Sustainable Homes

A Sustainable Retrofit Of A ’70s Apartment Building In Fitzroy

Rather than tear down this old 1970s clinker brick walk-up to build a new sustainable development from scratch, private investment company Tripple decided to ‘do something different’.

Working with environmental consultants Finding Infinity and architects Kennedy Nolan, Tripple have created Australia’s ‘first energy-plus retrofit’ — an apartment building that generates more energy than the renters inside need, thanks to a 33kW rooftop solar system.

And with increased insulation, double-glazed windows, rainwater catchments and water-efficient fixtures, the Wilam Ngarrang building is also estimated to reduce the tenant’s bills by 80 per cent or more.

Christina Karras

Inside the recently retrofitted apartments inside the Wilam Ngarrang building. Handles are recycled venetian blinds by Studio Shields.

A rich red colour palette brings a modern personality into the new kitchen.

Creating a building that was thermally efficient was a top priority for the project.

The compact floorplans each feature a bedroom, kitchen, living space and ensuite bathroom. Artwork by Elyss McCleary courtesy of Nicholas Thompson gallery. Lemmy sofa by Jardan. Baso dining table by SBW. Dining chairs by Plumm Workshop. Floor lamp by Jordan Fleming.

There are 15 of the 30-square-metre apartments inside the building.

‘It’s incredibly warm, both physically and atmospherically, and this is thanks to the fact that the environmental upgrades actually increase the livability,’ Tripple’s Jake Milgrom-Marabel says.

Artwork by Eleanor Louise-Butt courtesy of Nicholas Thompson Gallery.

A look into the bedroom.

The project team, featuring Wilderness Building Co’s Patrick Shields, Finding Infinity’s Will Young and Ross Harding, alongside Kennedy Nolan’s Rachel Nolan and the team from Tripple. Outdoor stools by Dowel Jones.

The communal area on the ground floor includes vegetable beds and compositing systems to encourage zero-waste living.

‘We wanted to create a building that would be low maintenance, high-tenant satisfaction, low-tenant turnover and high desirability,’ Jake explains.

Christina Karras
12th of September 2023
Environmental Consultants
Project Manager

This once dated 1970s building has been transformed into a set of sustainable apartments for rent in the heart of Fitzroy.

The recently completed retrofit is part of Finding Infinity’s project ‘A New Normal’, which aims to show how Melbourne could become the world’s first ‘self-sufficient’ city and a sustainable leader — if projects like one, dubbed Wilam Ngarrang, were applied across the city.

‘There is currently no more cost-effective solution to making major cuts in greenhouse gas emissions than retrofitting existing buildings, so that was a really great jumping off point for us,’ Tripple director Jake Milgrom-Marabel says.

‘Australia is full of old buildings built in the ‘60s and ‘70s that most developers would just tear down and start again wasting resources along the way. We wanted to do something different and show that it’s possible both practically and financially.’

Instead of just giving the building a facelift, Tripple engaged the environmental consultants at Finding Infinity to create a list of essential sustainable features that would change how the building operated. They then ran through this ‘shopping list’ until the budget ran out.

With key targets around net-positive energy, minimising carbon emissions and striving for a zero-waste construction, the structure was upgraded to be thermally efficient, installing new double-glazed windows, added insulation, and each of the 15 apartments has an airtight render.

There’s also a 33kW solar array that powers the building’s centralised hot water, heating, cooling, and electrical appliances.

‘Wilam Ngarrang will also generate more electricity than it uses, minimise water from mains and reduce waste through on-site composting. All of these things also mean that tenant bills should be incredibly low as the apartments are so efficient,’ Jake explains.

The building is estimated to reduce renter’s bills by 80 per cent or more than if they were built without these additions — an especially attractive promise as electricity prices continue to surge and other tenants in the city grapple with inefficient rentals.

Jake says ensuring the homes looked warm and inviting was just as important as the overall feel. They engaged architects Kennedy Nolan for the redesign, providing them with a simple brief to create spaces that were equal parts environmental and beautiful through ‘minimum intervention’, and with a low budget.

‘We were attracted to the challenge of “doing the most with the least”,’ Kennedy Nolan principal Rachel Nolan says.

Their strategy was to re-use salvaged materials in the ground floor communal area and vegetable gardens. A checkerboard of orange and yellow glazed tiles feature in the garden laundry, while the windows inside are framed by recycled Victorian ash timber. The rich tones of the existing red clinker bricks inspired the bold, new interiors, as dark red joinery brings personality into the kitchens of the small one-bedroom apartments. And despite their ‘limited floor plans’ (which span 30 square metres), Rachel says there is ‘more than one way’ to assemble your life within them.

Construction began in June 2022, and within a few weeks of the retrofit’s completion in June this year, Jake says the building was fully tenanted.

There a few other things that make this development unique, including the fact that the rentals are managed by non-for-profit real estate agency HomeGround (who direct their funds towards ending homelessness) and the consultation with Elders from the Wurundjeri Council throughout the project. ‘We were honoured that they suggested naming the building in Woiwurrung language, “Wilam Ngarrang”, which means “Place of Thought”,’ Jake adds.

Tripple’s vision for Wilam Ngarrang was to prove how environmental retrofits in Melbourne can be done, and they’ve already had some ‘great conversations’ with government officials, developers and builders who have show interest in this model.

‘I don’t believe that knocking down all of our existing buildings and building sustainable developments is going to be the answer,’ Jake adds. ‘Brand new sustainable buildings have an important role to play, but that is one solution in one scenario, we’re just trying to show another way.’

Learn more about ‘A New Normal’ in the latest episode of our podcast where we chat with Finding Infinity’s Will Young here.

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