For many, the idea of owning a new apartment is an increasingly distant possibility.

Melbourne has an oversupply of unthoughtful builds – apartments with construction defects, flammable cladding, cracks and leaks – making it feel riskier than ever to buy off-the-plan. Our housing market is now considered severely unaffordable by international standards, and with the loss of the boomer-era financial security that comes with investing, home ownership is simply out of reach for many.

But two Melbourne companies are pioneering an approach to apartment living that’s design-driven, community-centric and sustainability-led in a radically new and committed way.

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Nightingale Housing was founded by Jeremy McLeod, who also co-owns Brunswick's award-winning Breathe Architecture. It’s behind a model for carbon-neutral, architect-designed homes that gives the same weight to social and environmental concerns as it does to profits.

“Nightingale exists to revolutionise the way we live together,” says McLeod. “It’s a bottom-line housing model that provides affordable, accessible housing to a generation that’s been locked out of the housing market.”

But McLeod doesn’t consider Nightingale a property developer. (At information sessions, he’s been known to ask if anyone in the room is a real estate agent or developer, then ask them to leave.)

There are no marketing campaigns, and you can’t visit a display suite – the cost of which would normally be worked into the price of your home.

Instead, you apply to buy a home through an online ballot. Priority is given to key community contributors – social workers, teachers, nurses, police officers and those supporting minority groups or contributing to the arts – as well as people with a disability and members of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.

Apartments are then sold to successful applicants at cost (the equity for projects is provided by impact investors, whose returns are capped at 15 per cent).

Nightingale 1, in Brunswick, received accolades for its attention to social and economic causes as well as sustainability. It took out the 2018 National Award for Residential Architecture – Multiple Housing, the 2018 David Oppenheim Award for Sustainable Architecture and the 2018 Premier’s Design Award for Architectural Design, among others.

“When we finished Nightingale 1, we were blown away by how much demand there was for this style of apartments – a demand for the right location, for the right community and for the right sustainability factors,” says McLeod.

Nightingale 2 is in Fairfield, and the group has several other builds currently underway, mostly in Melbourne’s inner north but also in regional areas such as Ballarat. Parklife, part of the forthcoming Nightingale Village precinct, is set to hit a Nathers rating of 9.1 stars (Nathers is a nationwide system based on CSIRO research; 10-star-rated homes are so efficiently designed they often don’t need heating and cooling at all).

Productive communal gardens, bike parking in place of private car parking, rainwater harvesting, communal laundries and a fossil-fuel-free energy network are all standard.

“Nightingale is proof that there is a model to sell meaningful housing to Melbournians,” McLeod says. “It isn’t about selling speculative apartments to offshore markets, but rather designing sustainable housing that people genuinely want to live in.”

At the heart of this model are the residents, who contribute to the design of their home through regular meetings with architects and their future neighbours. The community establishes its own forum for input and feedback, too.

But there’s a catch – when you buy in, you’ll agree to a capped resale price (equal to the purchase price plus the compounded median housing index rise for that suburb). It’s designed to discourage those looking to make a quick profit, and instead encourage settling into the community.

“Community is pivotal to the success of Nightingale models,” McLeod says. “[This] results in a resident group that becomes incredibly stable. With stability forms community, which will only see the building get better with the residents over time.”

Shannon Peach is a director at Milieu Property, a developer that subscribes to the notion that inner-city living doesn’t have to mean tiny, unconsidered homes.

“We work with architects who are ingrained in the local context and understand the nuances of the neighbourhood,” says Peach. “Their offices are usually a kilometre from the development site, so they know the area extremely well. [And they’re] helping us build
homes that the community wants to live in.”

Peach calls the properties Milieu develops “very good apartments” – small footprint multi-residential apartments that are design-focused and environmentally responsible, too.

“People have been somewhat reluctant to look into off-the-plan apartments because of the obvious issues,” says Peach. “You hear these horror stories about new developments.”

Milieu works with respected architecture and interior design companies such as Breathe, Edition Office, Fieldwork, DKO Architecture, Foolscap Studio and DesignOffice, among others, to create homes that are both aesthetically appealing, environmentally responsible, and innovative in terms of design.

And Peach and his team have found there are conveniences people will forgo in pursuit of sustainability. Laundries in Milieu’s Breese Street development (Milieu’s second Brunswick project, designed by Breathe and Collingwood firm DKO) will be communal, located on the building’s rooftop. As with the Nightingale model, cooktops will be induction, not gas. Heating and cooling is powered by 100 per cent renewable energy, which can mean your system takes longer to get started, but the pay-off is a building that neither consumes nor emits fossil fuels. Car spaces are optional extras, but bike parking is included as standard.

The pay-off is an environmentally responsible, carbon-neutral building. Breese Street is on track to receive a 7.5 star Nathers rating. It’ll have a vegie garden, beehives managed by Honey Fingers and a 20,000-litre rainwater tank on the rooftop. And a maximum of five apartments per floor provides a sense of community and encourages you to get to know your neighbours.

Disclaimer: Broadsheet’s former Melbourne editor has purchased a Nightingale property. This piece was commissioned independently.