Ecovillages come to town

Issue 33 Words: Emily Braham
  • Breathe Architecture’s much-lauded apartment complex in Melbourne’s north, The Commons, is located next to a train station and includes secure bike storage and communal areas, such as food growing spaces, a rooftop deck and laundry. Image by Andrew Wuttke.
  • Christie Walk, an urban infill ecovillage in Adelaide, is home to around 40 people in four cottages, one three-storey apartment block and one five-storey apartment block on just half an acre. Architect Paul Downton is still amazed it ever happened.
  • "My life, our life, is more than I thought it could have been – we are so much more comfortable, summers are bearable, winters are great and the social interaction with our neighbours is the best bit," says Green Swing director. Image by Ethan Dowley.
  • Lochiel Park is an ecovillage housing around 200 people, just 8 kilometres outside of the Adelaide CBD, alongside the River Torrens in Campbelltown. It includes Australia’s first zero carbon house, designed by TS4 Living. Image courtesy of Renewal SA.
  • The planned White Gum Valley development to take place just outside Fremantle, WA, is trialling shared solar and battery storage.
  • Mike Hill and Lorna Pitt’s pioneering apartment development within the grounds of a heritage-listed school in Brunswick, Melbourne, became the first One Planet Living Community in Australia. Image by Emma Cross.
  • WestWyck developers and residents Mike Hill and Lorna Pitt are preparing for stage two of their groundbreaking project, which has a renewed focus on people and governance.

It’s argued that Australia is well behind the pack when it comes to green building, but an increasing number of progressive multi-residential projects across the country are showing what’s possible. There’s also a growing move to bring these developments to our cities, spurring innovation that spans sustainable design to creative financing.

Ecovillages, which have roots in the intentional communities of the 60s and 70s, have traditionally happened on the edges of our cities and in regional areas where land prices, clean air and access to nature are readily conducive to more ‘natural’ ways of living. But more recently, there’s been recognition of the need to focus on our cities, offering the people in them (and that’s over 75 per cent of us) healthy environments and a connection to nature while prioritising access to infrastructure and services.

Architect Paul Downton, author of Ecopolis: architecture and cities for a changing climate, is an advocate of this urban efficiency; the idea being that the gradual transformation of our cities into productive and self-sufficient centres is essential in order to avoid ecological collapse. What is needed, he says, is design that enables “resilient urban communities that can cope with changes in the climate, changes in occupants and even changes in use.”

Christie Walk, the medium density urban infill development in inner Adelaide he designed and helped create 10 years ago, is one small example of this. The development is now home to around 40 people in four cottages, a terrace of four townhouses, one three- storey apartment block and one five-storey apartment block on just half an acre. The homes were designed to exacting environmental design standards, but also “like a habitat” that supports both people and wildlife with deliberately connecting spaces.

The careful planning, combined with the clear dedication of the residents has led to a genuine sense of community. All the project’s inhabitants, a mix of owners and renters, know each other, which makes a big difference, says resident Jo Thomas. “It’s not just about sharing in environmental concerns, it’s also about living in a way which is better for human beings generally,” she says.

Paul is still amazed it ever happened. “It must have been a special moment in time with a special group of people,” he says now. But despite his deserved pride at the success of the project, which he says “succeeded to an extent I never dared hope,” he is frustrated by the slow pace of change more broadly. “It has to become normal, and there’s still a long way to go”, he says. “At the moment there are no real penalties for building badly and developers still don’t ‘get’ community.”

Paul would like to see stringent regulation to drive better environmental and social outcomes. “The building code is the baseline to achieve consistent ecological performance in terms of the way we make houses and the materials we use – the thing is it is possible to change things, we know how to.”

There is some hope that the adoption of non-compulsory frameworks could help normalise sustainable development. Caitlin McGee, Director of Sustainable Futures Institute says international certification schemes such as Bioregional’s One Planet Living have helped propel leaders in the field. “For the last 50 years or so our focus has been on minimising harm, but then people have started to say ‘can’t we lift the bar a bit higher’ and ‘what would a net positive approach look like?’”, she says. While Caitlin says the biggest impact would undoubtedly come from this approach on a wide scale, where it could influence a broader range of factors such as infrastructure and employment, it is also having an effect locally.

Melbourne’s WestWyck, the sensitive adaptation of the former Brunswick West Primary School, was the first project in Australia to be awarded the internationally recognised and famously difficult-to- achieve certification. Developers and residents Mike Hill and Lorna Pitt are now preparing to embark on stage two of the leading sustainable infill development, with a greater focus on governance and people. The eighteen new properties (five within the school and thirteen on the grounds to the east and the west) quickly sold out, most within days of entering the market.

BioRegional’s One Planet Communities was selected as a benchmark for the achievement of WestWyck’s environmental and social aims. “We selected the tool because it has great flexibility and the capacity to achieve a balance across a broad range of principles,” explains Mike. One Planet assesses broadly against ten social, environmental and economic principles, considering their application from the design phase right through to post-occupancy, with success measured by the clearly defined One Planet Action Plan (OPAP).

Fifteen years after the first stage commenced, Mike and Lorna are holding themselves to even higher standards with the OPAP written into the contract of sale and the owners’ corporation rules, in an effort to provide certainty to new residents. All new occupants inherit the OPAP, which includes commitments to zero waste, zero carbon, local food production and sustainable transport use.

Another disused school, in Fremantle, is to be reappropriated as Western Australia’s first One Planet Living residential development, led by government agency Landcorp. White Gum Valley will be home to around 150 people with a mix of apartments, townhouses, maisonettes and single home units, which will pioneer the use of shared solar and battery storage. The micro-grid approach means the buildings can generate and store their own energy, and in a near world first (there is one other known example in Italy), it will benefit both tenants and landlords, with tenants paying bills to the strata to offset the cost of the technology.

The site will become a ‘living laboratory’ as part of a four-year research project by Curtin University, which will monitor the performance of the buildings and the impact of technology and resident behaviour on energy use. The research will be ‘open source’ and publicly available, in an effort to encourage the wider uptake of renewable energy within residential strata development.

Nearby in Perth is The Green Swing, a two- townhouse, two-apartment development, now preparing to launch its own second stage on the same residential street. Developed by two sets of couples, the mix of 10 Star and 9 Star homes broke new ground with its innovative use of a suburban block. “People think they need to subdivide a block to redevelop, but not subdividing and using strata legislation was key to how we achieved what we did,” says Director Eugenie Stockman. “Subdividing locks you into the stock standard design – you have a lot more flexibility if you don’t subdivide.”

On top of the passive solar features, renewable energy, the wide use of reclaimed materials and productive food growing, the design allows spontaneous neighbourly reactions, including through the placement of the front doors (facing each other instead of to the street), and communal outdoor spaces.

The Green Swing team see their site as a mini demonstration of the social, but also commercial case for environmental design, and Eugenie has this advice for anyone considering going down the same path: “If really serious you need to work on your design, build a good team, and if you don’t have the financial means to pay for the construction up front, put the word out to see who might be interested in doing it with you – you might be completely surprised.” Eugenie says there are innovative ways to make the best environmental design affordable. “To me affordable means over the life of the house – often people just think about the upfront costs, but if you have one less room, get the orientation right, none of that costs extra – there’s lots of things you can do to save money, you just don’t compromise on the sustainability stuff.”


Image by Andrew Wuttke.

Nightingale is the evolution of Breathe Architecture’s Melbourne apartment complex The Commons (pictured above), which swept last year’s architecture awards. The apartments are intended to be car and carbon free, but perhaps the most revolutionary aspect has been its ability to take place in traditional developer’s territory. It’s medium density urban living turned on its head, with the focus on community and sustainability, and with architects at the centre.

“It’s about thinking of it as housing and not development and that’s the fundamental difference between investment-driven development and a housing project,” says architect Clare Cousins, one of the initial investors in Nightingale 1 and now one of the architects to lead her own phase of the development.

Each Nightingale project is ‘crowd funded’ by around 25 ethical investors – willing for the return on their capital to be capped at 15 per cent, in exchange for the opportunity to shape the outcome. Nightingale was conceived by a group of seven Melbourne architects who invested along with 15 others in the first stage.This pilot project is across the street from The Commons and designed by Breathe Architecture. A second Nightingale, designed by Six Degrees, is underway in Fairfield.

Jason Bassett is a renter at The Commons, and while he and his partner Kate were not initially aware of the majority of its sustainability features, they were won over by its comfort (the rooms didn’t reach over 27 degrees in last summer’s heatwave) and the community. They have now bought into Nightingale 1, although they were not previously considering buying a home. “It just seemed to us to be a once in a lifetime opportunity, so it just really catapulted us into doing it,” he says. “The thing that surprised me most about The Commons was the community, everybody knows one another and looks out for one another. But living here has also illustrated to me that living sustainably doesn’t have to be difficult, the setup makes it really easy.”

Like The Commons, the site for each Nightingale stage will be selected with connectivity and low energy use in mind, with access to solar and ventilation and proximity to public transport prioritised. The communal rooftop garden and individual balconies are made possible by cutting high-cost elements such as basement car parking, marketing and estate agent fees.

However, this approach has ruffled feathers, and Nightingale 1 is yet to gain planning permission; despite full buyer support, and that of Moreland City Council, complaints over the lack of car spaces landed the developers at an unsuccessful Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal hearing.


The first house, designed and built by TS Constructions, at The Cape has an 8.5 Star rating.

Several carefully considered suburban and regional developments with a genuine commitment to better design and sustainability outcomes are seeking mainstream appeal, such as The Cape pictured above. Read more on greenfield development done well here.

One Planet Living
Eco Cities
Living Building Challenge, Sanctuary 31,
CitiNiche – a crowd sourcing platform for city based community projects that bypass the developer


ShareShare on FacebookShare on Google+Pin on PinterestTweet about this on Twitter
Cover of Issue 33
You can read more about Ecovillages come to town in Issue 33 of Sanctuary magazine.

Buy it now at our webshop!

Sanctuary: modern green homes is Australia’s premier magazine dedicated to sustainable home design. More...

Subscribe to our newsletter

View houses by state