The Secret to Affordable Apartments: House People not Cars

This week the ADM team get the lowdown from the architects and developers behind some of Australia’s most forward-thinking apartment developments.

With construction and land costs escalating exponentially over the last couple of decades in Auckland, the demand for more affordable housing options has never been more pressing.  Apartments are often heralded as the solution to our housing crisis. However, delivering quality apartments that are affordable has proved a major challenge.

In Australia, there’s a new housing model that has proved to be a huge success. The Nightingale Model, conceived by Jeremy McLeod of Melbourne’s Breathe Architecture, was founded on five key principles:

“Affordability, transparency, sustainability, deliberative design and community contribution.”

The Nightingale Model was founded on five key principles: affordability, transparency, sustainability, deliberative design and community contribution.

The Nightingale Model was founded on five key principles: affordability, transparency, sustainability, deliberative design and community contribution.


The first project designed under the model was The Commons, located in the heart of Melbourne’s Brunswick. It was also the first apartment development in Australia to embrace both material reductionism and shared social facilities. It was a rampant success. And so, Nightingale Housing was born.

The not-for-profit organisation champions design-led housing with a triple bottom line:

1) Environmentally sustainable

2) Socially sustainable

3) Financially sustainable

The concept has been incredibly successful; construction of Nightingale 1.0, the follow-up to The Commons, is well underway, whilst versions 2.0 & 3.0, also based in Melbourne, will begin construction within the next year. An additional development is proposed in Perth, while expressions of interest in the model have also been raised in Brisbane and Sydney. Each of the projects are designed and led by a different architect, with Nightingale Housing promoting each development and helping facilitate other architects to take on the Nightingale Initiative. More information on these projects can be found on their website.

The Nightingale 3.0 will be another valuable contribution to Melbourne's affordable apartments market

The Nightingale 3.0 will provide another valuable contribution of affordable apartments to Melbourne.


We spoke with Jeremy McLeod of Breathe Architecture, who led the design of The Commons and began the Nightingale Initiative, to find out more about the model and how it could be applied to Auckland.

What have been the biggest challenges you’ve faced in designing, selling and developing The Commons?

The actual act of designing The Commons was the easiest piece of the puzzle. That’s what we do as architects – it’s our turf, it’s what we’re trained to do and we love doing. The challenge was learning how to get upstream; how to be the decision-maker, not the impotent tool of decision-makers.

This required that we initiate and arrange funding for the project, while undertaking significant personal financial risk to achieve this (just like a property developer would). Once this was achieved we were able to set the agenda, a triple bottom line development that we hoped to become a flagship development for quality, sustainable homes provided at an affordable price.

The Commons, founded on the principles of material reductionism and shared social facilities.

The Commons was the first apartment development in Australia to embrace the principles of material reductionism and shared social facilities.


How has the more back to basics style of living been received by residents? What has been the reaction of the wider community?

The Commons and Nightingale 1.0 have been approached as sustainability through reductionism. Fundamentally, the idea is ‘build less, give more’.  Each decision to take something out of The Commons had to be countered with a benefit to the residents, environment or broader community. A few of these key decisions are as follows:

Build less – Zero car parking

Give more – Installation of 72 bike parks (highest ratio of bikes-to-apartments in Australia); creation of a retail space where the carpark ramp and driveway ‘should’ have been, which engages both the street and residents; the removal of the basement car park reduced the project cost by over $700,000, in turn reducing the cost of each apartment for residents by approx. $30,000.

The Nightingale 1.0

The Nightingale 1.0, along with all Nightingale Housing developments, has zero car parking.


Build less – No air-conditioning

Give more – Over $350,000 was saved by not installing air-conditioning and this was used to improve the thermal insulation and double glazing throughout; all thermal mass was left exposed and the building was designed to operate within a thermal comfort range of 19 – 27°C without AC.

A 2 bedroom apartment at The Commons uses approx. 3KW of electricity per day, 70% less than the 10KW per day average for 2 bedroom apartments in the same postcode. This simple decision makes the development not only more sustainable, but also more affordable.

the_commons_exposed_pipes_540 x 360

Thermal mass was left exposed throughout the building, allowing it to operate within a thermal comfort range of 19 – 27°C without A/C.


Build less – Only one bathroom

Give more – All 2 bedroom apartments at The Commons are approx. 75m2 and have only one bathroom. The deletion of the plumbing infrastructure, fittings, fixtures, and tiles led to a saving of approx. $10k off the price of each apartment. The additional space usually reserved for a second bathroom has instead been used for the dining and living rooms, where residents spend over 90% of their time awake, which are now 10% bigger.

The absence of a second bathroom allows for larger living and dining areas.

The absence of a second bathroom allows for larger living and dining areas.


Build less – No individual laundries

Give more – Rather than individual laundries, a shared rooftop laundry has been provided with six efficient washing machines, a connection to the rooftop gardens and rooftop clotheslines. The removal of individual laundries shaved roughly $6k off the price of their apartment, and added an additional 2m2 to the living area (that would have been lost to a built-in laundry cupboard).

This decision also saves the environmental and financial cost of 24 individual washing machines and gives residents a democratic space to come together for simple daily tasks. The rooftop laundry has been one of the most successful places for chance meetings and community building within The Commons.

The development's shared rooftop laundry has proved a popular space for residents.

The development’s shared rooftop laundry has proved a popular space for residents.


For the most part, the wider community have been intrigued, curious and supportive of the project. Architects and locals alike are taking photos of it and explaining its history to others (sometimes totally inaccurately!). In 2014, The Commons was opened up for visitors through the Open Houses Melbourne program. In one day, over 1000 people came through. The ‘Commoners’ were in shock at the level of interest in their home and the line of people waiting to get a glimpse inside.

Easily the biggest resistance against The Commons, Nightingale 1.0 and Nightingale 2.0 has been the lack of car parking. Some Melbournian’s struggle to understand that people can live in our city without private car ownership. The proximity of these projects to infrastructure including shops, schools, hospitals, train stations, tram lines, bus lines, bike paths, and access to three different car share systems, does not satisfy those whose day-to-day lifestyles are so entwined with their cars.

Perhaps more troubling is the loud voice of Melbourne motorists from distant suburbs who demand that car parking be linked inextricably with every new residential building, despite its location or the demographic make-up of its residents. The future of autonomous vehicles will eventually kill off this myopic thinking, but until then, Nightingale’s focus is on housing people not cars.

Are there elements of these developments which can be improved further?

Absolutely. The secret is in setting the agenda. Then, the sky is the limit.

Demand for your developments has been incredibly high. Why do you think this is?


Feeling inspired? The Auckland Design Manual has an extensive library of best practice medium and high-density case studies, as well as design guidance for apartment developments.

With Road Safety Week just around the corner, we speak with a self-proclaimed ‘transport nerd’ on how Auckland’s road safety can be improved.

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3 Responses to “The Secret to Affordable Apartments: House People not Cars”

  1. John Mackay Says:

    This is a brilliant model. Of course we couldn’t build it in Auckland yet, because the “Key Retail Group” (the two supermarket chains, The Warehouse, Westfield, etc) have taken an appeal against the Council’s bold decision to remove Minimum Parking Requirements from Centre zones.


  2. T. Caine Says:

    Great article. Great project. It’s great to see creative solutions to the problem of providing affordable housing (one that is only going to get bigger in the foreseeable future). I’d also be interested in what construction systems were used in some of these projects to help keep costs low and quality high.


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