Welcome back to Archipreneur Insights, the interview series with leaders who are responsible for some of the world’s most exciting and creatively disarming architecture. The series largely follows those who have an architectural degree but have since followed an entrepreneurial or alternative career path but also interviews other key players in the building and development community who have interesting angles on the current state of play in their own field.
This week’s interview is with Jeremy McLeod, Founder of Melbourne based company Breathe Architecture.
Fed up with property developers, off-shore investors and low-quality, expensive housing, Jeremy and six other architects joined financial forces to develop their project The Commons. Its goal was to deliver livable, sustainable, and affordable apartments.
The Commons survived the recent financial crisis and a change in investment to become a success story. It became the prototype for the Nightingale Housing movement, a not-for-profit social enterprise that supports, promotes and advocates high-quality housing that is ecologically, socially and financially sustainable.
Today, Nightingale Housing has a number of houses in development, not only by Breathe Architecture but also by other architects who have been licensed the Nightingale model.
Keep on reading to learn from an architect who believes that collaboration can drive real and positive change in our cities.
Enjoy the interview!
Could you tell us a little about your background? What made you decide to found Breathe Architecture?
My parents were activists and I grew up in a family environment of protests. My parents moved around a lot so I went to lots of different schools. The things they taught me were, responsibility and the idea of sustainability.
I remember that my dad took me to the Old Parliament House in Canberra, which was 1,000 kilometers away. He took me there in a bus with a bunch of people to protest. We pitched a tent city on the lawn in front of Old Parliament House to protest around housing affordability in Melbourne back in the 1980s. So it’s ironic, right?
And then when I went to study architecture I studied an undergraduate in environmental design in Tasmania. Tasmania has this incredible nature and landscape. It’s very connected to the environment. Anyway, then I came to Melbourne with an architecture degree and an undergraduate in environmental design with a passion for sustainability, and I worked in a big practice in Melbourne. I worked there for four years under a great architect.
When I started at the practice, there were eight architects. It was a great studio environment. And when I left we were working on Melbourne’s – in fact the southern hemisphere’s – tallest residential building. The practice had grown to 50 architects. It seemed like the buildings we were doing were disconnected from nature or from the environment. The last project that I was working on in that practice was a car park for that building.
I left that practice and I started Breathe Architecture in 2001. And the reason it’s called Breathe Architecture and not Jeremy McLeod Architects was that that tower that I was working on had no windows that opened above level 30. So from level 30 to level 88 there were no windows that opened because the wind speed in Melbourne was so great that there was a fear from the wind engineer that it would suck furniture out of the building. So all of those apartments had to be cooled by air conditioning even though Melbourne has quite a temperate climate.
“So when I started Breathe Architecture the simple idea was that everything that I designed, everything that I worked on, needed to have a window that people could open so that they could breathe.”
Could you tell us about the beginning of the Nightingale Model?
As architects we gained knowledge along the way. We’d been frustrated dealing with property developers. Most of Melbourne… in fact, since the ’80s all the housing provisions in Melbourne are provided through the private market through property developers, building speculative developments generally for sale to investors.
85% of apartments in Melbourne are sold to investors, usually off-shore in Asia, so it leads to substandard design qualities. It’s a race to the bottom to build cheaply and to sell as expensive as possible. And we were quite frustrated and disillusioned with that. So in 2007 we built the prototype building for Nightingale called The Commons.
Melbourne, again, has a history of architectural activism. In the 1950s there was a group of Melbourne architects that ran a project called the Small Home Service, trying to deliver architecturally designed homes to the general population not just to the rich people.
In the 1970s there were two architects that established a company called Merchant Builders. Merchant Builders was about delivering design to a mass market, trying to improve the quality of design through mass-market building. But since the 70’s there has been not much movement from Melbourne architects.
When we started The Commons in 2007, I got together with six other architects, and we put together all of our money, borrowed against our houses, borrowed from other people and we raised about a million dollars. We started work on our own project.
It took us a very long time to complete The Commons, until 2013. It took us six years start to finish, because in the middle of that project there was the global financial crisis, which took our funding away from us. And so we had to change funding models halfway through and get funded by an impact investment group or an ethical funder called Small Giants. We finished that project in 2013 and in 2014, we started work on the first Nightingale project, which was the second iteration of The Commons.
We learned from The Commons and changed the financial model. Instead of having six architects, we had 25 ethical shareholders putting in $100,000 each, all borrowing against their homes. Melbournians that cared about the future of our city and the housing crisis facing our city currently, were happy to invest in a project that had a capped profit at 15%, a lot of risk associated with it, and some social return as well.
And looking back now, is the business model working out?
The reason that we decided to do this was out of necessity for our city, not because we wanted to take financial risk, not because we’re entrepreneurial by nature, but we thought it was necessary.
When we finished the 24 apartments of The Commons people liked it a lot. I think that it showed that there were people in Melbourne that wanted to live in something that was triple bottom line. Something that was livable, sustainable, and affordable. People started writing to us saying, “If you do another one of these can you let us know because we’d be interested in buying one.” When we finished The Commons we had 11 people on a waiting list to start work on the next project. The waiting list is now 2,300 something people.
We currently have 20 apartments buildings under construction. So there is lots of interest, there’s lots of demand, but we as a single practice can’t deliver on the needs of our city. So we established Nightingale Housing, which is a not-for-profit social enterprise.
The role of Nightingale housing is to share our intellectual property with other architects in Melbourne and other cities around the country to help them establish their own Nightingale projects and to help deliver the housing that people so desperately need here.
So we got corporate sponsorship. We raised about $500,000 from Cross Laminated Timber Suppliers, from sustainable appliance manufacturers. With that we could employ a CEO. We put together a skills based board. We employed a resource officer who could help other architects understand how to do the model. And then we put together a licensing committee. The chair of the licensing committee is the Victorian Government architect so the government pays her but she sits on our licensing committee making sure that only the best Australian architects can lead Nightingale projects.
Can every architect apply to work with the Nightingale model?
Yes, every architect can apply but not every architect gets a license, only the best ones do. And by the best I don’t mean the biggest. I mean the architects that have a proven history of doing quality work at any scale, that have a proven track record of not doing anything that they should be ashamed of, that have shown a commitment to either the profession of architecture or the broader community or society. So it’s a particular breed of architects that Nightingale Housing grants licenses to.
Further you created The Nightingale Night School. I read about a twelve-week semester during which students can learn about the philosophy and practice of the Nightingale Housing model. Who is the focus group of the school?
Ideally it would be to other Nightingale architects, but at the moment it has been run once to Masters of Architecture thesis students at Melbourne University second semester 2016. We plan to run it again this year and than hopefully every year.
Do you have any advice for Archipreneurs who are interested in starting their own business?
I guess you have two choices:
You can sit there and wait for the phone to ring, for a property developer or someone with a lot of money to call you and ask you to build the project that you were born to do. Or you can take some financial risk and do the project that you were born to do.
And you would recommend the latter?
It totally depends on you. Some people just don’t have the stomach for it.
But our profession has been manipulated by property developers, project managers, real estate agents, marketing teams and lawyers in this country in the way that architects take all the risk but they receive very, very little of the financial reward associated with the project.
And often we’re asked to do things that we would be ashamed of. What good architects do is refuse the commission or resign the commission.
If you’re going to take all that risk to do a project that you’re not going to be proud of, wouldn’t you just take that risk and do the project that you will be proud of and that is beneficial to society and profession of architecture?
How do you see the future of the architectural profession? In which areas (outside of traditional practice) can you see major opportunities for up and coming developers and architects?
I think that technology has changed everything. I think that as a profession we need to think of ourselves as more entrepreneurial, whether we’re driving our own projects or whether we’re doing product design or whether we’re communicating directly with the residents. I mean, if you think about Baugruppen projects [joint building venture projects], it’s about an architect driving a project from the ground up and attracting residents based on their reputation: who they are, what they’ve done before, and what they can bring to the project.
I think that the future for architects, it’s adapt, it’s evolve, or die. The choice is one of survival.
We need to be adapting with the times rather than clinging to a 19th century idea of an old Englishman sitting in his manor drawing his beautiful plans for his rich friends.
About Jeremy McLeod
Jeremy is the founding Director of Breathe Architecture, a team of dedicated architects that have built a reputation for delivering high quality design and sustainable architecture for all scale projects.
Breathe Architecture has been focusing on sustainable urbanisation and in particular have been investigating how to deliver more affordable urban housing to Melbournians.
Breathe were the instigators of The Commons housing project in Brunswick, Melbourne, and now are collaborating with other Melbourne Architects to deliver the Nightingale Model. Nightingale is intended to be an open source-housing model led by architects.
Jeremy believes that architects, through collaboration, can drive real positive change in this city we call home.