The Dreamers.

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Jeremy McLeod

While many would refer to Jeremy McLeod as a sustainable architect, the man himself is loath to take on such a title. You see, for him, the sustainable aspects of his practice – Breathe Architecture – are simply a matter of common sense. From a tiny studio sitting snugly in a laneway in the Melbourne suburb of Brunswick, Jeremy and his team of seven (plus dog Daisy) spend their days applying this common sense to commercial and residential projects across the city. And their hope is that one day their philosophy will be so commonplace, there’ll be no need to distinguish sustainable architecture from any other.

My first childhood dream was … to be a scuba diver. But then at some point I became obsessed with building bridges and decided I wanted to be an architect. It wasn’t until I was halfway through my first year of uni that I realised that structural engineers built bridges.

My parents … moved around a lot, so I’ve lived in lots of parts of New South Wales and Victoria. They’ve always been political activists – left wing and interested in social justice and environmental sustainability. They’re both bleeding-heart social workers, so I couldn’t help but have a social conscience! I vote the same as them and I think the same as them.

When I graduated from high school … I moved down to Tasmania. I’d seen a guy present the University of Tasmania’s School of Environmental Design undergraduate course and he was inspirational, so I knew that’s where I wanted to go. It was the first university in Australia to offer environmental and sustainable design, and these days there are some hot young kids coming out of there.

I began Breathe Architecture … because I was working for a bigger architecture firm and I was a little bit tired of working on multi-storey structures with no openable windows. I decided that every room that I worked on would always have an openable window – that’s where the name ‘Breathe’ came from.

When I first started … if you Googled ‘sustainable architecture in Melbourne’, you would come up with seven architects’ names. If you Googled it now, it would stretch on to infinity. The market has definitely grown in that field and there’s so much more on offer for people.

The people who come to us … used to just be people who were really interested in sustainability. And while we still have those clients, other people come to us now because of our commercial or hospitality projects. They don’t necessarily understand the sustainable aspects, they just like the way it feels.

When I tell people what I do … I just say that we’re a small design studio. But, the fact is, the practice is responsible to the environment and we try to be socially responsible too. We do try to trim down the people who call us, so that when they do they know that being responsible is non-negotiable for us.

When we design a house … we don’t design to six stars – we design to eight stars. We say that they have to have
solar hot water, double glazing and two layers of insulation. They also have to have a rainwater tank plumbed back into the toilets and the washing machine and the garden. And, of course, they have to have passive solar design, meaning the building has to be orientated so that the sun comes in during winter and is excluded in summer.

The materials we use … are always local where possible and we try to specify recycled materials where we can. We also try not to specify aluminium or a lot of ceramic tiles because of the carbon miles attached to them.

What I did notice … is that, in 2006, when John Howard finally admitted that climate change was real, we stopped having to argue with people about having water tanks and double glazing and things like that. Everyone just accepted that they had to do it and there was this really weird shift in our clients. When we needed to cut costs, it became about the expensive materials and finishes, not about the fundamental sustainable elements.

Now, with the carbon tax … we have noticed people not being as keen to do things. But I don’t think the carbon tax is even enough and if it does affect my business so be it – I’m more than happy to put my hand in my pocket. We run a carbon-neutral office anyway and we all ride to work, so the impact on us is going to be very small.

Our current office … was once the delivery stable where all the fruit and vegetables were kept for the grocer
out the front. When we first moved into the building in 2005, there was just me and two other architects. We just insulated it and put some windows in, but we didn’t install any air conditioning because we decided that, since we wouldn’t specify it for our residential clients, we couldn’t specify it for ourselves. So when it gets hot, we really feel it! But it just means we have to shift our behaviour so that we start earlier in summer around 7:00 am and finish by 3:00 pm – although the guys here are so hardworking that they start early and then stay and work through the heat! The idea is that you just need to shift your behaviour or expectations about a building, rather than changing the environment of the building.

The big thing for us at the moment … is a city without cars. Melbourne is obsessed with cars, but we’re very interested in designing buildings for people and communities instead of cars. We think that if you stop providing people with carparks, they’ll stop driving. So we’ve got all these buildings we’re designing with no parking, but places for bicycles inside them.

One of the greatest challenges for me … was coming back to Melbourne from Tasmania and not coming from money or starting a practice with two other partners. There’s often those three-partner firms made up of two architects and one person who has a lot of money and family connections. For us, starting a practice with no connections and just having to build it up one project at a time was the hardest aspect.

My biggest inspiration … in recent times, is Duncan Jones, who is David Bowie’s son and the director of the film, Moon. He made that film for five-million dollars! He’s really inspiring at the moment because we do a lot of stuff on a low budget and you just have to be incredibly innovative to make it all happen, but in the end it’s really worth it.

If you don’t have a purpose … you don’t have something to try to achieve in your life, and it’s all worthless. A friend of mine says that you just have to let the world collapse in on itself – you can’t fight it and who cares. But, for me, I know it’s incredibly frustrating, but if I didn’t care about what we do every day –fighting bureaucracy to make beautiful buildings and spaces and bring some good to the community – I wouldn’t bother getting out of bed in the morning.

I find peace … by having a coffee with my wife for 15 minutes each morning. That’s my Zen time.

My wisdom for the world … would be paraphrasing someone else, but it would simply be: ‘Do something you love.’