[Read] Interview with Jeremy McLeod from Breathe Architecture

Jeremy McLeod from Breathe Architecture recently showed me around Australia’s flagship sustainable apartment building The Commons in Brunswick, Melbourne. We had a long chat about minimal living, community, Gen Y and the ever evolving urban landscape.

DAN McCABE: Tell me a bit about your architectural practice, your philosophy towards creating and doing, and what inspired it? Particularly the Nightingale Model.

JEREMY McLEOD: The simple thing to note about Breathe Architecture is that we’re a collective, so there is 9 architects that work here, and we gather together on design capability and ethical positioning. Our mantra is ethic before aesthetic, and it seems to be differentiating us from the market.

Historically architects used to be an important part of society. Somewhere in the 70s, as a profession, we got lost. We got overrun by project managers, property developers, bogged down in capitalism and taken away from our core agenda which is building cities for humans to occupy. For Breathe Architecture, our core work is sustainable urbanisation. And when we say sustainable urbanisation we don’t just mean ecological sustainability, we mean cultural sustainability, we mean social sustainability. How do we make our city as an organism work better, and how do we make that organism a great place to be as well as a positive contribution back to the planet.

To be able to do that we’ve had to stop waiting for the phone to ring, we’ve had to stop expecting property developers or governments or project control groups to build quality housing. Which they haven’t. They have been expecting us to turn a good profit on a property development. We embarked on what is now known as the Nightingale Model in 2007, with the goal being to take back the keys to the city from property developers and put that in the hands of the designers and the people that will live there. And strangely, we ask the designers and future residents to actually talk to each other. Acting as the agent of change, rather than waiting for someone to ask us.

Image: Breathe Architecture
Image: Breathe Architecture

D: Have you had a pushback from the suburban model which was established in the 60s, 70s and 80s? Why do you think this is?

J: Obviously we are going to get some pushback from the development industry because they are currently operating in a profitable situation, they don’t want the status quo to change. Whats more concerning, and a little bit stranger, is that there is a tendency from middle Australia to look at their property as a commodity.

People who invested in the 60s or moved to Australia in the post-war era with this idea of the ‘Great Australian Dream’, bought their freestanding piece of land with the idea of their house appreciating in value over time. It would become your single biggest asset, and then from that asset you can go and buy other assets, like other houses in other growth areas. You can start to build your own realestate empire if you wanted to. I often overhear people say “Did you see the auction on the weekend” or “Did you see how much that house went for” or “My house must be worth a million dollars now or $1.2M”. Really proudly and happily talking about it as this great commodity, and not understanding that every time that happens it makes it more and more impossible for people in the next generation to be able to get any sort of housing security.

For those who entered the property market earlier, they are capitalising on the cultural capital established by the artists and bespoke hospitality ventures. They didn’t contribute to that increase in value, the people who now can barely afford to live there did. Often property owners don’t want a change in the space around them or their single storey existence, and they can’t imagine a beautiful future that is different to that. Climate change is here. It’s settling in, we need to get used to that and we need to adapt. To change the way our cities work.

Photography: Andrew Wuttke
Photography: Andrew Wuttke

D: As mentioned on your website, buildings designed using the Nightingale Model are built to support wellbeing, community and liveability. What has the response been to these objectives? Are these the qualities people in Melbourne are looking for?

J: Designing in liveability is actually quite easy. The people that have come to live in a building like The Commons, with no air-conditioning, no car-space, no individual laundry, when you ask them what they want, they ask for a little bit of space, a little bit of light, perhaps some fresh air. Their actual expectations or needs or desires are very small. They don’t want much. If you put a group of these people together, people who don’t consume much anyway, who have a general sense of civic duty or who are thinking about the greater good, and you give them places to gather like a rooftop garden or communal laundry, this sense of community grows and strengthens.

I live in The Commons, and I have built some of my closest friendships with the neighbours that surround me. It is incredible to have your friends so close by. We started Nightingale with 11 people on the waitlist, and now there are 1200 people who want to live in an apartment like this. On one hand people have said that this is incredible, this is exactly what I am looking for, and on the other hand there has been a certain level of cynicism or disbelief.

Photography: Andrew Wuttke

D: Australia’s population will grow from 22 to 36 million by 2050, and a large part of that will be an ageing population. Meeting the needs of the countries ageing society will be a pretty big important and challenge. There have been studies that suggest that integrating this population into new and existing dense living situations rather than isolated in aged care will have a dramatically positive effect on both mental and physical health. You could also argue that that reduces the financial strain on broader society as well. Where does Australia’s ageing population fit into future Nightingale projects?

J: It’s a great question. Oscar Niemeyer was still doing architecture at 88, Phillip Johnson was still doing architecture at 90. I’m 43, so I have still got 40 years left in me. As people get older, they sometimes become a little more frail or forgetful, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that they are not incredibly valuable members of society. To put them all in some sort of little enclave on the edge of society where you don’t get to use that body of knowledge, is fucking crazy.

The first person to buy an apartment in The Commons was a 65 year old from Katoomba, who sold her place because it was too much maintenance and she downsized into Melbourne. Susan who also lives in The Commons is a 72 year old retired scientist, looks after our worm farms. Bron is in her 60s, she’s a horticulturist. Maryanne, who just turned 60 and works in a library, has an incredible knowledge of history and heads up the gardening committee. These people who live in The Commons are some of the most active community members here who constantly give back to the community. They have helped show everyone who lives at The Commons how to be part of a community.

This building [The Commons] is designed to be suitable for a two year old or an 82 year old. Our society is made up of different demographics but it’s important that we are all together.

D: As a Gen Y, I feel as though the the aspiration of owning a house or apartment is pretty unrealistic. Is Breathe Architecture addressing this reality? What opportunities are out there for people who are unable to afford or commit to paying off a mortgage, but still want to live within an active community like The Commons?

J: I have been critiqued pretty hard on this particular situation. To give you some perspective, The Commons is one building that houses 47 people. Nightingale is one building that houses 32 people. Nightingale is a project that focuses on buyers rather than renters, but you got to keep in mind that this one possible solution.

The whole idea of Nightingale is to change housing from a commodity to a home. I don’t think that home ownership is the answer to everything and I believe you can live in a home whether you are renting or buying. This has been shown in places like Sweden where you can secure an affordable ten year rental, and people go in there and adapt it because they have a sense of ownership. With Nightingale apartments we have a restrictive covenant in place which sits on the title for 20 years. If you buy an apartment with us at $400K it can index up with the postcode, but you just can’t capitalise on it straight away. We have been working with Maddocks Lawyers to come up with a similar covenant for renters, that restricts owners, who for whatever reason aren’t living in their apartment, to the median rental price for their postcode. Not at some elevated price point because it is a landmark building. The people that are buying-in already have a sense of civic duty, so when they go to rent their apartment it means that people are able to access it affordably. But it will still be a Brunswick median, which isn’t going to be that cheap.

Sitting on the Nightingale board, it is something we are going to have to work through, cause I agree that it is an archaic idea to think the answer is through home ownership. The future might not be about ownership, it might be about longterm renting. It might be about drones hovering in the sky with people sleeping in them, who fucking knows.

Photography: Andrew Wuttke
Photography: Andrew Wuttke

D: I heard you were in Fremantle recently, pitching a new project on the west coast?

J: Bonnie, my associate, was in Fremantle.

D: The presentation was at Success Arts Space and I was on the team who helped demo and refit the defunct department store into a contemporary art gallery.

J: Your kidding! Are you friends with Nic Brunsdon?

D: Dale Buckley and Guy Louden, the two Directors who have taken on the lease through Nic. Turns out that the room next to this presentation is the studio where I built the car tent.

J: Your kidding.

D: It’s pretty funny. I walked in, not knowing that there was an event on, and I asked Dale what was happening and he said that it was some architecture thing. Then everyone cleared out while I was packing up the tent to go to Melbourne in the other room. I talked to Dale later and he said “They’re doing some really interesting projects, its all about addressing housing affordability, you should try to get their contact details”. I asked if it was you or Breathe Architecture, and he was like “yeah yeah, The Commons”. Man, and I was like that is so funny.

J: [Laughing]

D: Anyway so my question is, what are your thoughts on rejuvenating disused spaces? Have you renovated/refitted/refurbished any existing buildings recently as part of Breathe Architecture?

J: Yeah that is all we do, about 90%. We are a small practice and most of our work we try to keep within the city environment, so we try to stay away from the natural environment as much as possible. We think that the best way to be environmentalists is not to build some pseudo-sustainable home in the middle of the forest, but to actually put people where the services are.

Most of our work is adaptive reuse. Sometimes I think what the fuck are we going to do with all these car parks. I just came back from Adelaide and it’s called the ‘City of Churches’ and it should be called the ‘City of Carparks’. It is just multi-storey carpark after multi-storey carpark. It’s interesting working within the planning scheme, designing buildings. So much of our time is spent focusing on carparks, where are our car parks going? And it is like no one has been reading the news lately about autonomous vehicles, no one seems to know about this thing called Uber or Car Share or Lift or UberPool. Or the guys in China that have developed the human carrying drone. Whatever is going to happen it’s not going to be around basement carparks under buildings or four levels of car park above ground. That paradigm is on its last legs and we continue to see the change before our very eyes. I would love to spend the next ten years of our practice adapting car parks to house people instead of cars. That would be awesome.

D: Well maybe with some of my car shaped tents you could fit it out and no-one would know.

J: [Laughing] Yeah thats right!

Image: Breathe Architecture.
Image: Breathe Architecture.

D: What do you guys have planned for WA, or Perth or Fremantle? Or other cities? I am originally from Brisbane, and currently living in Fremantle.

J: So this issue of housing affordability and liveability exists in every westernised city around the world. Our website has been pinged by 66 architects around the world so far. From Cape Town to Boston, Wellington, Auckland and obviously architects from Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne, Newcastle, Adelaide and Fremantle. Bonnie was over there talking to the West Australian architects saying: here is the model, what do you need from us? What do you need from us to help you do it? Breathe Architecture has no intent on scaling up. There is nine of us, and all we want to do is give the tools to every other architecture practice that is competent and wants to do some good, and we want them to scale it up. It doesn’t have to be Nightingale, it can be similar, or something equally or more aspirational. In fact I dare someone to do something more aspirational than Nightingale so that I can go back to my normal life.

D: Finally, how do you see the current shift in the aspiration/reality of home ownership affecting the Australian landscape three-dimensionally over the next 25 years?

J: The people that already have their real estate, middle Australia, they are going to defend that heavily. They’re not going to want to change or shift, so that is going to be battleground territory. And it is politically fraught. We would need a very, very strong government with a clear vision about how to deal with that. City of Melbourne rolled out plans years ago, showing that we can increase density along major transport routes as long as we also increase spending on public transport infrastructure. So the density is happening, its just the spend on public transport that needs to catch up.

How its going to play out over the rest of Australia? I don’t know how we are going to deal with this, especially with four year election cycles.

D: Yep.

J: We need future city planning enacted with long term goals. And it needs to happen outside of politics. I don’t know what the answer to that is. I don’t know what the changes are going to be.

D: What role does ecological and sustainable architecture have in that future and how can we fast track that integration?

J: It’s hard to believe that we are still talking about it, isn’t it. You know, again it just needs to be mandated. Part of everyday life. The same as how Volkswagen should put catalytic converters that work on their cars. If we are designing buildings, there is no reason why we shouldn’t be making fossil fuel free buildings right now. The technology is such that you can build a poorly designed, poorly oriented, poorly insulated, massive, greedy house, but you can cover it with PV and put a Tesla power wall in there and you should still be able to reduce your carbon emissions to zero. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating that. But what I am saying is that there has been a big resistance to ecological sustainability because people don’t want to have any behaviour shift. They don’t want to change the way they consume. If they can have everything that they want, but without polluting or having that guilt, wouldn’t that be great.

We do have a problem with super sizing in Australia. Obviously we can’t continue to go beyond our urban growth boundaries. The reason why we keep building further out is because the misnomer is that it is cheaper, because the volume builders build cheaper houses on cheap land, further out, but it actually costs our society so much more. The sewers to get there, the NBN, the powerlines, infrastructure to get there, the roads. None of that is factored in.

Photography: Andrew Wuttke

D: I live about 1km away from Fremantle CBD. Its a small, 2 bedroom apartment that I share with my girlfriend. For me it is really important that I am right next to major public transport lines and get to use my bicycle whenever I can. At the moment I am willing to pay more rent to have that freedom. To not be reliant on a car to get to work or the studio. With The Commons, I like how it is stripped back. There are other examples, whether it is container homes or a Tiny House, that are getting closer to what I think my ideal is. The Commons is pretty close.

J: The difference is Gen Y. You went through an education system that taught you about the reality of climate change. Baby boomers deny it, Gen X has ignored it and with Gen Y there is hope.

D: Most of my generation seems to be disenchanted or disempowered by the political system. There are so much resistance to progression for a variety of different political and societal issues, and I wonder why the fuck politicians from Gen X are hell bent on denying this change, whether it is climate change or marriage equality or basic human rights. Why are we even debating this?

J: I can’t even believe these things are still in the news. Don’t get exhausted by it, take control and deal with it in your own way.

Jeremy is the founding Director of Breathe Architecture, a team of architects dedicated to making meaningful contributions to cities that are and environmentally sustainable. By combining a rigorous conceptually driven approach with an intimate understanding of people and places, Breathe have built a reputation for delivering high quality designs that are finely detailed, materially rich, and contextually relevant.

Breathe have been focusing on sustainable urbanisation and in particular have been investigating how to deliver more affordable urban housing to Melbournians.

Breathe were the instigators of The Commons housing project in Brunswick and now are collaborating with other Melbourne Architects to deliver the Nightingale Model. Nightingale is intended to be an open source-housing model led by Architects.

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