Joined up thinking in Melbourne from Breathe Architects.

Nightingale Housing is a new model of affordable housing currently making waves in Melbourne, Australia. Initiated by Jeremy McLeod of Melbourne-based Breathe Architects as an update of the old co-operative housing model - albeit with sustainability and design quality to the fore - the first crowdfunded, affordable (flats are sold 10% below market rate) 20-apartment block, Nightingale 1, opened in 2017. This building is not only sustainable in the traditional sense, for example prioritising recycled timber for floors, natural lighting and ventilation and committing to 100% sustainable energy, but in the social sense: they feature a shared laundry on the rooftop terrace, as well as veg-growing planters; and there is no car parking (radical for Melbourne, which follows a very car-centric US-style model of city-as-suburban-sprawl design). It is also good-looking. Inspired by the simple principles of Walter Gropius’s Baugrupen model (a single-storey podium, with steel doors and windows, repeated on each floor), it cleaned up at the Australian architecture awards in 2018. There is currently a waiting list of over 5,000 people wanting to buy into the seven schemes that are currently being constructed a few blocks away.

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But one of the more remarkable aspects of McLeod’s new developments are the way they are knitting residential, offices and shops together with the surrounding public realm to enrich the neighbourhood for everyone. Below Nightingale 1 is a buzzing little café, which opens onto the street at the front, while the rear of the cafe has a window that opens directly into the offices of Nightingale Housing; this must be every architect’s dream: in-house professional baristas. It is a 100% not for profit coffee bar, and its foodie/social sustainability ethos chimes with Nightingale’s resident community and the wider neighbourhood, drawing a regular crowd – especially through the summer - in large part thanks to the generous seating and planting that surrounds it. Outdoor sociability was designed into Nightingale 1, which has a covered alleyway down the centre of the building leading to the main apartment entrance, which includes the provision of handsome loos that can be used by any member of the public.

This indoor/outdoor space communicates its accessibility through design and materials: Bluestone brick flooring gives it a civic feel. The residents’ mild steel letter boxes make an attractive addition to the alleyway’s wall furniture. Along the left hand side of the alley – beside the Nightingale Housing office - runs a large window with a deep frame, which includes padding to signify its availability as seating. Planting down the alleyway is an interesting move – the alley gets little natural light. But there are UV lights which come on at night to keep the plants happy.

This porous quality of public/private space is something that McLeod has been able to facilitate because just across the street is the early prototype for Nightingale Housing, in the form of The Commons, an apartment block which McLeod and six friends (mostly fellow architects) built back in 2014. While its funding structure is not entirely the same, the principles of keeping the ground floors for commercial use became a useful additional source of funding but also a way of maintaining or enriching street life and the resident community. As co-landlords, the shared ownership structure means they can ensure a sympathetic mix of ground floor residents: currently design studios, cafes, and a wine shop. This mixture between the two buildings keeps the street busy and sociable during the week and the F&B emphasis on either side has helped justify applying for pedestrianisation of that shared street-space. Now, thanks to additional seating and pop-up parks, throughout the summer, there have been weekend markets, pop—up restaurants, and activities that reinforce shared community values.

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The next step for McLeod and his collaborators is to expand this porous, people-friendly typology further into the neighbourhood. Nightingale Village, a collection of seven similar-sized individual blocks is being developed (each designed by a different architect) just a few streets away. Says McLeod: ‘We are going to take over an entire street. It will be a pedestrianised, tree-lined precinct. And the architects are collaborating on the masterplan as well as their individual buildings.’

The ingredients this project has which most lack, of course, is an intentional community (socially-sustainable values shared between architects and residents) so that this kind of joined up thinking can be supported by the ownership structure. Could something like this happen on an ordinary street in any town? Not without huge community momentum and dedication. However, it is a glowing example of how, when an ‘intentional community’, supported by landlords who share the same values, unite around a place, the components quickly add up to more than the sum of their parts.

By Veronica Simpson