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project introduction


urban eco-village

Westwyck, 492 Victoria St, West Brunswick, Victoria

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Perched atop a hill, a brisk walk from the bus stop, is Melbourne’s premier urban eco-village. The brain child of environmentalist developers, Mike Hill and Lorna Pit, Westwyck is located seven kilometres from Melbourne city. It is a model of sustainable design.

When a company Hill and Pit formed to purchase the historic school and hall in 1993, saving it from demolition, it was a bleak site with enormous potential.  Although the buildings had been allowed to deteriorate, they possessed lofty ceilings, elegant windows and demonstrated good workmanship. Only a couple of native trees grew along the front boundary.  The developers knew for Westwyck to be a successful sustainable development they needed to follow the principles of water, materials and energy efficiency.

In the first stage of the project, the school building was converted to seven upmarket apartments, each with a private outdoor space.  The school hall became a group house, occupied by seven like minded people. Their bedrooms are housed in former classrooms and they share kitchen and living facilities.  Pit and Hill have lived in this shared arrangement for over 10 years but have plans to convert the infant’s drill hall into a classy townhouse with mezzanine levels. The stained glass windows, dating from early in the 20th century will be retained with a second layer of glass added to ensure energy efficiency.  This large open plan space will be accessed by a central north facing courtyard.

Wherever possible site materials have been reused - oregon timber from ceilings, bricks from outhouses and concrete.  As well as retrofitting the disused school and hall, five townhouses have been built on the southern perimeter of the site.  These three storey 20 square buildings are oriented for solar orientation and reuse site bricks.  External timbers were obtained from farm grown Cupressus. These timbers will be allowed to weather to a silver grey making the building exteriors virtually maintenance free. Decks hide sub-surfaced recycled plastic rainwater tanks.  Pit has taken great care in selecting finishes for the interiors ensuring they are non-toxic.

When they first purchased the site it was an impermeable space made up of buildings, concrete and asphalt.  Only a couple of native trees grew along the front boundary.  One of the aims of project aims was to enhance site permeability and thus protecting local Moonee Ponds Creek.  In keeping with this theme, paths are a mix of gravel and sand. 

Waste water and vegetable scraps are treated using worms. Removing the lid of the waste system revealed an odourless pit.  The grey water transpiration bed, which is used to evaporate excess water, is planted with local wetland species such as Mentha australis, Leptospermum (Woolly tea tree) and Carex

A large timber camel sculpture, symbolic of the need to conserve water, nestles in the gravel surrounded by self sown Wahlenbergia. Mike and Lorna are passionate about using plants from the local region.  This is evident in the front garden where they have planted a range of native grasses and forbs (non woody plants) creating a massed effect.  Improved biodiversity is evident with the arrival of butterflies, birds and native bees.

Each apartment has a private outdoor space. There is room for the development of shared facilities such as vegetable plots and clotheslines.  Some temporary vegetable plots are in place along with fruit trees in tubs.  Hill says one of the most important ways to achieve sustainability goals is for people to share resources.  At Westwyck grass is removed, and development has an intimate feel.  He says, a little tongue in cheek, that the design has saved considerable energy as no-one has needed to purchase a lawn mower!

The apartment courtyards are delineated from public space with the use of large slabs of stone with steel fittings and a steel gate.  They are partially enclosed to allow privacy but also to encourage interaction between residents.  Plant schemes within these spaces have been left to owners to develop them to their own taste. Not surprisingly given the environmentally aware people purchasing the retrofitted apartments, one courtyard featured healthy salad greens and pots of citrus and bay 

A central pedestrian spine divides the apartments from the townhouses and is lined with the graceful Eucalyptus caesia.  This elegant eucalypt was chosen over a local species due to its aesthetic qualities and shorter stature.  The path to the northern courtyards of the townhouses will be planted with the local species Banksia marginata.

A communal bike shed is yet to be built.  Cars are deliberately kept to the south of the site, thus minimising the intrusion of vehicles into the built element and making more room available for open space.   This also protects the heritage context of the building.  The surface for the car park is permeable and it is intended to install a water harvesting system below it in the future.

Energy efficient lighting and appliances were used in all the buildings.  All windows are double glazed.  While the apartments have instant gas hot water, provision has been made to convert to solar.  The townhouses have boosted solar hot water heaters.

One of the community concerns was that the proposed eco-development would devalue their properties.  In fact, the five townhouses sold off the plan, for significantly higher prices than the modest surrounding buildings, indicating that the market for sustainable buildings is healthy.

Westwyck provides an excellent example of how an eco-development can be retrofitted within an existing urban area.  It demonstrates that through careful planning, design and management ‘green’ development is achievable.  Westwyck is a beacon for our future.

Guidelines for an eco-village
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“Top of the class: a lovingly restored old primary school is now a model for inner-city living” in Sanctuary, Issue 3, pp76-82


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