the apartments have their own. Through the laundry window I can see a courtyard strung with washing lines. Dominica tells us that the laundry is another social space, where you end up bumping into and chatting with the other residents while washing your clothes.

There’s a blackboard on one wall announcing an upcoming ‘planting + working bee’, the meaning of which becomes clear when we emerge into the large rooftop vegetable garden: an enclosed concrete area filled with row upon row of raised garden beds. I can’t help wondering if there are any disputes about who does the gardening work, but Dominica says it’s an informal arrangement where people can grow vegetables there if they want to, and those who don’t want to don’t have to. She says that it seems to work fine, and typically people share their vegetables with everyone else.

To one side are a series of rainwater tanks, apparently able to hold 20,000L, and sitting on the transparent ceiling above us is the 18kW solar array for the building. A small gate takes us onto a narrow balcony where there’s a beehive; the bees providing honey and helping to pollinate the garden vegetables. Apparently one of the tenants has been trained in beekeeping especially.

Whilst the whole place seems conducive to creating community, it doesn’t appear to be obligatory, with residents able to opt out of communal activities if they want or need to. It’s set up as a strata title arrangement, with part of the rates going towards paying a building manager, as well as an eco-friendly cleaner.

An important part of the Nightingale model is to create city housing that is financially affordable. Dominica explains that the apartments are sold at cost, and only to owner-occupiers — no investors. They can be re-sold, but a covenant attached to the strata title ensures that the affordability is passed on. There isn’t need for expensive marketing of the property, so costs are further reduced.

A one bedroom apartment in The Commons was sold for $475,000, she tells us, compared to $415,000 in Nightingale 1. Similarly, a two bedroom apartment was $775,000 in The Commons and $665,000 in Nightingale 1 — still a hefty price tag due to the amazing design features, but significantly more affordable. And the entire building has been designed to reduce operating and maintenance costs.

The concept has gained a lot of momentum and there are several more projects currently underway, with Nightingale 2 soon to be completed next to Fairfield train station. There’s now a long waitlist of people wanting a Nightingale apartment. Those people selected in the ballot are required to buy their apartment “off the plan”, starting with an initial upfront deposit, thereby ensuring the viability of each project.

From the rooftop Dominica points out an area of neighbourhood adjoining us that is set to become the Nightingale Village, an entire precinct of Nightingale apartment buildings.

It’s the end of the tour and we’re taken back down the lift and to the ‘pocket park’ in the laneway out front. Before setting off on my bike I give my details to Dominica, so we can later arrange my payment for the tour later. My funds are tight, but this was something I felt was worth paying for.

The amazing part for me was that I’d written off the idea of ever owning a house, but yet here was a place I could see myself living: an inner city apartment that is environmentally sustainable and socially inclusive with a feeling of community around it. And maybe if I get a decently paid job again, it’s something I could actually afford.

Thanks for following my journey! Can you donate to help keep me pedalling forwards?