Developer Brendan Condon was visiting relatives in the small seaside village of Cape Paterson in south Gippsland, Victoria, when an exercise session led to a vision for a regional housing project with a difference.
“I found the site because it’s my family beach,” says Condon, originally from nearby Warragul.
“I literally went for a run along the coast with my brother and saw the site. I wasn’t even thinking about doing a property project on that day … We jumped the fence, went for a run across this farm and then I thought, it is just a beautiful site looking over the Bass Strait.”
Cape Paterson is now home to sustainable housing development The Cape, the kind that could set a standard in housing crisis solutions.
With 230 lots across the estate, homes at The Cape must follow the development’s design guidelines – a minimum 7.5-star energy efficiency rating and a 200-sq-metre limit on living space to restrict the footprint of the house and maintain the integrity of the landscape.
Condon, who is also cofounder of revegetation landscaping company Australian Ecosystems, brought The Cape to life in 2019 after years of advocating for more energy-efficient, carbon-neutral homes.
Originally a cattle farm, the site was already cleared and provided a unique opportunity to build while restoring habitat.
But Condon faced plenty of community resistance.
“We’re a beautiful coastal village with a very healthy anti-development sentiment,” he says.
“We came in on the back end of pretty conventional cookie-cutter subdivisions where they built over remnant bushland and there was a healthy degree of scepticism when I fronted the first community meeting – lots of crossed arms and furrowed brows.”
But with more community meetings, site walks and phone calls, Condon’s background in biological diversity and respect for the environment earned him enough support to get the building permits he needed.
Now approaching 100 completed homes, The Cape offers approved customisable designs from sustainable architects and builders that prospective residents can choose from, or buyers can design their own homes to meet the energy standards.
‘Risen to the challenge’
Design and building company The Sociable Weaver is responsible for The Cape’s only design with a 10-star energy rating.
“The idea behind it was effectively to show a home that can meet 10 stars and still look really beautiful,” says its general manager, Reece Stubbs.
“There is sometimes a bit of stigma out there that sustainability comes with some pretty ugly bells and whistles and we wanted to show that’s not the case. You can build a really comfortable home that requires no mechanical heating or cooling.”
The rating scheme is critical to the project and Condon says architects and builders engaged in The Cape have “risen to the challenge” by maintaining an eight-star average.
Originally from the Gippsland area, Stubbs also lives and works from home in one of The Sociable Weaver’s designs for The Cape.
“The home we’re in is our Bungalow design. It’s really stripped back, simple,” says Stubbs.
“Two more popped up already in the last 12 months … so some have got different-coloured cladding and different joinery. One’s got a really nice balcony off the front and I’m a bit jealous they did that.”
The Cape has also benefited from an emphasis on green space and restoration of waterways and wetlands. Residents are encouraged to plant a range of endemic species.
The estate is cat-free, allowing 115 bird species from the surrounding Bass Strait to thrive in the landscape. Dogs must be on leash in most areas, to protect kangaroos, koalas, echidnas and wombats.
Also in development is a $2m community farm for residents to grow their own produce, which is expected to produce over $150,000 worth of food annually.
Now generating more energy than it is using, The Cape aims to be a litmus test for the standard Australia needs to meet to combat climate change. All homes are also equipped to enable electric vehicle charging.
“We haven’t had a bill from the sun lately that we’ve noticed … People here are averaging annual energy bills under $500 a year,” Condon says.
Architects leading change
While Covid has prompted greater migration to the regions and there’s an appetite for sustainable living in rural communities, housing developments like The Cape are not yet the norm.
Stakeholders at award-winning studio Cumulus say architects need to be brought more into discussions with developers and planners to create meaningful change in housing.
Cumulus is Tasmanian in origin, and has ties to the regional environment that director Peter Walker says creates a “strong sensitivity” and “ways of approaching things that centre around context and appropriateness of place”.
In July, the Tasmanian government promised 10,000 new social and affordable homes by 2032, meaning Cumulus’s upcoming social housing project in West Ulverstone, near Devonport – where housing stress is significant and the rental market is under pressure – is poised to deliver.
Designed for Housing Choices Australia and the Department of Communities Tasmania, Oak Rise Housing is set to be completed by mid next year. On a site with capacity for 55 homes, only 48 will be built.
“They’ve been positioned on the site and grouped in such a way that we have pockets of open space,” says Edwina Brisbane, an architect and associate at Cumulus. “We’ve been working closely with a landscape architect so that those open spaces can foster a sense of community.”
With social housing, architects and builders are often forced to work within a tight budget. But according to Brisbane, this is not necessarily a barrier to creating a successful, sensitive product.
“Often with these developments there is a desire for repetition and that needs to occur … because the more repetition you have the cheaper it is to build because of the consistency,” she says.
“What we’ve done is found a way to create repetition that enables difference … so that as you move through the space it doesn’t feel like Edward Scissorhands, it feels like it’s grown over time.”
These strategies include pop-up windows that reference chimneys, creating a varied topography in the skyline.
Cumulus hopes to show that by engaging younger, emerging architecture studios, the industry can move away from what Walker calls an “egocentric model”, in favour of a more socially and environmentally aware approach.
Crucial in making such environments is the need for governments to engage with sustainable architects to create change.
“It’s about finding ways to value design because culturally we don’t always do that – it’s seen as a luxury,” says Clare Austin, senior architect and associate at Cumulus. “Architects need to be bolder in discussions with developers and get in the ear of policymakers and planners.”
Brisbane sums it up nicely. “We have a saying in the office that everyone is welcome at the table and the best ideas might not come from the architect. They might come from a neighbour or someone walking their dog … because at the end of the day, the project is for the community.”
• This article was amended on 19 July 2022 to remove an incorrect reference to Warragul being in the Latrobe Valley.