An interview with Milieu's Michael McCormack

Urban Melbourne recently spoke with Milieu Property co-founder and Director of Milieu Built (Milieu’s associated construction company) Michael McCormack about the company's ethos and values, their work and how Milieu was conceived.

The discussion with Michael began with his career post schooling as a carpenter; despite enjoying the trade wanted to become far more involved in the entire development process. He subsequently went back to study construction and it was during this time that he landed a position with Sinclair Brook, a project management firm that focuses on property development on behalf of large scale institutional clients, and which also supervised some of the larger scale projects in Melbourne.

Michael plied his trade there for seven years but came to realize that large scale projects weren't at his heart. Michael wanted to focus on something that he could relate to, such as the family home, something he believes everyone can relate to, and is of a scale that is far more relatable. Subsequently Michael shifted to BPM who are now much more of a large scale developer, but at the time were developing the types of projects that Michael and Milieu are currently pursuing - small scale apartment and townhouse projects.

I realized pretty quickly that it was the scale that I wanted to work at - the scale that I live in and can relate to.

Michael McCormack

Laurence Dragomir: Looking through Milieu's body of work, would it be fair to say that you develop a product that is geared more towards the owner-occupier market than say the investor?

Michael McCormack: 100%. Our target is myself, my friends, my family and when I say my family I mean my sisters. So I look at the established house prices in areas that I'd like to live in and appeal to me like Fitzroy, Carlton, North Fitzroy etc. and it's unaffordable for someone my age. I started thinking, well I can't afford an established home in that area, but I want to live in the area just not in an a large scale apartment building of say 200 apartments.

So what's the gap in the market? The gap in the market is something that I want to live in and how do I create it? That has been my focus, I suppose, since we started so that's very much why our developments are owner-occupier focused.

LD: Do you see in the foreseeable future an opportunity or desire to go up in scale, not so much high-rise but more an increase in density?

MM: Up until recently we have been doing smaller scale projects like 5 townhouses or 11 apartments for example, and we're about to launch a project in Collingwood called Peel, that is 35 apartments but again its focus is absolutely on occupiers. That has sort of been the mantra for the project - apartments to live in.

We looked at some of the apartment projects in the area and we noticed two things: there's kind of the larger scale apartment projects which are more geared towards investors and then there's a group of really nice apartment projects but they're often unaffordable. We've tried to pick the gap there and say let's focus this on owner occupiers whilst still creating apartments that are affordable.

Peel by Milieu.

LD: You've worked previously with architects such as dKO and Fieldwork. What is your process in terms of engaging the architects you work with and picking the right architect for the right project?

MM: Initially we try and work with the same group of consultants, the same team consistently through our projects and we work with a select group of architects and dKO and Fieldwork are in that strand of architects. Cjoice of architect is based upon seeing whether the firm has similar ideals, aspirations and passions that we do for development. If you look at Fieldwork they've got a publication, Assemble Papers which is all about small footprint living.

Their interests in terms of development align very strongly with our own and that extends to design quality and design integrity - the guys we work with are unbelievable at what they do.

LD: I guess the hot topic at the moment in the industry is apartment standards, what is your take?

MM: It's a really interesting discussion and I think it really is an ongoing discussion. I know the guys from Assemble Papers are working on something in relation to it which I'm participating in and they're asking some interesting questions; not necessarily about asking people if they want a larger apartment because a lot of people will say yes, but they're asking would you be willing to sacrifice size for design. For instance would you rather a 45sqm well designed apartment over a 50sqm stock standard apartment? And I probably align with them on that.

I don't think you get the best outcome by prescribing a minimum apartment size. We respond to context and I think designers are very good at what they do; design is better if you do respond to context and the market rather than designing by a checked box which is unfortunately what SEPP 65 has done in Sydney. So you get apartment developments which respond to and meet all the requirements but aren't great.

What we do in inner Melbourne is try to unlock really small sites for appropriate development but often the requirements are so prescriptive that these sorts of sites cannot to be unlocked.

Ultimately I'm all for well designed apartments with quality amenity for the occupier and most of the principles the Better Apartments discussion paper talks about, but I don't think it needs to be so prescriptive.

LD: When are you looking at launching Peel?

MM: We're going to launch it in early July. We've got a display suite on site and as part of that display suite we'll be running a series of exhibitions in a gallery within the space at the same time which is linked to Melbourne Milieu which we've launched on our website. We've sought to work with a group of photographers to catalogue Melbourne. It's not about our projects, you won't see our buildings or anything related to our projects.

Melbourne Milieu is more about hanging out in Melbourne and what inspires us. The photography exhibition is kind of an extension of that coupled with a Broadsheet publication that we're going to launch shortly.

Peel Street's a really important project for us and I think it's really the next step for us in terms of focusing on the occupier, but also moving towards trying to create something even more affordable than the work we've been doing up until now. What we have been doing to date is providing townhouses that are below an established house price but the reality is that not everyone can afford a townhouse so it's taking that next step to create apartment spaces that are very livable but are also attainable to people my age and younger.

LD: Thanks for your time Michael and looking forward to dropping in and checking out the Peel display suite.

1 comment

Bilby's picture

Milieu are my favourite development group working in Melbourne right now - their Whitlam Place (Fitzroy) project and intriguing adaptive reuse of a historic warehouse in Waterloo St. Carlton are remarkably sensitive to site and heritage considerations:

So, why not with this "Peel" (107-109 Wellington Street)? The buildings on the site ahave just been showcased at the Art Gallery of NSW, "The Photograph and Australia" exhibition. The gallery even chose to feature a remarkable early street side photograph of 'Naunton's Bakery' on Wellington St. to advertise the show in the Sydney Morning Herald.

Can the developer see no merit in the adaptive reuse of important heritage buildings that haven't been specifically studied and listed by council? We are losing a valuable piece of Collingwood culture for this development - even a facade and front room would be worth retaining here, given the existence of the rare photographic record of this building. How many photos of remnant Melbourne places exist at all from the 1860s? (Hint: very very few). How many early photos of cities exist from the 1860s in the world ...? I'll leave that to readers to assess. All I can say is that these photographs are very remarkable indeed. The fact that the building they have captured still exists in the 21st century is even more remarkable.

Really, where evidence of their importance exists, the community deserves better than to have their heritage places demolished in this way in 2015.

Michael - the evidence is clear. Council's heritage advice is well known to be out of date. Only you can determine the future of this site and its important heritage - the choice you make is important and will stand on record long into the future. You are a well respected and thoughtful developer - that much is clear from your work and reputation. For Melbourne's incredible Victorian heritage, and for the people of Melbourne whose heritage it is, this site deserves another look.


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