Finalist 2023

Aboriginal Housing Victoria

Breathe Architecture / Bowden Corp / Tahnee Edwards / Human Habitats

A sustainable, culturally sensitive multi-residential development, offering a variety of housing stock to the large First Nations population in Reservoir.

Aboriginal Housing Victoria, a community-led organisation managing rental properties for Aboriginal and Torres Strait people in Victoria, embodies the resilience of First Nations People. This strength exists despite inadequate access to affordable housing. An issue which is complex and multi-faceted.

Recognising the need to increase the amount of available housing stock, AHV engaged Breathe to design their first multi-residential social housing project.

AHV tasked Breathe with challenging the traditional typology of single dwellings; recognising its social and sustainability limitations in an urban context. The brief was, instead, to design a sustainable and culturally sensitive multi-residential development.

Design Brief:

AHV’s vision was ‘ensuring Aboriginal Victorians secure appropriate, affordable housing as a pathway to better lives and stronger communities”. Breathe approached this vision with rigour to deliver a high-quality building, embedded with sustainable design principles and cultural sensitivity. The building was predominated locally made carbon neutral bricks generously donated by Brickworks.

The brief was to challenge the tradition of exclusively reserving large single dwellings to meet housing needs, recognising its limitations in an urban context. Instead, the brief poses an experiment in offering a variety of housing stock to the large First Nations population in Reservoir. On a site that connects its residents to good amenity through proximity to public transport, job opportunities and community services. In particular, the Aboriginal Community Services precinct on Bell Street and the wider connection to community was a key siting consideration for AHV.


This project was developed by:

Design Process

The design process placed an emphasis on sustainability and design that respects the land and community, aligning with AHV's mission to provide Aboriginal Victorians with suitable, affordable housing as a pathway to improved lives and resilient communities. To achieve this, a strategic decision was made to minimise car parking and relocate it to the south, allowing the preservation of the pedestrian entrance and natural surroundings. This approach took into account the diverse profiles of the residents, recognising that not all of them would own cars. Moreover, the reduced parking footprint created space for deep-root planting, enriching the living environment and establishing planting buffers along the boundaries.

The building's morphology played a pivotal role in effectively addressing the project's requirements. By dividing the structure into two volumes, connected by an open-air stairwell, Breathe successfully accomplished multiple objectives. This design facilitated passive surveillance, allowing for natural light and ventilation to permeate the spaces. It also provided active vertical transport, enabling easy movement between levels, and encouraged community interaction. This deliberate approach not only nurtured a sense of belonging but also contributed to the overall functionality and livability of the building.

The development comprises 14 one- and two-bedroom apartments, purposefully constructed to support AHV's mission of ensuring appropriate, affordable housing for Aboriginal Victorians. Breathe's approach to this vision was characterized by a rigorous commitment to delivering a high-quality building that embraces sustainable design principles and cultural sensitivity. The project team, including all consultants, maintained exemplary standards, allowing for agile progress from the initial concept design through the planning phase and onto the tendering process, all accomplished within an impressive eleven-month timeframe. The invaluable support of the City of Darebin during the planning approval process was instrumental in achieving this outcome, reinforcing the importance of government prioritization in addressing homelessness-related challenges.

Design Excellence

AHV’s vision was ‘ensuring Aboriginal Victorians secure appropriate, affordable housing as a pathway to better lives and stronger communities”. Breathe approached this vision with rigour to deliver a high-quality building, embedded with sustainable design principles and cultural sensitivity. The building was predominated locally made carbon neutral bricks generously donated by Brickworks.

Umarkoo Wayi – Ganbu Guljin is Aboriginal Housing Victoria’s very first multi-residential venture. Aboriginal Housing Victoria (AHV), a community-led organisation managing over 1,500 rental properties for Aboriginal and Torres Strait people in Victoria, embodies the strength and resilience of First Nations People. This strength exists despite inadequate access to affordable and appropriate housing. An issue which is complex and multi-faceted, rooted in dispossession and dislocation and one that requires action beyond architectural intervention alone. First Nations Peoples are disproportionately impacted by: housing market failure; family violence and breakdown; institutionalisation; poverty of household material resources; and a lack of culturally appropriate mainstream housing services. Recognising the need to significantly increase the amount of their available housing stock, AHV engaged Breathe to design their first multi-residential social and affordable housing project. AHV has been a strong guide throughout this process, providing clear direction on culturally appropriate design.

The brief was to challenge the tradition of exclusively reserving large single dwellings to meet housing needs, recognising its limitations in an urban context. Instead, the brief poses an experiment in offering a variety of housing stock to the large First Nations population in Reservoir. On a site that connects its residents to good amenity through proximity to public transport, job opportunities and community services. In particular, the Aboriginal Community Services precinct on Bell Street and the wider connection to community was a key siting consideration for AHV.

Design Innovation

Aboriginal Housing Victoria’s affordable housing project rests on three pillars. First, the need to house First Nations people in culturally appropriate homes. Leaning on the work of Jefa Greenaway’s, the project sought to address the specific needs of First Nations communities in Melbourne. Second, to approach design through a participatory lens. Third, to design for Country and sustainability. These pillars lead to an exemplar for affordable housing, breaking negative stereotypes.

The context for the project was limited; a modest area of Melbourne where existing developments are transitory and inadequately serve the population. In contrast, we strove to build something timeless, setting a benchmark for future growth while being sensitive to existing neighbours.

Three moments of successful program resolution are: the reduction in car parking; building morphology; and natural robust materials. Reducing cars and locating them to the south meant we didn’t compromise the pedestrian entrance or natural amenity. We could do this because of the diverse resident profile, many of whom would not have a car. This strategy also meant we could accommodate deep-root planting, protecting the amenity of existing and proposed residents with planting buffers to the boundaries. Breaking the building into two volumes separated with an open-air stair allowed us to solve for passive surveillance, natural light and ventilation, active vertical transport and community interaction. Specifying natural sustainable materials was another way we delivered on culturally sensitive and durable spaces.

Design Impact

This project had a strong need to design for both Country and sustainability.

The project sets high standards in minimising operational, embodied and behavioural carbon. An all-electric building with high efficiency fixtures and high performing thermal envelope (8.2 NatHERs) sets a new standard in affordable housing. Solar panels, a high efficiency central heat pump, and green-power contributes to a great story for AHV and the planet. Embodied carbon was minimised through smart material selection. Locally made bricks quarried 20km from site, natural cork and timber contributes to mitigating embodied carbon. The reduction in behavioural carbon is realised through rainwater collection and re-use, indigenous drought tolerant landscaping, clothes lines, minimal cars, and communal recycling.

The contribution of the broader team was crucial. AHV was a key collaborator and guide. Indigenous artist Tahnee Edwards was integral with her colourful murals, bunjils and engravings imbuing the project with a depth that Breathe alone couldn’t have achieved. We also had several generous donors, including Brickworks and Taubmans.

Working alongside AHV and Human Habitats Landscape Architects, we wanted to create areas for communal interaction without being too formal. Tahne Edwards, the artist who we worked with on the project, etched words of meaning on bluestone pavers.

This project is about housing First Nations people in safe, affordable and culturally sensitive homes. It’s about working through a participatory framework. And it’s about shifting the paradigm of affordable housing towards a culturally sensitive, sustainable place to call home.

Circular Design and Sustainability Features

The project had a minimum of 30% of the cement replaced with flyash; 25% of the fine aggregates manufactured sand and a minimum of 50% water used to be recylced. We reduced the use of unnecessary steel throughout, only using it where structurally or programmatically necessary. There was also no chrome or glazed tiles in the project. We replaced vinyl flooring with natural cork flooring and we replaced vinyl wall coverings with painted fibre cement sheet.

Only low or zero VOC finishes were used in the project.

We approached material selection with a reductionist mindset, questioning why the material is required and ensuring that it was a sustainable and ethical choice. We were able to reduce superfluous material consumption through efficient planning and material choices.

  • All brickwork in the project is locally made and diverted from landfill.
  • All timber in the project is FSC Australian grown.
  • All fixtures and fittings are from Australian owned and reputable companies.
  • Where-ever possible we used natural renewable materials such as timber and cork.
  • Where we used concrete for structural purposes we ensured there was a minimum of 30% recycled content and flyash replacement.
  • No chroe
  • high performing thermal envelope
  • passive design strategies
  • orientation, natural ventilation, shading
  • material selection; natrual materials that contribute positively to the welbeing of the environment and residents. FSC or PFSC certified timbers. E0 and low VOC materials and finishes. Recycled materials and materials diverted from landfill. natural renewable materials that contribute to the reduction of carbon emissions.
  • renewable onsite energy; solar panels on roof 12kWp
  • no gas
  • use of energy efficient features to reduce excessive electricity and water use
  • rainwater harvest and re-use
  • indigenous drought tolerant planting irrigated with rainwater
  • centralised heat pump system for hot water - clothes lines and no clothes dryers
  • average of 8.2 NatHERS rating

Architectural Design 2023 Finalists

Yarra Ranges Council Civic Centre Redevelopment

H2o architects / Yarra Ranges Council / Lucid Consulting / Meinhardt Bonacci / Ziebell Landscape Architecture

Melbourne Holocaust Museum

Kerstin Thompson Architects / Melbourne Holocaust Museum

Dunlop Avenue, Ascot Vale - Big Housing Build

Hayball / Tract (Landscape Architect) / Homes Victoria

Wurun Senior Campus

Designed by GHD Design + Grimshaw / Commissioned by The Victorian School Building Authority / Clients: The Victorian School Building Authority, Collingwood College and Fitzroy High School / Builder: BESIX Watpac / Property Advisory and Project Management: SEMZ

Nightingale Village

Architecture architecture / Austin Maynard Architects / Breathe / Clare Cousins Architects / Hayball / Kennedy Nolan

Darebin Intercultral Centre

Sibling Architecture

James Makin Gallery

Tristan Wong (Architect) / James Makin / Axiom / Hugh Makin

Victorian Family Violence Memorial

City of Melbourne / Department of Families Fairness and Housing / MUIR+OPENWORK / Sarah Lynn Rees, Indigenous Advisor JCB Architects / Phil Gardiner, WSP

Delatite Cellar Door

Lucy Clemenger Architects / Delatite Wines / Landscape Architect - Tommy Gordon, Art Gardens Australia

Wesley Place

OCULUS / COX / Lovell Chen / Charter Hall

Queenscliff Ferry Terminal

F2 Architecture / Searoad Ferries

Victorian Heart Hospital

Conrad Gargett / Wardle

Warrnambool Library and Learning Centre

Kosloff Architecture / Department of Education / Warrnambool City Council / SouthWest TAFE

Lilydale and Mooroolbark Stations

BKK Architects / Kyriacou Architects / Jacobs / ASPECT Studios

Pitch Music and Arts Festival - Main Stage

Ambrose Zacharakis / Henry Howson / Untitled Group

The Roundtable

Common / Enlocus / RMIT Architecture / Commissioned by City of Melbourne