They don’t build apartment blocks, they build the homes and communities transforming Melbourne into a greener and friendlier place to live.
Developers breaking the mould with well-considered architecture and a sense of place are attracting the attention of some of the biggest institutional funds in the country.
They flew in the face of the Covid-induced downturn to grow their businesses. All are focused on acquiring sites this year in Melbourne’s inner city for a market hungry for their brand of development.
Here are the five innovative residential developers to watch in 2021.
Liam Wallis is a boots-and-all kind of guy.
The Hip v Hype founder lives and breathes the ethos that underpins the highly successful and sustainability-focused business that has created award-winning medium-rise residential developments in the inner-northern suburbs of Melbourne.
He is moved by a desire to do better for the communities he and his colleagues are creating from the ground up, so much so that he is moving his family into one of the buildings that helped put the organisation in the spotlight.
“We’re trying to do things a little bit differently … our key driver is a belief that it's our responsibility to leave our cities in a better condition than we found them,” Wallis said.
Such is the appetite for their brand of development that almost two-thirds of the 22 carbon-neutral apartments in the Ferrars & York development were sold off the plan, between two of Melbourne's lockdowns last year.
It’s under construction and due for completion early in 2022.
“It’s the culmination of the past six years and will be the best project we have done. It’s been an iterative learning [process] from project to project,” Wallis said.
The building will have an 8-star NaTHERS (thermal energy) rating and will use 100 per cent renewable energy and solar panels, and embodied carbon offsetting.
Hip v Hype is branching out to Northcote this year with a 28-apartment medium-density development near a cinema and organic food market on Highgate Street.
Wallis said key to their developments was finding quality locations, close to thriving community spaces, with the right orientation to capture thermal energy and ventilation.
“The market is demanding more out of development, it’s starting to demand better,” he said.
The business also provides sustainability consultancy with in-house expertise for big and small developments, as well as passive certification.
Wallis said “it’s inevitable” that this Melbourne-centric style of development will proliferate throughout Australia to address infill opportunities.
It started with a search for a dream property that was both design-led and sustainable ... and the realisation that it simply didn’t exist.
Milieu founders Michael McCormack and Ross Troon identified a gap in the market and launched their vision for creating “spaces of influence” and community.
At the core of Milieu’s design-led practices is a desire to build a home and community you would want to live in, and five members of their team do, including sales and marketing manager Patrick Cooney.
“We believe sustainability should be standard, and that beautiful, smart design and interiors are what sets our projects apart,” Cooney said.
“For us, floor plan is crucial, it needs to be flexible and functional.
“And as you set the benchmark other developers [and designers] are following it and replicating it because buyers are demanding it.
“You need to push the boundaries every time you finish a project … you have to evolve.”
Milieu has captured the attention of big players in the market and will partner with Stockland to deliver a townhouse and 150-apartment building on Albert Street at Brunswick on the site of a former timber yard.
Albert Fields will be delivered in collaboration with Mirvac, who acquired the 1ha site across multiple properties in 2019 and mid-2020, to create a 527-apartment precinct designed and built specifically for renters. It is between Brunswick’s Clifton Park and Gilpin Park.
“We don’t think about apartments as products, we think about them as homes,” Cooney said.
“We’re proud of what we are building, the quality is there and we stand by it.”
While Neometro has been on the ground for 35 years, its continual evolution has focused on building a legacy.
It develops townhomes and medium-rise apartment buildings that stand the test of time and heavily reflect the evolution of their inner-north Melbourne roots.
The focus is not just on the bricks and mortar, but also the people who inhabit the spaces and to foster a thriving community for them.
Neometro has championed the arts in supporting initiatives such as Collingwood Yards, providing affordable tenancies for artists and radio stations, and built precincts such as Jewell Station.
Neometro director James Tutton said there had been a “huge demand” for their developments during the lockdowns in Melbourne as people stared at their four walls and realised they wanted more.
Their Northcote four-townhouse development sold out in five days in January this year.
“We’re passionate about built form and design, and its influence on a city, and the people who live there and the streetscape,” Tutton said.
“It’s a holistic approach to development, that’s just who we are.
“We don’t want to build houses for rich people … we want to build legacy.
“We walk, talk and breathe these values and that’s reflected in our projects.”
Tutton said the group was in a growth-acquisition phase, scoping out opportunities in Northern Melbourne, but said they would have “hundreds of millions” of dollars’ worth of projects on the go at any one time.
Their latest offering is a six-townhouse development at 57 Martin Street, Thornbury with three-bedroom homes offering spacious entertaining areas and sustainable design to reduce reliance on heating and cooling.
“We have such a strong design DNA—if you look at a building we did 10 years ago, you see the attention to detail and design that we value, and it stands the test of time,” Tutton said.
“It has a long-term durability, it’s still going to look good in 15 years.”
One Wilson Avenue is currently under construction in a joint-venture partnership with Neometro, Milieu and financier MaxCap.
MaxCap's head of direct investment Simon Hulett said they had provided debt lending to Neometro previously but when the opportunity came up it was “a very easy decision” to enter a joint-venture arrangement.
“It was brilliant to be able to help deliver a precinct that was in a really regenerative area,” he said.
“The precinct is really great, really authentic and organic.”
Hulett said Neometro and Milieu were so in tune with their niche market it made it a very viable investment opportunity.
“They understand those markets and live in those markets … they know their buyers so well,” he said.
“We want to invest in a community and we really like that ... when we finish a project that we’ve left a positive contribution and legacy for that community.
“And that is a strong alignment across the three brands who have partnered in 1 Wilson Avenue.”
This year will be “defining” for Assemble, according to director of culture and strategy Emma Telfer.
While its Assemble Futures build-to-rent-to-own portfolio continues to grow, the litmus test will be the introduction of affordable housing and community build-to rent-projects.
“We have our first group of Assemble Futures residents moving in to our pilot project at 393 Macaulay Road, Kensington [this year], and we have started demolition at 15 Thompson Street, Kensington and 4 Ballarat Street, Brunswick will follow,” Telfer said.
Assemble is committed to tackling the housing crisis with a $3.5-billion privately funded affordable and social housing portfolio and 5000 dwellings.
“We believe that every Australian deserves access to an affordable, well-designed home, and a secure community to be a part of,” Telfer said.
Assemble recently partnered with Housing Choices Australia to manage community housing across future build-to-rent projects and to provide more than 3300 dwellings for low and moderate-income households.
It demonstrates the capacity for private and not-for-profit community housing sectors to collaborate to address the affordable housing shortage.
“We have just launched our third Assemble Futures project, 4 Ballarat Street, Brunswick which is designed by Fieldwork and landscape architecture by Rush Wright,” Telfer said.
“This is the next opportunity for residents to participate in the ownership pathway under the Assemble Futures housing model. [It] will be a fully electric building, run on 100 per cent renewable energy and is targeting a 7.5-star average NatHERS rating.”
Qualitas launched a $1-billion build-to-rent fund last year to help finance the construction of energy-efficient, low-emissions residential developments.
“We think [build-to-rent] is going to grow to be a substantial sector in the real estate market,” Qualitas senior director of real estate finance Mark Power said.
“As an asset class it lends itself to designing products with a strong sustainable outcome.”
Power said Qualitas had a strong Environmental, Social and Corporate Governance (ESG) focus and they wanted to future proof their investments with sustainable measures, which would boost the valuations of the build-to-rent assets.
Qualitas does not fund Assemble but it sees values in the sector as an investment opportunity that has worked well overseas and will grow to be a thriving asset class in Australia.
Power said the group had a number of build-to-rent deals under way but couldn’t divulge the details yet.
Living simply is at the heart of all that Nightingale Housing does.
Borne out of a desire to see more socially, financially and environmentally sustainable housing in Melbourne, Breathe Architecture partnered with Small Giants to build The Commons. The appetite for this groundbreaking project was unprecedented, and led to the formation of Nightingale Housing.
Nightingale Housing founder Jeremy McLeod said the business hinged on a desire to “build less, give more”.
“When we asked people what they need in a home, they said space, light, an outlook, windows that open, really simple things,” McLeod said.
“We believe that homes should be built for people, not profit.”
Dwellings are sold “at cost”, which factors in the price of procurement, design, management and construction, with no profit margin added. They are sold with a caveat that cost savings be passed on to the next owners.
Nightingale Housing is working to address the barriers to accessing quality sustainable housing, and pre-allocates 20 per cent of dwellings to Community Housing Providers who offer affordable long-term leases to vulnerable members of the community. It also allocates a further 20 per cent to “key community contributors”.
“We deliver well-built, sustainable homes that are minimal and honest. We take out things such as second bathrooms, individual laundries and basement carparks to reduce the cost of construction and ongoing maintenance,” a spokesman said.
“Instead we include things that are important for the creation of healthy, comfortable, sustainable homes such as double glazing, excellent insulation and 100 per cent certified green power.
We believe it is important that Nightingale buildings are available to a genuine cross-section of society.”
Incorporating insulation, passive ventilation, solar shading and thermal modelling reduces the reliance on heating and cooling in their buildings, while recycled products are being used in pre-cast panels in projects under construction.
They also harvest rainwater and use green facades to help reduce the urban heat island effect. Nightingale is also adopting life cycle analysis and embodied carbon in future projects.
Nightingale Bowden is its first project in South Australia, in a former manufacturing and industrial area. The South Australian government is supporting the development of Bowden into a sustainable, walkable, transit-oriented medium-density neighbourhood that is financially accessible for Adelaide’s growing population.
The five-storey building in the 16ha urban regeneration precinct will contain 34 apartments providing a mix of affordable housing, private homes for sale and specialist disability accommodation, on the city’s fringe.
A Nightingale spokesman said it wanted to take the Nightingale model to as many places as possible but they could only develop sites that were financially viable.
“There is a sweet spot where density and land cost allows a project to deliver sustainable high-quality housing below market price,” he said.
“This is not a phase—medium-rise development has been practiced sustainably across many of the great cities of the world.
We believe it can be replicated in areas that have access to good infrastructure and community.”
Nightingale has designs on further developments in Brunswick, to be announced soon, and are anticipating the completion of Nightingale Village, Anstey and Ballarat as early as the end of this year.