Designing for people, not profit: The story behind a multi-residential housing model changing the way we live

  •   14 November 2017

When Breathe Architecture took out the Best of the Best category at the 2014 Sustainability Awards for its multi-residential project, The Commons, we could not have imagined what would come in its wake. We certainly did not expect the practice to launch a new model of apartment living that is changing the way Australians view city dwellings.

The Commons was designed as a “triple bottom-line development”, meaning it is environmentally sustainable, financially viable, and socially responsible. In addition to a strategy of de-materialisation, cross-ventilation, and exposed thermal mass, some of the project’s more notable ESD initiatives include doing away with car parking spaces, mechanical cooling systems, and individual laundries and washing machines.


By getting rid of the luxuries that Australians have long come to expect and demand from a home, the multi-award-winning project, which boasts an average 7.5-star energy rating, made a bold statement that could not be ignored.

“At its core, The Commons is about people, not architectural form,” the architects said in 2014. “The architecture serves as a catalyst for the way people use the building and interact, and the sense of community garnered. Designing to build more with less, giving space and height, light and air, The Commons attempts to give people what they needed not what the marketing agents thought would sell.”

In a 2016 interview with Fairfax, Breathe’s principal architect Jeremy McLeod explained that getting The Commons from the planning to building stage had been a challenge.

McLeod and his partners had raised funds for the development, believing that if they could prove the profitability of a triple bottom-line development, other developers would be prompted to take that model on.

Unfortunately the Global Financial Crisis happened, which could have prevented their proposal from ever being realised if not for ethical investors, Small Giants. Founded in 2007 by Danny Almagor and Berry Liberman to support, nurture and empower businesses and entrepreneurs that seek to create a more social equitable and environmentally sustainable world, Small Giants helped the team move to construction once the planning permit was granted.


Despite sweeping up a whole host of awards and being recognised for its fresh and innovative take on sustainable living, The Commons failed to make a lasting impact on the industry. Developers weren’t jumping at the opportunity to adopt a similar model for new apartment buildings in the city.

The time came for a direct challenge. Not long after The Commons opened its doors, McLeod sent an email to other architects in Melbourne, and asked them to build on what had already been laid out and achieved.

“I asked them to invest $100,000 each in Nightingale,” McLeod told Fairfax. “In the time it took me to hit refresh on my computer, I had two architects, Andrew Maynard and Six Degrees, writing back to say they were in.”

Architecture Architecture, Clare Cousins Architects, MRTN, Robin Boyd Foundation, Wolveridge Architects, Hip V Hype and Hip V Hype Sustainability also responded positively, and the Nightingale Model was born. Twenty-five investors provided the seed financing for Nightingale 1.0, the first project to be built based on the model.

More encouraging though was the response from potential buyers. Soon, over 60 people were applying to live in the five-storey building on 6 Florence Street, Brunswick, which only has 20 apartments.

Yet good things rarely come easy. Nightingale 1.0 gained the support of Moreland Council, but Chaucer Enterprises, who planned to develop neighbouring plot 8 Florence Street, challenged this approval. The developers lodged an appeal with the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT), arguing that it was unfair that Nightingale 1.0 was exempted from the planning car park provisions they were subjected to.


Their appeal was successful, and VCAT Senior Member Russell Byard noted that while the first generation of Nightingale 1.0 residents may have been vetted and would not require car parking spaces, successive generations as well as guests of the residences would demand the parking provisions in the future.

The next project proposed by Six Degrees Architects based on the model, Nightingale 2.0, went through a similar fate. The project’s approval by the Darebin Council in May 2016 was challenged by a group of 17 local residents, who questioned the impact the building may have on pedestrians and traffic, as well as its inadequate car parking spaces.

But all is well that ends well. Although the design team had to concede by adding three car slots – whilst sacrificing 27 bike spaces – to get the project past the line, Nightingale 1.0 topped out in March and will be completed later this year. In February, VCAT also issued a planning permit approval for Nightingale 2.0 to proceed.

Then there are the other wins by the Nightingale force, which continue to increase in both scale and number.

For example, Melbourne-based Andrew Maynard Architects (who are designing Nightingale 3.0 in Melbourne) and Brisbane’s James Davidson Architect, announced they will be collaborating across borders to bring Nightingale to Queensland for the first time. EHDO Architecture has also been awarded a license to design the first Nightingale Housing project in Western Australia, with the project now undergoing equity raising.

“In 10 years, there might be 500 [Nightingale projects] running,” McLeod suggested in a 2015 TED Talk.

“But the idea is that we catalyse an industry change from the ground up, with architects leading the charge.”

To find out more about the Nightingale Housing model and upcoming projects, visit


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