Dan McKenna

Home is where the heart is

Written by Chloe Gordon

In 2022, architect Dan McKenna became the CEO of Nightingale Housing, a not-for-profit organisation doing things differently by building homes that are socially, financially and environmentally sustainable.

Dan has been with the company since its earliest days. “I’ve seen the company emerge from an idea, driven by a tiny team working from an architecture firm in Brunswick, and then evolve through different stages to become what it is today,” he says. Nightingale Housing is now an independent organisation employing 18 staff. In response to an overwhelming demand for quality medium-density housing, Nightingale has delivered a total 398 homes to date, with 267 currently under construction and a further 500 in planning stages.

Dan says he couldn’t have imagined this was where his architecture studies at Monash would take him. Back in 2011, as a new graduate, he joined the award-winning architecture firm Breathe. It was during this time that Breathe co-founders Jeremy McLeod and Tamara Veltre were experimenting with a new approach, which would become Nightingale Housing: designing homes with the intention to benefit residents and communities, not create profits for investors. Dan worked on the design team for Nightingale 1, the very first Nightingale Housing project. He even took on a personal investment in the project when he and his partner purchased one of the Nightingale 1 homes.

Image: Nightingale 1. Photography: Peter Clarke.

After five years with Breathe, Dan was ready to broaden his experience, and took a sideways step into a role as a 3D artist. Over the course of a year he created renders, 3D images and flythrough animations for marketing materials for high-end apartment buildings. The work built on his architectural skills, and he thought it could lead into a career pathway in film or television, games or animation. “It was a fascinating insight into the world of large-scale commercial property development,” he says. “I learned a lot – and I also gained a newfound respect for the work that Nightingale was doing.”

When Nightingale advertised a new role, Relationships Manager, Dan saw the opportunity to use his expertise in a for-purpose context – he decided to apply. He was offered a permanent role and officially became the very first Nightingale staff member, working alongside two part-time contractors.

Image: Nightingale Anstey. Photography: Kate Longley

The tiny team worked together to move Nightingale Housing out from under the auspices of Breathe, and in 2016 the organisation became an independent entity. Nightingale 1 was completed in 2017 and received wide acclaim and multiple design awards. Several other Nightingale projects were already in train. The site of Nightingale Village was acquired, and six leading architecture firms began a huge collaborative effort to create a precinct of six fossil fuel-free buildings in Duckett Street, Brunswick.

Then, less than a year after he started, the two contractors working alongside Dan left their roles and suddenly Dan was the only person working at Nightingale. It was a busy and stressful time, but now Dan has the benefit of the kind of deep knowledge that only comes with experiencing the evolution of a new company. “I’ve had to write things. I’ve had to stand up on stage and sell things. I’ve had to sign contracts. Of course I also understand the architects’ side of the process. I bring a lot of viewpoints.”

Image: Nightingale Ballarat. Photography: Kate Longley

By 2019, a further two Nightingale buildings had been completed in Melbourne. Planning was in train for a further development in Brunswick near Anstey Station, as well as the organisation’s first regional project in Ballarat.

Dan moved into the role of Head of Operations in 2020. His focus by this point was on building a team capable of continuing to scale Nightingale, and help reorient the housing market towards creating homes for owner-occupiers rather than investors. His early years working across all areas of the company had given him a keen sense of the value of each individual role in the organisation. “I love being across it all,” he explains. “I like to be involved, but I’m done with my time as a specialist. I've got really good people on the team and I can put them on a path and let them go for it – and be there when they need help.”

He has also learned how to spot mistakes early in the project development process. “In construction, you make a mistake now and you might not find out for three more years. It’s so important to build good processes and structures, and ensure that new people coming into the company understand how and why we do things, what’s important and what’s not – so that we can be on the front foot.”

In 2021, Nightingale Housing obtained not-for-profit status, permanently cementing its ethos of for-purpose work within the governance structure of the company.

Image: Nightingale Brunswick East. Photo: Kate Longley

Dan became CEO of Nightingale Housing in 2022. The company also completed a series of projects the same year, including Nightingale Ballarat, Nightingale Anstey and an affordable housing project in Adelaide, Nightingale Bowden. The landmark collaborative project Nightingale Village was completed in Brunswick.

It’s a busy environment, but Dan says he loves his new role. “It’s fun and challenging – I really enjoy leading a talented, hardworking team and empowering our people to grow.” He also appreciates opportunities to speak to and collaborate with like-minded people outside the company – residents, community housing providers, small business owners – and learn from their experiences.

When Dan isn’t working, he says his favourite thing to do is “not think about work. I’m at my best when I’m doing multiple things at a 7 out of 10, rather than one thing at a 12 out of 10, because otherwise I will burn out. I think most people are like that. We need to do different things outside of work hours, to regenerate.” Dan aims for a sustainable balance between the various parts of his life – which also include spending time with his partner and their baby daughter, and playing piano. “I bought a piano during lockdown. It’s a super challenging and all-consuming. When I’m there, I’m there, mentally pulling myself out of the chaos that can be my week.”

Looking ahead to the future of Nightingale Housing, Dan wants to continue to refine the organisation’s purpose so that as the housing market continues to change, Nightingale is responding to the people who need assistance the most. Following the success of Nightingale Bowden, he’d also like to see more projects interstate. Most importantly, he is focused on the long-term sustainability of the organisation, ensuring that Nightingale can continue to provide quality homes for many years to come.

Dan McKenna is an architect and the CEO of Nightingale Housing. He holds a Bachelor of Architectural Design and a Master of Architecture, both from Monash Art, Design and Architecture.

Chloe Gordon is a Naarm/Melbourne based writer and works on the communications team at Nightingale Housing.