Where the heart is
When it comes to people’s homes, neither Dr Di Winkler nor Dan McKenna are prepared to accept the status quo. The occupational therapist and architect are challenging traditional housing models for a greater social good.
It’s 9am on a bracing winter Melbourne morning, and the smell of freshly ground coffee and warm spiced porridge is in the air.
Despite the bitter wind, people sit scattered around the outdoor benches among orange and aqua planter boxes filled with herbs, chatting over steaming cups, not quite yet tempted to pull a blanket from the fat wicker basket on the footpath.
The design of this outdoor space spilling from the ground floor cafe of the Nightingale 1 apartment complex in Melbourne’s inner north is all to do with bringing people together. It was a driving philosophy behind its innovative design and, as a Monash University graduate working with Breathe Architecture, Dan McKenna was immersed in the project from the start, conducting the actual feasibility study; and today he is one of its residents.
The project exemplifies community-building and environmental and social functionality: “We design spaces to allow communities to grow,” McKenna says.
This “lovely sense of community” created by Nightingale (heightened by the tempting contents of the wicker basket) is an ethos also passionately shared by Monash alumna Dr Di Winkler, who is implementing the same philosophy to engender a paradigm shift in housing for people with disabilities.
Winkler created the Summer Foundation 12 years ago to build an evidence-based case and a pathway for young people with disabilities to be able to escape the isolation of aged-care nursing homes and into their own homes. Over a 20-year occupational therapy career, she witnessed profoundly injured people make significant gains when provided with rehabilitation support in a home-like environment.
So while coming from different perspectives, McKenna and Winkler are driving an exciting, creative approach to housing being integral to the creation of engaged community environments that are all about social inclusion.
The Nightingale 1 project, which opened its doors in December 2017, was funded by several like-minded architectural firms and designed around a clear philosophy of environmental, financial and social sustainability.
Along with the cafe, residents of its 20 apartments are brought together through design that encourages social interaction; from the ground floor split open like a laneway inviting people in, to the open stairwells and seating nooks. Then there’s the rooftop garden, with shared vegetable patches, lawns and even clotheslines, where a communal laundry replaces those in individual apartments, drawing people upstairs and contributing to the building’s 7.5-star energy rating.
“It’s nothing super-revolutionary, but it creates a semi-public, semi-private space that allows moments of connection between people as they’re hanging washing on the line or stopping for a coffee,” McKenna says.
With an interest in how architects and design can influence the wider community, the project was always going to be a good fit for McKenna, who is now senior project lead on Nightingale Housing.
Established by Breathe director Jeremy McLeod in 2016 and involving several architects, urban planners and business people, it expands the Nightingale vision by allowing architects to lead their own developments based on the Nightingale principles of affordability, social inclusion and environmental sustainability.
At last count, McKenna was overseeing five developments in Melbourne and Fremantle, including the Nightingale Village involving seven architectural firms creating multi-residential dwellings over an entire inner-suburban street.
But even with this expansion, Nightingale Housing can’t keep up with demand for the apartments, which have prices kept in check through capped profits on each development, strict resale conditions and careful design where nothing non-essential is used – such as plasterboard on the ceilings (besides, exposed beams have a certain industrial appeal).
The Nightingale concept is popular, McKenna says, because it’s a counterpoint to a housing market where affordability often equals low quality or a long commute to work. Instead, it provides well-priced, carefully designed housing close to the CBD. And the social aspect, he says, is key.
“We have a lot of young people, but also a lot of single, older people really attracted to that sense of community and having people to bounce off day-to-day,” McKenna says. “It’s something that is really important to people.”
Moving towards independence
This resonates very strongly with Winkler, who says nursing homes are no place for young people with acquired brain injuries or disabilities. But, with a lack of alternative accommodation, it’s where more than 2000 people aged under 65 are admitted each year. And for many it’s where they stay. Today in Australia, more than 6200 younger people with a disability are living in nursing homes. For Winkler this is simply untenable.
Research undertaken by Winkler during her 2005 Monash PhD, which was inspired by her clinical work and became the catalyst for the Summer Foundation, found the lives of young people in nursing homes characterised by boredom, loneliness and grief. More than half (53 per cent) received a visit from a friend less than once a year, and almost the same number never went on trips to the movies, sports events or even the shops.
Furthermore, Winkler says, 27 per cent of young people in nursing homes because of acquired injury or degenerative disease have school-aged children. Providing housing where they can maintain relationships and the role of a parent in the eyes of their children is vital.
“Just being able to have their children over to sit on the couch and eat pizza and watch a movie together is not something they can do in an aged-care situation,” she says. “Aged-care facilities are very hard for anyone to visit, let alone kids visiting their parents.”
To address the situation, the Summer Foundation recently launched Summer Housing to incorporate specially designed apartments throughout mainstream housing developments so young people with severe disabilities languishing in nursing homes can lead more autonomous, fulfilling lives – as, she says, is their human right.
With two prototypes in Abbotsford, Victoria, and Newcastle, NSW, proving a success, there are now 150 more apartments (with features such as extra floor space for wheelchairs, and touchpad technology to control lights and other settings) in the pipeline across Australia through partnerships with developers such as Grocon.
Still, she says, it’s the tip of the iceberg in terms of demand for the apartments developed by the not-for-profit Summer Housing and rented by tenants with severe disability with support from the National Disability Insurance Scheme Specialist Disability Accommodation initiative.
“We need dwellings for 12,000 people over the next 10 years to meet demand,” she says.
Talks are underway between Nightingale and Summer Housing about how they can work together to help fill the 20 per cent of apartments Nightingale Housing prioritises in each of its developments for people with disabilities, along with key service workers (including police, nurses and teachers) and Indigenous Australians, who McKenna says have historically found it harder than others to secure long-term housing.
“The work Summer Housing is doing is amazing and very significant,” McKenna says. “We know how important it is to be part of an active and vibrant community for all residents, including those living with a disability.”
Ensuring people with disabilities are living in areas where Nightingale is focused, “in the heart of the community and not on the fringes”, is one of the main priorities for Summer Housing, Winkler says. Residents should be close to services and amenities “and all those things we take for granted, like a local cafe where people know your name and notice if you’re not around”.
The perfect storm
According to Winkler, strong relationships with the housing sector and developers are critical to the success of Summer Housing, which is why she appointed people from within the sector with a specific skill set and experience to manage it.
“People with business acumen who can do a deal with developers,” she says. “Summer Housing is a ‘for-purpose’ business; we needed a CEO with a completely different skill set to me.”
A strong team also gives Winkler the capacity to do what she does best. As the Summer Foundation’s chief of research and innovation, she’s strengthening links with universities including Monash, where she has several research projects underway, such as one with Professor Peter Cameron based at The Alfred hospital looking at why young people are discharged into aged care and what can be done to prevent it.
Over his career, too, McKenna has maintained strong ties with Monash, recently teaching a sustainability subject in architecture at the Caulfield campus and continuing to learn along the way. Lecturing, he says, has helped him develop communication skills valuable in his role as Nightingale project lead, which requires liaison with a wide range of people, including bankers, council planners, other architects and the public.
His own experience as a university student was pivotal, he says, in the direction he took, opening his mind to ideas and enabling him to reimagine the ‘great Australian dream’ of home ownership to incorporate beautifully designed, well-built, energy-efficient apartments.
Like Nightingale Housing, tapping into an urban zeitgeist valuing craftsmanship, sustainability and greater community connection, Summer Housing has also emerged in a perfect storm of increasing acceptance of apartment living in Australia, advancing home technologies and a fledgling national insurance scheme helping to fund people with disabilities into their own apartments.
“It’s a really interesting and exciting time,” Winkler says, and McKenna agrees.
“With the population growth, breaking infrastructure systems and booming house prices that our cities everywhere are facing, there’s a massive opportunity that Nightingale is trying to address,” he says. “We think the answer lies in well-designed, sustainable, durable and affordable homes built in suburbs already connected to amenities.”
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