Sustainability and affordability to the fore.
Melbourne practice Breathe Architecture is reinvigorating the scene with its affordable and sustainable approach.
THE CHOICE OF ARCHITECTURE as a career path is not always easy, but when you are a practice that is challenging norms, not just in terms of design, but the entire development cycle, the road gets even rockier. Breathe Architecture, a Melbournebased practice, doesn’t shy away from the hard questions of our times: affordability, sustainability and community, all the while producing work that is thoughtful and visually beautiful.
I recall visiting Melbourne cafe Chez Dré and wondering who had created such a skilful high/low design dynamic, as high-backed buttoned leather banquettes were combined with the honest exposure of services. So while the work of the practice spans hospitality and commercial projects it is in the arena of ‘vertical communities’ that Breathe is making its mark. Make no mistake, this is no ‘socks and sandals’ outfit with a penchant for rural, mud brick houses, rather they are advocates of sustainable urbanisation with the goal of making cities more liveable. “Breathe,” says its founder Jeremy McLeod, “had a few simple premises when we launched in 2001. One was that every habitable room would have windows that open.”
Jeremy’s background – family, training and previous experience – has shaped his role of architect as instigator, agitator and agent of change which in turn is central to the broader philosophy of Breathe Architects. As a child he was politically engaged and remembers picketing at Old Government House for affordable housing with his activist parents. His undergraduate degree, at the University of Tasmania’s School of Environmental Design, afforded him a thorough grounding in sustainable thinking. A return to Melbourne in 1997 coincided with the recession and the only job he could secure was on a casino project. The irony was not lost on him.
Subsequently when he joined Nonda Katsalidis he witnessed how an architect needed to own the process in the way Katsalidis did with the iconic developments Melbourne Terrace Apartments and Republic Tower.
Breathe’s most awarded (13 and counting) project to date, is The Commons, in Melbourne’s Brunswick. “We were a bit embarrassed by all the attention as the model has existed in Europe from the 1960s. It is just new to Australia,” says Jeremy. And the model is gloriously simple: the communal laundry is on the roof and the two bedrooms have one bathroom, together giving six square metres back to the living space. Located close to several forms of public transport there are no car spaces, just access to a Go Get car (usage is in the top five per cent in the nation) and, of course, bicycles. The design attention given to thermal and noise insulation means it is both quiet and cheap to run. Jeremy, who lives and works in The Commons, boasted an electricity bill of a dollar a day last August for his domestic usage.
The next iteration, Nightingale 1, is underway despite many setbacks, some of which would paralyse a less committed practice. With a waiting list of more than 1000 people who want to be part of this 20-apartment development it is clear that Breathe is tapping into something meaningful. “We have created a process that we are sharing with other architects who want to work in this space. Architects Six Degrees and Andrew Maynard are already progressing further Nightingale projects,” says Jeremy.
The quiet revolution is clearly underway.
Melbourne architects Breathe were photographed exclusively for Belle at the Transformer cafe in Fitzroy, which they designed.
Clockwise from top le Stonewood House references other houses in its Northcote street. Wooden slats and rainforest-like greenery at Slack Melbourne O ce. Awardwinning sustainable housing at The Commons. Green velvet banquettes and sweet inspiration at Bibelot in South Melbourne. Loft living at Tinderbox, a revamped historic brick warehouse.