The Commons: Inside Australia's most sustainable apartment building

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Since its completion in 2013, The Commons has received numerous architecture awards (Photo: Nick Lavars/Gizmag.com)

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Throughout the traditionally working class suburb of Brunswick in Melbourne's inner north, apartment developments are popping up everywhere as urbanites scramble for their own slice of inner-city living. These buildings are modern and comfortable, though many are cut from the same commercially oriented architectural cloth. But among them stands a beacon of green and thoughtful design. The Commons by local firm Breathe Architecture is a beautiful five-story apartment block with sustainability emanating from every square foot, from the bicycle rack to the communal veggie garden on its roof.

Around seven years ago, Jeremy McLeod, who started Breathe Architecture in 2001, had grand plans of creating Australia's flagship sustainable apartment building. But the onset of the global financial crisis didn't exactly make things easy, as he had trouble securing a loan and finding a developer with whom his priorities aligned.

"It started with a big dream," McLeod tells Gizmag, resting against the wall outside apartment 101, the home he shares with his partner. "As is usually the case with such a big plan, parts of this was stripped away over time, but I still think we came away with something epic."

McLeod isn't the only one who would describe The Commons as such. Since the completion of building late last year, awards have rained down on him and his team. The Commons was recognized at the Victorian Architecture Awards as the year's "exemplar of apartment living." It then took out the Multi-Density Residential and Best of the Best Categories at the 2014 Sustainability Awards and went on to receive both the Award for Residential Architecture and Sustainable Architecture at the 2014 National Architecture Awards earlier this month.

The Commons is located just off Sydney Road, Brunswick's bustling thoroughfare lined with everything from bakeries to dressmakers to beer-soaked bars frequented by patrons from all over the city. Nestled in hard up against a train line, the building houses 24 two-bedroom apartments, whose residents enjoy a ten-step wander to bike path connected to the city's network, 20 steps to the train platform and a block to trams bound for the city center.

"One of our main design approaches was this exercise in reduction, we took out everything that wasn't necessary, starting with the car park in the basement," says McLeod, gesturing toward the buffet of transport options. "We built a storage room for 72 bikes instead."

Further to discouraging residents from engaging in the gas-guzzling exercise of inner-city driving, this also saved around A$750,000 (US$638,000) in construction costs. As much of the soil in the area is contaminated, making way for a basement car park wouldn't have been your standard excavation job. Leaving it be meant that money that could be directed toward the other sustainable elements of the design.

A 360 mm (13.8 in) thick, acoustically insulated wall on the western side shields the building from the rattle of trains that run well past midnight. Its outer skin is made from corrugated opaque fiberglass with a corrosive-resistant gel coating. Built into the wall is 75 mm (2.95 in) ventilated cavity, drawing air through perforated copper panels to flush hot air out of the top. On the north, balcony side, dangling chains host climbing wisteria vines that sprout healthy green leaves to shade the apartments in the summer, before shedding them in the winter to let in warmth from the sun.

None of the apartments feature air conditioning, instead relying on the building's thermal efficiency and simple ceiling fans to keep cool in the summer. Heating is provided by way of two gas hydronic boilers, and each apartment is fitted with a "kill switch" at its front door enabling residents to cut power to all outlets and appliances (bar the refrigerator) when leaving home.

McLeod's exercise in reduction is evident all throughout the building, enhancing the raw, minimalist aesthetic. Recycled bricks make up the foyer walls on the ground floor, while untouched concrete complete with pencil scrawled during the two years of construction lines the staircase up to the second floor.

Unfinished timber floorboards are used throughout The Commons and are top-nailed, meaning there's no glue involved so that the materials can be ripped up and reused at the end of the building's life. There's no plasterboard ceilings, leaving piping, fire sprinkler systems and cables exposed overhead. You won't find tiles in the kitchens and bathrooms and none of the metals used for fittings have been chromed, further reducing the carbon footprint of the construction.

While these measures on their own are commendable, the community spirit fostered by the building is equally important. Affectionately known to McLeod as "The Commoners," residents go without personal laundries, using a row of six washing machines and a shared clothesline on the rooftop instead.

"The laundry has been key," says McLeod. "It allows everybody to meet each other and works as a lubrication for social interaction. Once you've washed your underwear next to someone, it kind of makes that awkward elevator conversation a bit easier."

This sharing mentality spills over to a garden on the north side of the rooftop. Rows of planter boxes play host to lettuce, tomatoes, flowers and herbs, with one half allocated to individual lots and the other half the collective responsibility of the building. A chalkboard watering roster on the ground floor keeps the system ticking over and saves the plants from getting thirsty.

Whether this pretty picture of green utopia is as sustainable as the structure itself remains to be seen, but McLeod already looks to be pretty much living out that long-held dream of his.

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