Eco apartments


Urban designer Jeremy McLeod says that building green apartments isn’t just about materials. He talks with G about the design of The Commons, an eight energy star rated apartment in Melbourne, and shares his five main tips.


The Commons is an 8 star energy rating building complex, designed by Breathe Architects, home to 24 apartments, including 3 artist studios and a cafe. It's located about 6km from Melbourne’s CBD and due for completion around 2013.

Credit: The Commons

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1. Community

“The first key way to create a sustainable apartment building is actually to do with how you can build a community. One important thing that always gets dropped off the list is trying to make something beautiful and a great place to be. In terms of longevity in the building, it needs to be a great place to live. You want to make sure that the building that you’re building needs to have some architectural delight. It needs to be something that is going to be part of the city forever. That people are going to appreciate and want to live in in the future.”

2. Transport

“Secondly, how do you actually get to your apartment building? Sustainable transport, and how you move people to and from the building, and where you place the building is key. There’s no point building a super-sustainable building 50 kilometres from the CBD where everyone has to get in their car and drive for an hour a day. So the placement of the building is really important, it needs to be either in urban villages – you know, places where you can go shopping and get your groceries, buy a bit of fashion, eat out, maybe have a few drinks. Or it needs to be on some form of major transport corridor where people can easily get to and from work, or to and from the city.”

“The other thing in terms of sustainable transport is that the most efficient way to travel is either by foot or by bicycle. So, we need to actively encourage pedestrians, and design the building for ‘people-scale’, not for motor vehicles. The ground floor of the building should be for people. So, if a building faces a street the front shouldn’t be a carpark entry. It should have retail shops, or a little milk bar, a café or a bar – something that’s active and gives back to the community. At The Commons for example, the ground floor includes artist studios.”

“And the other thing with ‘people-scale’ is that it’s really important to provide good bicycle paths that are easy, brightly lit and that there’s somewhere comfortable for everyone to store their bikes in so they feel safe to store their bikes there, they feel secure that they’re going to be there when they come back. And, it should be easily accessible from the front entry foyer so that people actually use it, rather than putting it down in the basement in a locked up storage cage so no-one ever uses their bikes because they’re too hard to get to.”

“One other thing is car sharing. At Breathe Architects, we’ve got a great relationship with Go Get. We’ve made sure there’s a car share agreement put in place at The Commons so people can use a car share car rather than requiring their own vehicle.

3. Free sustainability

“Every habitable room should have access to natural light and ventilation. Rather than putting dark little rooms with a light, we put light corks into the building, so you get natural airflow through and you can get natural light into all of those rooms… It doesn’t cost you any more to design your building so you get natural light and sun in winter, and you exclude that sun in summer. You don’t pay any more for the sun and the air movements through the building when you design it, it just takes a little longer at the design stage, but to build it, it doesn’t cost more.”

4. Technology

“We have to make sure that the building is insulated effectively, that the windows are double-glazed, and the windows are sized correctly. We don’t use floor to ceiling glass, and the windows are positioned correctly so they’re not unprotected and losing all of the heat or picking up too much heat.”

“The selection of materials is not just about insulation and thermal capacity, it’s also about the ability to choose non-toxic or locally-sourced materials. If we can specify Australian timber instead of African timber or Papua New Guinean timber, we know that we’re not destroying someone’s village, or that it’s getting incredible carbon miles attached to that through transport, but instead it’s from a locally-managed forest where it’s easy to track the chain of custody so it doesn’t travel far from the saw mill to the site. We’ve got loads of great timbers in Australia.”

“The other thing is selecting materials that are not high in embodied energy, so materials like aluminium for example take an incredible amount of energy to produce. Be careful about the selection of your materials so that you’re not choosing something that’s going to take a long time to pay that back.”

“Under that materials category as well is sustainable technologies. So that’s adding in the water tanks, greywater system, the photovoltaic (PV) panels to generate electricity.”

5. Sharing

“An apartment should have shared facilities wherever possible. Historically in Australia, when people used to do apartment buildings, they’d do 100 apartments and each of those apartments would have their own hot water unit. Australians don’t like sharing their water bill with others because they think that someone else might be using more hot water than them.”

“Wherever possible, it’s actually best to share services. So have one centralised boiler to do the heating, one centralised solar collector to heat the solar hot water, one centralised water tank, which then provides rainwater to all the apartments.”

“You can meter the hot water for each unit, but because the net costs have been reduced by putting in only one unit instead of 24 individual units - because we’ve saved we’ve bought a state-of-the-art solar hot water collector, so all the water is preheated, which is 92 per cent efficient, it means 92 per cent of the water provided to the apartment is free. So it still means people are sharing a bill, but the net cost to the apartment holder is a fraction of what it would have been if they had been metered individually.”

“In terms of the laundry, we provide in our buildings a beautiful laundry on the rooftop overlooking the rooftop garden with high-rating washing machines that are serviced by body corporate, and we put magazines in there. The idea is that in a building like The Commons where there’s 24 apartments, there’s only eight washing machines, and there’s only four troughs, four sets of taps and there’s one lot of plumbing waste. So instead of putting in 24 washing machines, 24 troughs, 24 sets of taps, 24 wastes – all of that gets reduced down, and we get the added bonus of being able to spend more money making it a really nice space to wash your clothes in and we encourage people to meet their neighbours.”

“It means you get to sit there, meet someone you met in the lift and actually have a chat to them, you get to find out a little bit about their life and it starts to rebuild that sense of community that we used to have in Australia 50 years ago, but since we’ve been designing houses where you drive into the garage and get out and go straight into your living room, people don’t engage with their neighbours anymore. We think that old-school 60’s idea of the shared laundry – people have been turned off it because they’ve always been dark crappy spaces in the basement – but if you make them light-filled beautiful spaces, it can work well.”

“Lastly, we like the idea of a communal space where everyone comes together. If your apartment is too small, you can spill out into that space so we try to keep a few spaces in the building where if you’ve got, say, ten friends over, and you’ve only got a one bedroom apartment you can get up on the roof garden, down to the courtyard, or there’s a space in the foyer where you can hang out, so you don’t have to cram into your apartment. So you can use other parts of the building, say one day a month, when all your friends turn up. Ideally this is open and free all the time so people can do it spontaneously, but it would depend on demand. In The Commons, we’ve got five areas; there’s the North and South end of the rooftop garden, downstairs there’s two courtyards, then there’s the foyer. So, if you went to the North end of the rooftop garden and it was full, you could go to the South, if that was full you should be able to find a space in the courtyard.”