Designing a sustainable community – Jeremy Mcleod interviewed by Rob Sweetten.

Jeremy McLeod is the founding Director of Breathe, whose team of dedicated architects is renowned for delivering high quality design and sustainable architecture for projects of al I scales. He is also the Founder and Managing Director of Nightingale Housing, which provides apartments that are socially, financially and environmentally sustainable.


R.S   A recent book on Australian architects describes you as an ‘instigator, agitator and agent of change’. Have you always been a rebel?

J.M   I would say ‘activist’, a term equally applicable to my parents. They were hippies, social workers by profession, and I’m proud to say a lot of my traits derive from them. I have fond memories of growing up in the 70s and 80s, going with them to environmental rallies, spray painting ghost shadows on footpaths around Melbourne each Hiroshima Day, that type of thing. I remember dad taking me to Canberra to petition the government to start building affordable housing. We slept in a tent on the lawn in front of old Parliament House alongside some people experiencing homelessness from Footscray.
This upbringing instilled in me the idea that we all have a broad social responsibility to the environment and to each other, and I feel incredibly fortunate to share these values with my parents and, hopefully, pass them on to my own children.

R.S   Did those formative years influence your choice of career?

J.M   Undoubtedly. They led me to embark on an undergraduate degree in environmental design at the University of Tasmania, where I learnt all the technical aspects of making a sustainable building. Perhaps even more importantly, I studied under some incredibly inspiring people who taught me to care about housing, and that as an architect, I could influence the way cities were created.

After graduating in 1997 I returned to Melbourne. The city was in the midst of economic recession; ironically—for me, at least—the only work available initially was on the casino. Other opportunities beckoned soon enough, but after four years in the profession I was yet to work on a project I felt passionate about, or that reflected the change I wanted to see in the built environment. So in 2001, I started my own practice. The name ‘Breathe’ was a response to the high-rise projects I’d been working on; the idea was that every habitable room we built would have an openable window and access to fresh air.

R.S   Was there demand for sustainable architecture at that time?

J.M   When we hung our shingle there were just six sustainable architects in Melbourne. We designed single houses, bars and cafes — always pushing a sustainability agenda — but it was a slow burn; we were doing great work without anyone ever really knowing or hearing about us.

A turning point of sorts came in 2007. The federal government acknowledged that climate change was real. Everyone was talking about carbon; it seemed there was finally widespread understanding that things were changing forever. That was when we started work on The Commons. It was a multi-residential prototype we hoped would demonstrate to developers that projects could be sustainable, build community, be desirable places to live, and still make them money.

R.S   The Commons became your most awarded project to date.

J.M   It did, but to be honest, we were a bit embarrassed by the attention it garnered, as the fabulously simple model it’s based on had existed in Europe for half a century. Don’t get me wrong, I’m immensely proud of The Commons, and the learnings gained created the foundations for our Nightingale Housing initiative on Florence Street—a triple bottom line housing project with a tight knit community of young families, a beautiful rooftop garden and a carbon neutral future.

R.S   Have projects like The Commons and Nightingale brought change to our city?

J.M   In terms of sustainability and community, I believe so, yes. There’s a long way to go, but developers that share our values are now asking Breathe to design multi-residential projects that are fossil fuel free and carbon neutral in operation; that foster community and prioritise liveability. They want to sell at market prices, which is fine, because it confirms demand for the type of vertical communities we’ve been championing. For me, Neighbourhood is the arguably the best example yet of this collective consciousness.

R.S   At what point did you realise Neighbourhood was going to be something special?

J.M   I knew from that first meeting with our project partner, Antipodean. They tasked us to deliver a considered response to this unique neighbourhood. Our approach was about building a better urban outcome, and a better sense of community. For Breathe, that meant being mindful of social capacity and creating a new, connected community. We were very conscious of the modern isolation that can so easily manifest in large residential complexes, where long lift journeys and corridor runs enable you to come and go without ever meeting those living around you. Our scheme—a precinct of four medium-scale buildings, each with their own medium-scale community—reflects these imperatives. Each building has its own sense of address and each integrates many seemingly small but significant design moments; some that will encourage spontaneous interactions, others that afford opportunity for quiet reflection.

R.S   How did you approach differentiating each of the four buildings?

J.M   It was important not only that each building should possess a unique identity, but also that each apartment have an individual sense of address. Conceptually, we drew inspiration from the history of the site’s immediate environs and the suburb more broadly. We then explored those ideas through designs that responded to the four—surprisingly different—external and landscape contexts.

Individual yet familial, each building differs in form and materiality, and each has its own mix of apartment and townhouse typologies, its own unique suite of floorplan options, its own palette of materials and colours, and its own way of announcing the entrance to each residence.

Neighbourhood will be fossil fuel free and carbon neutral in operation.