Architecture

In their pursuit of excellent design in the name of sustainability and social good, the Nightingale developments are exemplars of architect-led contemporary architecture. By Naomi Stead.

Nightingale Village

Hayball’s CRT+YRD provides community space.
Hayball’s CRT+YRD provides community space.
Credit: Tom Ross

I’m sitting in a small apartment in Nightingale Village, surely Australia’s most-anticipated and most-discussed urban housing development of the past decade. With me is Cam, who’s telling me what it’s like to live in a Teilhaus – German for “part house” – otherwise known as a micro or studio apartment.

To my right is the built-in bed alcove, screened from the main space with a curtain. Straight ahead, Cam is buzzing about the kitchen making a cup of tea, while to my left is the lounge, with a large window onto a south-facing balcony. The apartment is light and warm, given the frigid Melbourne wind outside, and cosy both in its size – a tiny 35 square metres – and its rich timber materiality. It’s also appealingly monastic: a small world of its own. I’m thinking idly of Albrecht Dürer’s Saint Jerome in his Study when Cam articulates it for me: in such a dwelling, he says, “life is less complicated… It’s small and it’s enough.”

Cam lives in Nightingale Evergreen, designed by Clare Cousins Architects, one of the six apartment buildings in the largest and most ambitious of the Nightingale developments so far. Located on Wurundjeri country in Melbourne’s Brunswick, immediately adjoining the Upfield railway line and its adjacent bike-superhighway, the Village joins an enclave of Nightingale projects. First was The Commons, the 2013 project that acted as proof and prototype, and Nightingale 1 (2016), which set the agenda: architect-led medium density multi-residential buildings developed on a not-for-profit basis, in pursuit of the triple-bottom-line of social and environmental benefit alongside economic sustainability.

In Australia, the funding and procurement of housing sits on a spectrum. On one side is social housing, a term encompassing both “pure” public housing owned and run by the state, and community housing operated by specialist not-for-profit housing organisations, often serving people with particular needs. On the other side is speculative private investment, which currently dominates the market. But as urbanist Andy Fergus has argued, between these two poles are many other, lesser-known models – the Baugruppe and co-op housing approaches common in Europe, for example, and closer to home, our very own “ethical housing movement” in approaches such as Assemble Communities, with its “build-to-rent-to-own” approach, and Nightingale.

It all began when Jeremy McLeod, founding director of Breathe Architecture, met with a group of fellow architects to consider how they could intervene in the housing market, and lift the standard of multi-residential housing. Their answer was to move from the design of buildings to the design of a financial model. Funded by impact investors often including the architects themselves, the model aims to produce housing that is sold at cost, by ballot, with capped profits on resale, to a list of pre-registered owner-occupier buyers. It offers high quality, community-oriented housing, which importantly doesn’t take existing public housing and “revitalise” it out of public hands.

Nightingale 1 started the series, with a building of 20 apartments pursuing the highest standards of environmental performance, enabled by a philosophy of “reductionism”. Elements that unnecessarily pushed up construction costs and embodied carbon because they were considered essential for saleability were summarily removed, including second bathrooms, air-conditioning, individual laundries and – controversially – onsite car parking, argued to be unnecessary given the site’s excellent public transport links.

In the subsequent Nightingales the pattern continues. At the Village, the environmental measures take a larger scale, with 203 apartments across the six buildings: as a fossil fuel-free development, it harvests and re-uses 40,000 litres of rainwater, and has a substantial rooftop solar array and exceptionally high performance thermal insulation and glazing that limits energy required for heating and cooling. It operates on collective, bulk-purchased green power that substantially reduces energy costs. It still relies on car and cargo bike sharing to encourage residents into green transport and has no internal laundries – each building has a well-appointed communal laundry and washing lines on the roof.

This is all particularly remarkable because it’s not one project – it’s six buildings, with six separate architects, acting as six independent developers, on six distinct sites. The level of cooperation has been amazing. As Victoria Reeves – director of architecture at Kennedy Nolan – amusingly recalls, the coordination meetings were like Quaker gatherings: everybody stayed, exhaustively, until there was consensus.

In this laborious but invisible work of coordination and collectivisation some of the great achievements of the project are realised. The shared electricity infrastructure, for example, was only made possible by a conduit under Duckett Street, purchased with great difficulty and expense, to be forever unseen. On that street, which five of the buildings face, the absence of the usual clutter of garage entries, service cupboards and access points on the facades means that the street is given over to commercial tenancies – now almost fully populated with a florist, bike co-op and the popular ima Asa/Yoru Japanese restaurant and grocer.

Nightingale is predicated on a set of design principles: it is silent on the question of aesthetics. The Village is particularly fascinating for the expression and variation that the six architects have managed to retain within some pretty intense constraints. Reeves describes it as a constant process of “eking out”, deciding when and how much to compromise. The fine judgement of all the architects is evident in the moments of delight they have managed to retain despite this rigorous process of reduction.

Leftfield by Kennedy Nolan, for instance, has that practice’s characteristic restrained geometrical elegance and sophisticated use of colour, especially on the interior, creating a deceptively sumptuous feel in the one-bedroom apartment I visited. Evergreen is the smallest of the buildings, spare and disciplined, benefitting enormously from its frontage to the open space of the new Bulleke-bek Park to the north. This park wasn’t always planned – a seventh Village building, by architects WOWOWA, had been anticipated for this lot. But when the Merri-bek Council proposed buying the land back for a park, that office graciously bowed out. So Evergreen shares this northern park frontage edge with Austin Maynard Architects’ Park Life, along with a glorious double-sized adjoining lightwell, which produces thrilling views within and between the two buildings. ParkLife displays Austin Maynard’s familiar exuberance in asymmetrical balcony profiles, wire mesh “balustrades” and splashes of bright yellow. On its roof is one of the standout gestures of the Village: a bank of “auditorium” garden seating, facing the sky, which cleverly resolves planning requirements for a stepped setback to the south. Hayball’s CRT+YRD is distinguished by its eponymous central courtyard, acting as garden, light well, circulation and community meeting place, while Breathe’s Skye House, the biggest of the buildings, has the unfussy sobriety of tight planning and quality materials assembled into a highly functional whole. I was keen to see the communal rooftop bath at Skye House, having visions of some kind of Scandinavian spa. But it was charmingly ordinary and entirely unswanky: literally a place where apartment-dwellers can take a bath, clean the tub, and go on their way.  

Urban Coup to the south is the odd one out, being based on a different model. Built for a pre-formed housing cooperative of some 14 years’ standing, collaborators Breathe and Architecture architecture co-designed with co-op members to create a vertical community with fairly revolutionary shared facilities, including a large communal cooking and dining space, and plans for two guest rooms, a workshop and music room, and a Japanese bathhouse.

Any project that sets itself up as an exemplar is going to attract critical attention. Nightingale Village has been widely feted – winning big at the 2023 Victorian Architecture Awards, alongside many other awards programs, across a range of categories from sustainability to multi-residential to urban design and “thought leadership”. But some argue the apartments not “affordable” at all; that many residents have a dirty-secret car stashed somewhere off-site; that the community is a cultish middle-class smug-fest straight out of Stuff White People Like; that the Teilhaus apartments are inhumanely small; and more recently, that Nightingale entity has been coopted and carried away by the power of its own brand, to the extent it’s now just a greenwashed conventional developer.

It’s true most of the apartments are only relatively affordable: even when sold at cost, costs themselves are high. Even so, the lowest price paid for a Teilhaus was reportedly $215,000. And when quality and environmental specifications are exacting, the apartments were never going to be dirt cheap – or not in the way a high-rise hotbox faced with flammable cladding might be.

In the Village, as with the earlier Nightingale developments, the protagonists did double duty as both architects and developers, and were often key investors as well. This was a difficult feat, and indeed the Village marks the end of this exact iteration of the model. The collaborators generally agreed that the toll was too high, that while they were paid for their architectural services, the hundreds of hours of development work were effectively donated, and that they were generally naïve about the amount of labour and risk that developers take on. From now on, Nightingale will manage developments on a more conventional basis, albeit not-for-profit, and architects will be contracted at arm’s length. 

Still, it’s undeniable that Nightingale has genuinely shifted the market. It’s raised the bar for commercial developers’ building quality and energy efficiency, and contributed to policy change – likely including the recent removal of piped gas in all new public housing builds in Victoria. It has produced a generation of architects – among them, many of the leading practices around the nation – who understand developers in a new way. “We wouldn’t do [this kind of project] again as a developer,” says Mark Austin, of Austin Maynard Architects. “But we would do it as informed architects who can influence developers.”

The Nightingale Village is reportedly the first time a private developer has ever voluntarily engaged in “inclusionary zoning”, choosing to allocate 27 apartments to social and affordable housing providers. This has been done “tenure blind” – that is, the social housing is indistinguishable from the privately held dwellings. Some say that making inclusionary zoning mandatory for all private developments is the key to addressing the housing crisis. Clare Cousins, for example, thinks “it’s the only way we’re going to get there.”

This is not necessarily a popular idea among developers. In the past developers have often been distrustful of architects – the people they have tended to trust are real estate agents. This has led the whole development pipeline to be predicated on what has sold before, in a malign chicken-and-egg logic whereby different housing offerings haven’t been tried, so there’s no evidence they will sell, so they won’t be tried because there’s no evidence they will sell. Lenders, too, are wary of loaning money on an untested design idea. The system has been bogged in inertia, braced against innovation.  If you always do what you always did then you’ll always get what you always got, and what we got in the past was often strikingly bad. 

Nightingale has been able to jump these tracks by recasting architects as also developers, enabling them to build demonstration projects and raise the bar for the market as a whole. It has proven that people will buy micro-apartments as an entry to the market, they will hang their undies on a communal clothesline, they do care about minimising the environmental harm of building, they’re not fussed by the lack of a second bathroom, or by sharing a building with social housing tenants. More than this, it shows that they might actively subscribe to such values – that the social and environmental agenda might become a powerful brand in its own right, as indeed it has.

Of all the players in the construction industry, often it’s the architects alone who are willing to fight for the greater good, the longer term, the end-user they might never meet. But swimming against the tide, they’re easily pushed downstream, swept away from the most consequential decisions, which are made before they’re even engaged. The Nightingale model pushes them back to the water source, and proves that a design-led approach is the key – the ability to turn a problem into a source of invention, a “compromise” into a virtue.

As McLeod says, the challenge for architects has always been to scale up from single boutique buildings, to find ways to “take back agency to shape the city”. Nightingale shows that through design ingenuity and sheer doggedness, when housing is framed as an essential service and social infrastructure rather than a vehicle for speculative profit, things can change. Nightingale Village is a landmark in the realisation of this vision.

ARTS DIARY

CULTURE Desert Mob

Venues throughout Mparntwe/Alice Springs, September 7-October 22

OPERA Macbeth

Her Majesty’s Theatre, Kaurna Country/Adelaide, September 7-16

DANCE Echoes of Van Gogh

His Majesty’s Theatre, Whadjuk Noongar Country/Perth, September 8-23

CULTURE Sydney Contemporary 2023

Carriageworks, Gadigal Country/Sydney, September 7-10

THEATRE Liminal

Peacock Theatre, nipaluna/Hobart, until September 7-16

LAST CHANCE

VISUAL ART The Affordable Art Fair

Royal Exhibition Building, Naarm/Melbourne, until September 3

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 2, 2023 as "Intelligent design".

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