Architecture

The Commons: an uncommon community

October 29, 2014

Jeremy McLeod of Breathe Architecture discusses socially sustainable design and a new living model at The Commons, in the first of ADR’s Intergrain Timber Vision Award winners interview series.

Huddled by the train tracks in a largely overlooked corner of Brunswick, The Commons presides over its surroundings with a quiet yet unmistakable air of community spirit. And though it may be imperceptible behind the building’s site-sensitive street frontage, at The Commons, a veritable revolution in apartment living is underway.

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The Commons was conceived in 2007 by five architects looking to achieve a triple whammy, with the grand ambition to create a livable multi residential project that was ecologically, financially and socially sustainable. One of the five, Jeremy McLeod of Breathe Architecture, says “we wanted to build Australia’s first car free, carbon free building – a sustainable flagship building that would set a precedent”. After a period of instability following the Global Financial Crisis, Small Giants, a sustainable developer who were a good fit with Breathe’s vision, picked up the project in 2008, and The Commons was on its way.

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Bricks recycled from the original graffitied building site add personality to the foyer, a sustainably sourced memento of the street art prevalent in the area.

 

In contrast to the majority of sterile production line apartments in the housing market, Breathe’s concept for the Commons was to respond to the personality of the resident within. “It was about giving people a home, a place that could evolve”, McLeod says, conscious that “Each apartment is a starting point for a life.” The raw, shell-like industrial interiors of the apartments are a blank canvas for residents, inviting people to make their own mark on the space – quite literally. Taps and door handles were specified in a pre-chromed state, to “lower the embodied energy in the building”, with the added benefit being that “the more you touch it, the more it patinas, the better it looks” says McLeod. Similarly, the recycled timber flooring, imperfect to begin with, will wear the tenant’s new imprints in time. “There’s this whole level of imperfection that says ‘Live in me freely, enjoy me, be comfortable – don’t walk around in kid gloves!’” All materials were selected for their sustainable credentials as well as their ability to age gracefully.

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The building’s façade, which saw it win Timber Vision’s commercial exterior category, was likewise designed to weather and bring personality to the streetscape. The timber clad frontage is “robust, and will age organically over time, using an Australian class one ironbark rated to last 50 years above ground without oiling or painting,” says Jeremy, another tick for sustainability. Soft wisteria vines draping the north face of the apartment will also ensure the building changes with the seasons, creating a living structure. The decision to use timber rather than unforgiving steel and glass gives The Commons “a feeling of warmth, of housing rather than apartments”.

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The Commons has garnered many awards for its sustainable approach, as much for what was taken out of the building as what was put in. In McLeod’s words, “To make the apartments bigger, more sustainable, and more affordable, we had to go through this exercise of reduction”. At the Commons, Breathe successfully eschewed the financial and environmental burden of installing an underground car park, individual laundry space and air conditioning, saving space and hundreds of thousands from the cost plan. The radical omission of the car park capitalises on the building’s fortuitous position, with access to trains, trams and a bike path on their doorstep, it seemed logical to provide bike racks for each tenant rather than introduce unnecessary traffic to the area.

By installing communal a rooftop laundry, Breathe were not only able to maximise individual apartment floor space, but also reduce energy consumption from one washing machine for each of the 24 apartments down to just six for the whole building. As an unexpected bonus, though the Commons boasts a family friendly hipster café on the ground floor, the laundry has out of necessity become one of The Commons’ most frequented congregation points.

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The socially sustainable design aspect of The Commons is a big part of its success, in breaking down the traditional anonymity of multi residential living and forming a community from a group of tenants. The architecture of shared space at the Commons is sensitive to the various needs of the diverse group. The rooftop is the social hub of the building, incorporating clotheslines, working veggie patches, beehives and various zones to accommodate both large crowds and smaller gatherings. In the apartments, the significant spatial gain attained through relocating all but the essential encourages further social interaction, with enough room for a eight people around a dining table and two three seater couches, “You can actually entertain the same amount of people as you would in a terrace house,” says McLeod.

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Considered design solutions and a fair amount of voluntary participation has seen Commons residents thriving, making connections with each other and crucially, making real homes out of apartments. “It’s an engaged bunch of socially minded individuals living in the same building, keen to make the world a better place,” says Jeremy. Its holistic approach to improving residents’ lives is clearly evident; with one of its happiest tenants being McLeod himself. Incidentally, the person responsible for the building’s sustainability management plan currently occupies the apartment above him – a good sign that the social and environmental initiatives that the Commons has become famous for are in good hands with its residents. As Jeremy says, ”I can’t express enough that I think the greatest thing about the Commons isn’t the architecture… it’s the people that live there”.

All images courtesy of Breathe Architecture.

This interview is the first of two ADR conducted with Jeremy McLeod, discussing his success at this year’s Intergrain Timber Vision Awards. Stay tuned for an upcoming feature on Breathe’s award-winning Stonewood residence.

The Commons is also nominated for a 2014 IDEA Award, for your tickets to the highly anticipated Gala party, click here.

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