Apartment design as it should be.

Recently I was privileged to stay for a couple of nights at The Commons in Brunswick Melbourne by Breathe Architecture. While I was there I had a good chance to have a thorough look around, experience living in the building and begin to understand the clever strategies and approaches taken by Breathe. There are a number of things that are remarkable about this mixed use building, from the sustainable approaches taken in its design, the process by which the project was built, the tight planning and the building’s new community. A residential community who are understandably proud of their new home, of what it stands for, as well as what is afforded them while living there.

Exterior of The Commons from the street.

Exterior of The Commons from the street.

Whilst I had the chance for a brief chat to the principal of Breathe, Jeremy McLeod and other residents, it was by no means a thorough conversation. Some of what follows comes from inference and/or observation, rather than fully a informed reference. I therefore apologise in advance to those involved in the building, if I get things wrong, please feel free to let me know.

The private garden beds. 2 per apartment. Most have started vegetable gardens.

The private garden beds. 2 per apartment. Most have started vegetable gardens.

Beyond the building itself, what really stands out for me is how Jeremy McLeod at Breathe managed to realise The Commons. Jeremy was convinced that the market existed for apartment buildings designed with a strong environmental and sustainable agenda. Frustrated, however, by the lack of such an initiative from developers he took it upon himself to right this oversight, along with a number of other investors. They found an excellent site, developed a very fine design to final approval. For various reasons they were unable to tackle the construction financially themselves, so they found a developer (Small Giants) to bring the project to fruition, whilst maintaining a guiding hand throughout the construction. I can’t speak to the financial bottom line of the project but I certainly think the final building bares testament to his conviction.

The common roof space, with BBQ, clothes lines, feature garden beds and a great view of Melbourne.

The common roof space, with BBQ, clothes lines, feature garden beds and a great view of Melbourne.

 

Sustainable development is not isolated, it is instead integrated, woven into the fabric and infrastructure of the city. An apartment development’s environmental impact extends beyond site boundaries, across the city, and reciprocally an apartment’s siting in the city city effects its residential amenity. The Common’s site is well chosen, positioned adjacent to a train station, a mere 5 minutes walk to both the tram and the active shopping strip on Sydney Road, and a cycle path to the city is sandwiched between The Commons and the railway corridor. I can also attest that it is handily located near some great bars and cafes and I dare say to other important amenities in the locale that I did not discover. It is hard to conceive of why you might need a car there, and thus The Commons has no car parking, a GoGet (car share) car is available, located out the front for those unavoidable car trips, and there is more than ample secure bicycle parking for residents and visitors alike. This is an important initiative in discouraging car usage, given that road transport contributes 16-29% of all greenhouse gas emissions (depending on where you get your figures).

A large bicycle store for all residents.

A large bicycle store for all residents.

Moving through the building one is struck by the depth of consideration that has gone into the design, and how each and every space is beautifully realised. Notably, many elements of the building both contribute to the building’s environmental performance and importantly create a more attractive dwelling. Clever planning is responsible for many of these delightful features. Two generous light-wells are located astride the building’s lift foyers providing natural light and ventilation to these public spaces and within the apartments. A glazed stair is notched into the building adjacent to the lift foyers, further enhancing natural lighting internally and providing a more sustainable choice of vertical circulation. I can’t say with certainty but I think I can safely infer that every bedroom is naturally lit and ventilated. Western apartments have windows in the external wall, eastern apartments receive light and ventilation from recesses in what will inevitably become light-wells with a future neighbouring development and the central 1 bedroom apartments receive the benefit from central light-wells. The diagrammatic plan below is interpolated from observation as I only entered one apartment.

Typical floor plan of The Commons

Typical floor plan of The Commons

The crowning glory, as it were, is the roof garden and other rooftop features. The roof is astutely divided into two main spaces, garden beds growing veges are on the sunny northern section, common barbecue area to the south taking in the views of Melbourne city. A shared laundry is also located on the roof, with a large area of clotheslines located on the shared southern terrace adjacent to the BBQ in perhaps one of the few miss-steps in the project, albeit minor (smokey sheets anyone?) The roof spaces are also shaded in part by photovoltaic arrays, and solar hot water panels to supply apartments with hot water for bathroom and kitchen and I’m guessing also utilised for space heating in winter – there’s a radiant heater in the apartments.

The glazed fire stair brings natural light into the foyers.

The glazed fire stair brings natural light into the foyers.

 

I could get bogged down in exhaustive detail of every other sustainable initiative I observed as I stalked the project, but to keep the article brief(ish) I’ll list the rest instead (in no particular order)

– Brickwork is all recycled bricks rescued from the former building onsite. The original graffiti on the recycled bricks reassembled into a new collage of history;
– Rainwater tanks. With the water irrigating the roof gardens and I suspect to flush toilets (but I haven’t confirmed that);
– whilst I have mentioned that there is no car parking, it is also notable that there is no basement that requires energy intensive mechanical ventilation;
– bathrooms with natural light and ventilation;
– joinery constructed from form ply, with no additional finishing;
– movement sensors are utilised for the lights to the common areas, minimising the time lights are on to only when required;
– exposed thermal mass to keep the apartments cool in summer and maintain the heat in winter. Having been in Melbourne on a 42 degree day I can attest to how cool the southern apartment was in the late afternoon and evening;
– elimination of the use of additive surface finishes such as tiles or plasterboard where possible. Exposing the natural finishes of the materials instead, such as concrete on the ceilings and bathroom floor and using large sealed sheets of fibre cement in the bathroom as the final finish rather than tiles on top;
– and by extension, all services are also exposed across the ceilings and are therefore neatly composed, with exhaust ducts, electrical wiring, fire sprinkler pipes, snaking across ceilings in an elegant fashion;
– double glazing;
– aluminium use has been minimised. Where possible, steel windows and fixtures have been utilised;
– extensive use of recycled timber;
– chains have been positioned over the balconies on the building to encourage the growth of vines up the building’s face adding further shade to balconies in summer, a carbon sink and delight;
– my guess would be that any paint or clear finish is low in volatiles, and
– I would also infer from all the other efforts and that all apartments are well insulated.

Bathroom showing the sealed sheet finish & exposed plumbing.

Bathroom showing the sealed sheet finish & exposed plumbing.

Why is it that more apartment buildings like this aren’t built? It is a mystery to us, as it was to Jeremy McLeod and we applaud his initiative. The time I spent at The Commons I appreciated the material character that was developed out of the design and sustainable strategies. The building feels very comfortable to live in, I could imagine living there myself and imagine that the new residents will very much appreciate their new homes and the efforts that Breathe Architects have made to ensure their comfort.  Great delights abound in the building, the elegantly constructed interiors glowing with natural light and warm recycled timbers, the utility and joy of your own vege patch plus access to generous outdoor spaces, the comfortable interior environments in spite of extreme weather and the consideration and integration of the building within the city. These great delights make for not only better apartments but are more sustainable. This is how apartment design should be.

PS: I would like to also acknowledge my very gracious hostess, Jodi Newcombe who does remarkable work with Carbon Arts , I suggest you check it out.