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A new benchmark for sustainable development has been set

What began with a developer’s desire to create Australia’s first medium-density 8-star townhouse development at scale alongside Northcote’s Merri Creek has grown into an unusually holistic exemplar of sustainable living.

A new benchmark for sustainable development has been set

Located on Wurundjeri Country adjacent to the bushy parklands of Merri Creek, Northcote Place transforms the 12,000-square-site of a disused bus repair shed with 74 diverse, flexible townhouses designed to achieve an overall NatHERs rating of 8 stars and lush landscaping featuring 80% indigenous species and designed as habitat for local fauna and flora to complement local regeneration initiatives. Shared public/private spaces are integral to the design. They include a community garden, widespread street furniture, and a central mews for pedestrians and cyclists that provides a missing link between local bike paths, the popular Merri Creek Trail, and the new footbridge to CERES Community Environmental Park.

Northcote Place was born of an unusually close collaboration between Metro, Akas Landscape Architecture, SDC (Sustainable Development Consultants) and ClarkeHopkinsClarke Architects – a carbon-neutral practice and Australia’s largest architectural bCorp. Metro general manager, David Steele, says the project was designed pre-pandemic but delivers the kind of environmentally and socially connected 20-minute neighbourhood Melbournians in particular have amped up calls for since experiencing the collective cabin fever of one of the world’s longest, toughest Covid-19 lockdowns.

“Eight stars is a tangible measure of energy efficiency that’s resonating with Northcote buyers because they’re ESD-focussed,” says Steele. Eighty percent of stage one residences are already sold and construction is set to commence after current demolition works are completed. “But beyond stars we wanted to create the most well-rounded sustainable townhouse living in Australia, and we were open about how to achieve that on this site. Kicking off with a Creating Vibrant Communities workshop at ClarkeHopkinsClarke helped us create a shared vision, and that’s kept us pushing well beyond what’s available elsewhere. Darebin Council’s City Designer was hugely supportive of our intentions, especially incorporating a mews instead of a road, and really encouraged our links and interactions with the broader neighbourhood.”

Ben De Waard, director of SDC, says he knows of no other 8-star townhouse developments in Australia at this scale offering such holistic sustainability. “What’s a first here is the scale and the number of different sustainability elements Northcote Place brings together.”

“We’ve got the high energy ratings, the rainwater tanks connected to both toilets and laundries – that’s pretty rare, the community vegetable garden, the electric-only option for people to be gas- free, having the townhouses ready for solar car charging battery storage. With a lot of clients it’s, ‘what’s the minimum we need to provide?’, but with Metro it’s been, ‘what else can we do?’ or ‘how much further can we push it?’ As a consultant wanting the best sustainability outcome that’s exciting. You go the extra mile because they’re so keen,” says De Waard.

ClarkeHopkinsClarke partner Toby Lauchlan, who heads the Multi-Residential team behind nearby sustainable communities Lt Miller-Nightingale Brunswick East and The Stewart Collective, says Northcote Place is conceived as habitat not just for flora and fauna but for residents and neighbours. “We’ve designed these homes, gardens and shared spaces as a micro community that reflects local values, connects local ecology and bike paths, gets better with age, and creates an exemplar of contemporary community design,” he says.

ClarkeHopkinsClarke associate Janice Tan says the high-performing townhouses include thermal breaks at each floor level and triple- and double-glazed thermally broken windows carefully placed for maximum effect. “We’ve also used robust materials with high ESD values, north-facing living areas, cross ventilation, ceiling fans in all bedrooms and living areas, large eaves, solar power, rainwater tanks, large terraces, gardens and shared outdoor spaces that are designed as habitat, not decoration,” she says.

Generous proportions and flexible floorplans allow the 2-, 3- and 4-bedroom townhouses to change over time as households do. ClarkeHopkinsClarke interiors associate Michelle Cavicchiolo says, “We designed in all this flexibility pre-pandemic because we knew this project would appeal to such a wide variety of people. We delved deep with materials selection too, assessing everything from provenance to wastage, supplier credibility and environmental performance ratings.”

Landscape design by Akas, best known for Nightingale Ballarat and NGV’s Melbourne Now exhibition, was inspired by the architecture and recent regeneration of Merri Creek with indigenous (local) planting. “The architecture is clean, modern and sleek, so we wanted to offer a counter to that using a landscape with a real sense of wild,” says co-director Anthony Sharples. “We’ve achieved that with careful plant selection and placement. We’ve used an 80% indigenous plant palette and meshed that in with 10% natives, 10% exotics and local rock to reflect the local ecology and invite native fauna and flora into the site. Often new developments don’t have enough space for that mass and diversity of planting. Here we have ample space for sweeping four-metre-wide garden beds throughout and along the central pedestrian street, and a community garden where people can grow their own food and create a sociable space for community building. These aspects are really key to the future of community design.”

The diversity of approaches at Northcote Place is attracting a broad mix of buyers, from young families and downsizers to sustainability experts like Patricia Fitzsimons. A sustainability professional for local governments and NGOs for the last 20 years says, “Sustainability is fundamentally important to who I am. The 8-star energy rating was important to me because there is accountability. Once the buildings are completed they have to report on whether or not they’ve actually achieved that rating, so there’s a system in place you can evaluate and monitor rather than just spurious claims. It’s a commitment to achieving a really high goal. There’s few residential buildings at that level. I wanted to be part of a development that’s at the cutting edge. That is really at the forefront of residential design.”

After spending lockdown in a North Fitzroy apartment, Patricia and a friend are moving to Northcote Place for the larger, more flexible townhouses with space for guests, private as well as community gardening, future solar battery and electric vehicle charging, no lift, and proximity to Merri Creek, Northcote Golf Course, the new bridge across the creek close to CERES and Northcote’s shops, cafes and cultural scene. She’s looking forward to experiencing 8-star living for herself but is most excited to see where a community of like-minded people takes the Northcote Place ethos. Perhaps it’ll start with small gestures like turning community garden waste into compost for locals. “I feel like this community will be a step ahead because we’ve made the choice to be here,” she says.

Photography by Gabriel Saunders


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