Kate Cotter is the CEO and Founder of the Resilient Building Council. And she is incredibly driven to solve some of the biggest challenges architecture, design and construction are confronted with: namely, how to build better, more resilient buildings that can face the increasing natural hazards of this country. From humble beginnings, the not-for-profit organisation is now going from strength to strength, having a tangible impact on people across Australia. We sat down with Kate to learn about all things past, present, and future for the Resilient Building Council.

What is the Resilient Building Council – and how did you become interested in building resilience in the first place?

The Resilient Building Council’s main objective is adapting the built environment in order to build sustainable communities. We measure the performance of buildings, so we can help people understand what to do to adapt.

My drive to start this project came from personal experience. I live in an area that was affected by the Black Friday bushfires in 2009, and, at the same time, my parents were trying to build in another region down the coast and wanted to make their home really resilient. I found that both the people recovering from the disaster, and people trying to build new dwellings, all had the same problem: they wanted to know what to do and what would work.

It seems like such a simple question, but all the information and assistance is fragmented, contradictory and confusing. So I thought, could we measure the performance of buildings? Could we do that through rating programmes, so people could understand it easily? And then could we link that to insurance, mortgage finance, and all the other things? Because everybody benefits if we've got more resilient communities.

In essence, we wanted to think about what kind of mechanism would really help everybody. And so I just grabbed every expert I could find – I think they just all want to leave a legacy of applying their research in a way that really makes a difference. So, really, it's just a collection of the best brains that we could find to try and help people.

And did you have any experience in the industry before that?

I have a Master's in business administration and I've been running a vineyard, and so my work was impacted by bushfires. Really, everywhere I went, both personally and professionally, disasters were affecting my life. I come from a family of engineers and my parents have built a few houses, so I had that, plus I always had a genuine love and appreciation of architecture. But this was just a pretty important problem that I thought needed solving – so I decided to put my hand up and have a go.

Seems like a natural progression! Tell us about the Bushfire Resilience Star Rating and app.

So we started back in 2014, building this ratings model for bushfire, and we took that to both government and some industry sponsors who all gave us a grant and some sponsorship money to turn that into something we could scale and get out into people's hands. We were just trying to find ways to translate science, put it into the hands of everyday people, so that they could do something with it. So we built a self-assessment app – it's free, anyone can use it – and we co-designed that with lots of communities who were recovering from the 2019/20 Black Summer bushfires.

It was great to be able to work with those communities and see what they need and how to make that really practical. And the ratings have now extended to flood, storm, cyclone, heatwave, and are integrated with energy efficiency ratings. That work has been funded by the New South Wales and federal governments, and is coming out in April as software for assessors to use.

And getting down to the nitty-gritty of resilient construction, what role does material selection play in building resilience?

Materials obviously play a really important role. So what we're basically measuring is the robustness of the building in the context of its environment, including its local hazard risk. And the goal is to get buildings to last a very long time, that protect people, protect their homes, protect their livelihoods and their businesses.

That means, we're trying to find building systems and methods and materials that can really withstand both today's risk and future risk. And we're trying to think about cost in a different way; to look at it over the building lifecycle – not just that upfront spending, but also the financial implications if a building has to be completely rebuilt down the line or repaired all the time.

Materials are important in looking at various hazards and different types of impacts. Traditionally, we've looked at things in silos. So the way we do things in terms of building codes, and even our trades and experience, might be just for bushfire, or just for flood, or just for energy efficiency. So we're really trying to bring all those disciplines together and explore great solutions for multiple hazards and energy efficiency and sustainability at the same time.

Doing that is not always straightforward. Sometimes there are trade-offs, and conflicts, and that's where all the technical work happens right at that intersection. That's a fascinating area to be in as we try to bring all that thinking together.

And what are the material considerations you need to factor in when looking at a resilience rating?

For example, for bushfires we want a non-combustible external building envelope. That's critical. So that would include things like steel and fibre cement sheeting, and some of the more resistant timbers. We’re also looking for contingencies. The way we measure the performance of a building is how much contingency is there, so we look beyond the building envelope and into the structure – which might be the roof structure and the wall structure. That’s where we also want non-combustible materials. So we look to non-combustible insulation and steel framing, and back to some traditional methods like rammed earth, and straw bale, and mud brick, and all the things that have those sort of several layers of redundancy in them.

And then the detailing is also really important. So you can imagine for all the hazards, we're trying to keep out, keep out embers, we're trying to keep out wind, and we're trying to keep out water out of homes. So detail is really important too.

What about when it comes to embodied carbon? Does resilience have an impact there as well?

We've been doing some research to measure the embodied carbon abatement from improving resilience. So back to the point about considering a building's whole lifecycle – at the moment, resilience isn't really factored into how we measure carbon. So we got University of Wollongong’s Sustainable Buildings Research Centre (SBRC) to model and measure the embodied emissions abatement from our bushfire resilience rating pilots, which meant actually retrofitting homes and then saying: ‘Right. What's the embodied carbon? Do we need to add some more resilience to that building? And how much carbon does it avoid if we don't have that loss and damage in the future?’ So, part of the work of the ratings is to be able to measure that and to be able to provide an input into how we actually consider, measure and account for embodied carbon.

It’s really interesting stuff. The disciplines have traditionally been quite separate before we started to think differently about carbon, emissions and sustainability. Resilience was just sitting somewhere on its own. Now that thinking is coalescing, and it makes a lot of sense to consider these things holistically.

So many things to consider and so many moving parts – have you put all of this into practice anywhere?

Yes! The Fortis House project is the embodiment of the rating. It's a way to demonstrate how you actually build something that would get a high resilience rating for the hazards. It was a project out of the South Coast of New South Wales, following those Black Summer bushfires – and then they had floods, and landslip – so it wasn't just one hazard. So we brought all those multi-hazard experts together to figure out some designs that people could use, that we made available for free, and worked with some fabrication suppliers. The objective was to enable people to get the highest resilience rated home quickly and a bit more affordably.

And, obviously, there was a great need there with people rebuilding – it often takes five, six, seven years to get back on your own land – and we wanted to reduce that time while still making the buildings way more resilient than the minimum standards.

Amazing, so what's next on the agenda for the Resilient Building Council?

Our focus in the short to medium term is really on expanding these core pieces of work, and the ratings are sort of central to that. We’re focused on industry training and accreditation, getting assessors, builders, trades and designers skilled up in how to get this multi-hazard resilience and sustainability. Architects and designers, in particular, have got such an important role to play because they really set the tone for what our future looks like. And we really just want to provide that technical expertise, so that wherever we dream those buildings are going to go, they have got that sort of fundamental strength behind them.

We're also looking at expanding into other countries, and particularly being able to help some of the more vulnerable nations in our region. There's just so much need for this kind of work. So, for us, it's really about building upon the foundations we have created with ratings and those practical housing solutions – and giving us all a better chance of getting through the next few decades.