Simply put, Nightingale took the traditional housing developer model and cut away anything they deemed to be unnecessary, introduced high standards for sustainability, and gave the ownership of the project to the only ones that made sense: the buyers, the ones that will live there.
Earlier this year, I was fortunate enough to score a ticket to Nightingale’s sold-out information meeting on their upcoming project in Australia. It was a standing-only ticket, and when I arrived, it quickly became apparent why: the 500-seat lecture theater at the Melbourne School of Design was packed to the brim, with late-commers resorting to the stairs and banisters. We were all here to hear more about Nightingale’s latest project (and soon up for sale), the Nightingale Village – 7 apartment buildings, with 7 architects, in the middle of Brunswick, one of the trendy inner suburbs of Melbourne.
The popularity of this event shouldn’t surprise anyone that has prior knowledge of Nightingale. The small but ambitious team is behind some of the best housing projects in Australia, with awards to show for it. These housing projects are being delivered in a housing market that has become more and more unaffordable and unequal. While prices are going up, home ownership rates are going down, and all of this is happening simultaneous to an explosive population growth expected over the next decades.
And it’s with these developments in the back of their minds that Jeremy McLeod and his team stopped and started reflecting on the projects they were doing as architects.
“We found ourselves working for property developers and being directed by project managers to deliver, what they would refer to as, a product for profit. And the quality of housing that was delivered through that model was questionable at best,”Jeremy explained, when I met up with him at the Nightingale studio a couple of months later.
“And we had always thought that as architects we could resolve any problem through design; through spatial design, through materials, or through the architecture itself. But if the brief you are given is really about delivering profit, and not about delivering high quality housing, then we found out that it was actually – even when we were trying our very best – impossible to deliver the great quality, meaningful housing, at a reasonable price point, we wanted. And so we got fired from projects, because we realized half way though that the project from where we were sitting was destined for failure.”
The manifesto and call-to-arms
As any good revolution, it started with a manifesto. Jeremy and his team at Breathe Architecture had built the Commons, a progressive apartment building, with no car parking, high-quality apartments and plentiful communal areas. And it was a hit, winning them both awards and press.
“The idea was that we would build this as a prototype to encourage our developer clients to see that if you build something that is sustainable, that does build community, that there is a market for that. Hoping to just change the development sector enough, so that we could then go and continue to work as architects; you know, to do what we are good at.
So, we built that. When we sold it – 22 or 24 apartments were sold to owner-occupiers – lots of developers came here to visit it. But after three years, nothing much changed; everyone came through, had a look, took some photos, “that’s an interesting idea” and then it was business as usual: you know, back to building speculative buildings and selling them to offshore investors.”
Jeremy and his team realized that the only way to change anything was to take control over the financial part; to develop the projects themselves. However, they couldn’t do that alone. With help from academics and tax experts, they developed a financial model, which was then translated into a manifesto.
“I took four days out of work to write a manifesto on the state of housing in our city, and sent a call-to-arms to about 30 of the greatest architects in Melbourne. This is what I proposed to do: I wanted to buy another site and I wanted another project like the Commons. We wanted to fund it totally independent of any bank finance, we wanted to make sure that was triple bottom line and we wanted to show that it’s replicable.
Remember these colleagues are my competition, we compete for the same work. But I asked them to invest in Breathe’s new project. Within 30 seconds, two of them responded “we’re with you”. By the end of the week, I had seven architects who were all committing $100,000 AUD, and these architects aren’t wealthy. They’re young firms, and they were borrowing against their houses to put money into our project.”
When the Nightingale project started, all they had was a waiting list of 11 people, mostly of people writing to them after they finished the Commons. After the call-to-arms and with no marketing budget at all, the first information meeting drew over 125 people. There was clearly a demand.
They quickly realized the 20 apartments included in the first Nightingale project wouldn’t keep up with demand, so they asked one of the firms that had responded, Six Degrees Architects, to start looking for a site for Nightingale 2. By the time the waiting list reached 700, Austin Maynard Architects had started working on Nightingale 3.
The model hacked
So, what is it that makes Nightingale so special, so sought-after and admired? With the Australian housing market in crisis, the Nightingale Housing model is taking the traditional developer model and hacking it. There is no marketing, no real estate agent, no hidden profit margin; it is delivered at cost, meaning that what you see, is what you pay for. And what you get is of high quality and sustainable.
“Nightingale Housing is a triple bottom housing tool, meaning it has to be ecologically, socially and financially sustainable,” Jeremy explains, with patience and ease. “Ecologically sustainable, because there’s no point building anything if the planet warms to a point where we can’t actually occupy it.”
“Socially sustainable, so that it must build community both within the building, but also interfaces with the broader community.”
And lastly financially sustainable, which I guess is twofold, one part is that we deliver housing at cost, which demands a financially transparent model, so everybody gets to see how much every part of the project costs. But also, it means that it not just about the cost of buying the apartment, but it includes the cost of living there overtime.”
“This long-term financial approach comes in all shapes and forms; from the embedded Internet provider that delivers a fast, reliable, and cheap connection; to negotiating a wholesale energy contract, which Nightingale then pass on to the residents. They have also ditched the traditional Australian building standards of single-glazed windows and poor insulation, to decrease energy consumption both for heating and cooling.”
“They also go further, building absolutely no parking space for cars, only bikes, which usually comes in conflict with the local planning by-laws. This makes the planning process difficult, but they have succeeded up until now with getting all their applications approved in the end. Usually a Nightingale-buyer will have to sign a contract, where they agree to not own a car while living in the apartment.”
Measuring their success
Nobody can accuse the Nightingale team for lacking ambition, and with their first project constructed, sold and occupied, I was curious to hear if Jeremy felt he had succeeded, especially the social sustainability, which can be the hardest to measure.
“We have anecdotal evidence from people after they’ve moved into the Commons. They’ve sold their car, they’ve lost weight, they seem happier, they seem less anxious, they seem more connected, you know. I could cite you a ton of individual examples of how that’s happened.
“With Nightingale, we’ve partnered with RMIT to do a longitudinal study of the Nightingale 1 residents, asking all of those questions. They interviewed everyone before they moved into their apartments, and then they’re going to follow their progress over the next five years.
So, the answer that question is: can I tell you in four years’ time?”
The Commons and Nightingale 1 are situated on each side of Florence Street. In February this section of the street hosted a Community Dinner, arranges by the residents of the two buildings. Photo by Kate Longley
When it comes to the more environmental aspect of the project, it is easier to measure. Energy consumption is about 25% of any building in the area, and carbon emissions are minimal, thanks to green sources for electricity and heating. The Nightingale 1 is also fitted with 200 sensors, installed by a PhD student, measuring temperatures and air quality, both internal and external, which are then compared to energy usage.
“Yeah absolutely, and again open and transparent,” answers Jeremy, when I ask him if you could say they use a trial and measure approach to their triple-bottom line.“So, if something doesn’t work, we just say “okay, that is a failure” and then have to find out what we need to do to adjust, to make it better. That’s the idea, and I mean if you guys want to send a crew out to count some people for us that would be awesome,” Jeremy laughs.
With 22 licenses granted across the country, one is handed over, a few are under construction, and several more are in planning phases, including the Nightingale Village. What the little team in Brunswick do most days, is all about helping the architects with site feasibility studies, land acquisition, financing and planning processes. And – because they themselves are developing the projects – they are also holding information meetings for potential buyers, and balloting nights, where the lucky ones are selected.
But nevertheless, a Nightingale project will still strive for a small and local community. “We could have had 20 buildings in there, but the important thing is that each of the buildings are broken down into individual communities,” Jeremy tells me, when I ask him why the Village has been divided into 7 smaller projects, instead of one big. He breaks down the math for me:
“We know that humans can remember about 150 people and consider them friends. So, limiting the number of apartments to 40 units per building, is again based on the idea that you might want to have about 75 people living in each building. This way they can be part of a broader community, or a part of a broader village. At least that’s the assumption we are making, and we’re happy to take feedback and comments on this.
“But the idea is that they’ve got their own rooftop garden, their own communal areas to come together in, their own laundry, and then they can come out on the street and engage with their broader community. So, there’s an opportunity for them to have their private space, then their own community in a semi-private or semi-public space, and then go out into the public arena where they might go to a cafe or a park downstairs and engage with other people in their community.”
“So yes, we think that the building size can be limited at forty units, and can then be multiplied across the village. We’ve already seen that with the Nightingale 1 and the Commons, and the part of the street they share. Residents from both buildings come together and meet at the café, they meet at the parklet in front of it. Both resident groups have lobbied the council to close the street completely, and turn it into a park, because no one’s gonna bring cars here anyway.”