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Architecturally designed homes

By Matthew McCormack

If your idea of stylish inner-city living involves gleaming industrial kitchens, capacious living spaces and all manner of imported marble, you may want to think again. There’s an avant-garde movement on the rise, spouting a new idiom of urban living that involves poured concrete and unfinished ply. It includes communal gardens planted with edibles, and bike spaces in place of car parks. Oh, and you may have to share a bathroom.

In the vanguard of this new movement is Melbourne architect Andrew Maynard, who designs housing with social, environmental and financial outcomes in mind, otherwise known as a triple bottom line. Completed projects by Maynard include the Mills House, designed for a young family and constructed to look like a giant toy box; Tower House, a village-like cluster of peaked roof structures that is, in fact, a single family home; and Cut Paw Paw House, the innards of which are slowly deconstructed to the point where the bathtub sits in the back yard.

“We take playfulness very seriously,” says Maynard with a laugh. “If you’re not playful in the short time you have allowed to you, you’re getting something wrong.”

Born in Tasmania, Maynard is of the generation that grew up immersed in environmental issues amid the Gordon below Franklin dam protests of the early 1980s. After graduating from the University of Tasmania with a bachelor of environmental design and a bachelor of architecture (honours), he travelled to London and began working on major land development jobs. “This confirmed what I’d always suspected – that I didn’t want to work on mega-projects, that I was interested in the more human scale.”

Yes, that’s a bathtub. Cut Paw Paw House is somewhat inside out. Peter Bennetts

He returned to Melbourne in 2002 and set up his own practice at the tender age of 27. He’s been a permanent presence on architecture awards lists ever since. In January of this year, he named long-term colleague Mark Austin a partner, and changed the studio’s name to Austin Maynard Architects. Collaboration is important to this new breed.

Recently, Maynard and Austin teamed up with peers including Jeremy McLeod of Breathe, and Clare Cousins and James Legge of Six Degrees, along with the Robin Boyd Foundation and a handful of past clients, to finance the development of a site in Brunswick known as the Nightingale (yes, it’s on Florence Street).

A five-storey residential development with ground-floor allocation for café or retail, the Nightingale, due to be finished next year, closely adheres to triple bottom-line principles. Services deemed unessential have been stripped away, saving both money and space. This means no basement car parking (saving an estimated $500,000), second bathrooms ($200,000) or individual laundries ($150,000).

With a potential buyer network already established thanks to the success of their previous project, The Commons – just across the road – they have also been able to do away with advertising (saving $50,000), display suites ($100,000) and real estate agents ($250,000). Centralising services, such as power, heating, hot water and communication scrapes a further $250,000 off the bottom line.

Mills House, designed for a young family and resembling a giant toy box. Peter Bennetts

“We’re into transparency and people love that they can see where their money is being spent.” In the process, Nightingale has rid itself of all the flab of the “value add”. The allure derives from the honesty of materials and the clarity with which they are deployed. From the street, Nightingale will appear as a sleek, modernist block adhering to the rationale of the Bauhaus, its grid-like structure softened by communal plantings climbing up the facade and across the roof.

But it is more than just a cool new apartment building: Nightingale is a manifesto for sustainable, affordable housing. It’s not so much about evolving an aesthetic as propagating an ethic. “We begin by asking people who want to live in apartments what kind of apartments they’d actually like. This is the opposite of the way developers and agents work.” Nightingale will not just be one cool apartment block in Brunswick – there are two more Nightingales (called, prosaically Nightingale 2 and Nightingale 3) in the pipeline to date. The next one, designed by Six Degrees, will be on a site in Station Street, Fairfield. The third will be designed by Maynard at a yet to be confirmed location. It will almost certainly be within walking distance to public transport, since this is a cornerstone of the Nightingale ethos.

“We’re open-sourcing our intellectual property,” Maynard says. “A lot of it’s simply about how we manage our spreadsheets, our way of bringing costings into alignment with the desired outcome of affordable, sustainable, community-oriented developments.”

In fact, Maynard and his colleagues are in the process of setting up a Nightingale board to become the custodian for all future projects based on the Nightingale model. Part of the board’s role will be to track and assess outcomes, he says.

An artist’s impression of the Nightingale, which has no basement car parking, second bathrooms nor individual laundries.

“A building will be certified Nightingale if it is compliant. If an architect has found a site and wants to develop it in an ethical way, they can come to us and we’ll provide them with our guidelines free of charge. Good, sustainable capitalism is what I’m all about.”

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