Nightingale Sings

Words by Amelia Borg
Images by Kate Longley
Nightingale Ballarat
Words by Amelia Borg
Images by Kate Longley

Located in Victoria's third most populous city, Nightingale Ballarat seeks to turn regional living on its head. Amelia Borg explores what happens when one of Melbourne's most successful ethical developers brings their sustainable model to town.

Through innovative developments touted to address sustainability and housing affordability, Nightingale has gained an almost cult-like following within the Melbourne housing and architectural community. The Nightingale model was conceived to address a housing system that its founders saw as “inequitable, environmentally unsustainable and eroding the community it was meant to serve.[1]”  The model promotes a triple bottom line approach to all developments prioritising financial, environmental, and socially sustainable outcomes. The founders had a vision for a new housing system; “It was about building homes, not real estate as a commodity. It was about fostering community to combat rising social isolation and designing buildings that positively tackled the issues of climate change rather than adding to the problem.”[2] Since its inception in 2007, the model and organisation have changed forms several times; however, these founding principles have remained, along with the motivation to remove what is seen as the exorbitant profit margins applied by developers.  Homes are sold at cost price, with a 2.5% margin for Nightingale operations and access to purchasing apartments through a ballot system.

Response to the projects has been extraordinary, echoing a widespread hunger for new models of housing development. There is continuous popularity with potential homeowners while several Nightingale projects have received industry accolades, including National Architecture Awards for Housing and Sustainability. To date, Nightingale has delivered thirteen multi-residential developments, mostly in the inner-city suburbs of Melbourne, with another fifteen either under construction or in development. The model is gradually shifting beyond Melbourne, with soon to be completed projects in Marrickville (NSW), Bowden (SA) and Fremantle (WA). The first regional Nightingale has just been completed in Ballarat and was designed by Breathe Architecture.

The architects describe the building as an 'elegant response to Ballarat's late 1800s boom-era architecture and the rhythm of its more austere brick neighbours.'

The architects describe the building as an 'elegant response to Ballarat's late 1800s boom-era architecture and the rhythm of its more austere brick neighbours.'

This project came about through a desire to address the issue of urban sprawl through the Nightingale lens. Located 113km north-west of Melbourne, the current population of Ballarat is close to 116,000 making it the third largest city in Victoria. The city is undergoing huge growth, with the population projected to rise to 160,000 by 2040[3]. Up until now, this growth has been accommodated in newly formed suburbs sitting on winding streets on the outer fringes of the city, where new house and land packages of almost identical appearance are sprouting up on what was once agricultural land. Suburbia is springing up in all directions.

On top of this, the houses that are being built are much larger than they need to be; 65% of the households in Ballarat have a make up of 1-2 people, whilst less than 20% of the dwellings are 2 bedrooms or less[4]. This type of development has a significant impact on the environment and continued sprawl has exacerbated the reliance on cars for transportation. In response, the City of Ballarat created a comprehensive strategic plan to increase medium-density housing within the centre of town. The Nightingale project was to act as a test case, building appropriate-sized dwellings in the centre of town, whilst also having the job of changing community attitudes towards apartment living.

 

 

The courtyard is a semi-public space, providing shade, greenery and a place for residents to meet and children to play.

The courtyard is a semi-public space, providing shade, greenery and a place for residents to meet and children to play.

As suburban sprawl seems to continue unabated, it is examples such as this that will change attitudes in this type of context and accelerate the production of and access to more quality housing.

Back in the 1900s, the centre of Ballarat was bustling and vibrant. The gold rush began in Ballarat after the discovery of gold in 1851. For a time, Ballarat rivalled Melbourne in terms of wealth and cultural influence and continued its prosperity until the late 19th Century. During this time the city was lively and easily traversed by foot or public transport. At its peak in 1937, the Ballarat tramway network was the largest in Australia outside of a capital city and many people lived and worked in the centre of town[5]. Now the city is dominated by cars and the centre is made up of commercial and retail spaces with very few homes.

Located in the city centre, the Nightingale site is close to key amenities including the civic centre, hospital, library and train station. The site used to be a lawn mower factory and the immediate surrounds include low-rise industrial buildings with some residential neighbours to the west. The building responds to its context through generous and thoughtful setbacks. On the east, the frontage matches the height and materiality of a neighbouring heritage brick warehouse. Supersized brick archways punch into the facade providing a rhythmic second skin to the street and activation to the commercial tenancies on the ground floor.

Offering a total of 33 dwellings, the make-up of apartments is predominately two-bedroom. All apartments are organised around a large central void and courtyard, which is surrounded by a ring of open-air walkways. These internal streets not only provide fresh air and cross ventilation to each of the apartments but also act as a place for children to play and residents to encounter one another. Residents share a communal laundry and have access to a communal dining space and veggie garden. In all Nightingale developments, a portion of the apartments is allocated to a community housing provider. Here, five homes were pre-allocated to Housing Choices Australia and were designed with specialist accessibility features.

The architects worked with the Council's heritage team to restore the 'McK's Jelly Crystal' sign to give a glimpse back in time.

The architects worked with the Council's heritage team to restore the 'McK's Jelly Crystal' sign to give a glimpse back in time.

This building continues Breathes approach in the reduction of materials. Superfluous finishes are done away with, including the removal of all unnecessary plasterboard and other linings, concrete ceilings and floors are exposed, as are fire and hydraulic services. Materials were sourced locally where possible; the bricks came from a recently demolished nearby warehouse and the timber floorboards were also recycled and sourced locally. Local craftsmen were enlisted to make the windows, pre-cast metalwork and joinery.

The building has an impressive list of sustainable features. As with all Nightingale projects the building is carbon neutral in operation and has an 8+ NatHERS rating. All materials have a low embodied energy and toxic glues or adhesives were avoided. The building is 100% electric with the roof hosting a 27.65KW photovoltaic array, it has embedded Green Power and is completely gas free. A CO2 heat pump provides hydronic heating to apartments.

Consultation with the community happened throughout the process to ensure that the design response met the specific needs of a regional context. Apartments are generally larger than the city developments with the addition of separate study spaces. There are no studios, and more 3-bedroom types are offered than what would be in an inner-city context. Whilst most of the inner-city Nightingale developments cut out car parking altogether, in this context that would be a hard sell, so 14 car spaces were built and could be purchased separately to dwellings.

Supersized brick archways punch into the facade providing a rhythmic second skin to the street.

Supersized brick archways punch into the facade providing a rhythmic second skin to the street.

The previous inner-city Nightingales have been most popular with first home buyers looking for a home that is competitively priced to other apartments but offering principles of sustainability as well as a strong community. Interestingly and to the surprise of the project team, the demographic of those purchasing into Ballarat were predominately older couples who were downsizing and didn’t want the responsibility of upkeeping a block of land, as well as older single women who wanted to be part of a community.

This project acts as an exemplar model for medium-density housing in a regional context. It provides a refreshing alternative that champions environmentally sustainable living and the potential to build strong communities through responsible development. As suburban sprawl seems to continue unabated, it is examples such as this that will change attitudes in this type of context and accelerate the production of and access to more quality housing.

[1] https://www.nightingalehousing.org

[2] https://www.nightingalehousing.org/

[3] https://www.ballarat.vic.gov.au/sites/default/files/2019-04/Ballarat%20Strategy%202040.pdf

[4] https://profile.id.com.au/ballarat/household-size

[5] https://www.btm.org.au/ Ballarat Tramway Museum

* This article was first published in our journal, Equity. Copies of Equity can be purchased at The Fulcrum Press, with all proceeds going to projects within First Nations communities.

 

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