Experts say damage to properties as a result of bushfires can be mitigated if we rethink the way we design homes in bushfire prone areas.
The New Year has started on a devastating note for many Australians. Unprecedented bushfires are ravishing large parts of the country, resulting in catastrophic loss of life, wildlife and property damage.
At the beginning of 2020, the Insurance Council of Australia indicated that the estimated insurance bill had already surpassed a total of $700 million.
According to Dr. Ian Weir, a researcher at Queensland University of Technology who studies bushfire responsive architecture, there is an ever increasing misconception that we can’t do anything to prevent houses being lost to bushfire.
“Australians need to (re)think beyond the paradigm of the timber hideaway in the bush and realise that being able to inhabit such sites is an extraordinary privilege – and with that privilege comes the onus of building bushfire resilient homes – rather than modifying that landscape to suit their preconceived and outdated ideas,” he said.
Dr. Weir is a member of the independent network of bushfire experts of the Bushfire Building Council of Australia (BBCA), a national, independent, not-for-profit organisation that strives to improve community resilience through innovative building solutions and community-wide resilience projects.
The BBCA provides a Bushfire Resilience Star Rating program to recognise and reward well-prepared properties and communities. A property that achieves 5 Star Bushfire Resilience from the BBCA has reduced the likelihood of house ignition to less than 10%.
According to the BBCA there is work to be done: An estimated 90% of homes in bushfire prone regions in Australia are not resilient to bushfires.
“The first principle should be to eliminate combustible construction materials – which the Australian Standard for Building in Bushfire Prone Areas (AS3959) for example, still allows,” said Dr. Weir.
“We are finding that across Australia we are relying on defendable zones of cleared vegetation around houses far too much. This approach facilitates the building of very low resilience homes that simply can’t withstand extreme and catastrophic fire conditions.
“Houses need multiple ‘lines of defence’ so using just a lightweight non-combustible skin (e.g. colorbond) is not enough if applied directly to combustible timber wall or roof framing. Indeed gypsum plasterboard is exceptional as the last line of defence as the interior lining,” he said.
“To adapt ourselves and our architecture we first need to (re)consider bushfire as a catalyst for creativity and innovation rather than fear and withdrawal. “
Dr. Weir was involved in the Karri Fire House project, a family home in a magnificent Eucalyptus forest in Denmark, WA. In the design risk mitigation was achieved through resilient design rather than an active response to bushfires, such as vegetation clearing.