Design sensibly, for the long term – that’s the advice from professor Helen Lochhead, the dean of UNSW Built Environment for residents of bushfire affected zones.

Following the destruction of more than 800 homes in the recent bushfires on the NSW south coast, urban planners and architects have warned about the elevated risk of reconstruction in these regions. However, Lochhead says it is possible to rebuild in bushfire affected zones so long as the designs are well located and compliant with the Australian Standard AS3959 Construction of buildings in bushfire-prone areas, and use best practice planning principles.

“In the majority of cases, we can design much better, more fire resistant, more sustainable and climate responsive houses, than what we are doing today,” Lochhead says.

Rebuilding should begin only after the site is assessed and confirmed as being suitable for reconstruction. According to Lochhead, locations such as remote areas with a single approach, surrounded by bush and without any support infrastructure or any potential for a fire break, are vulnerable and should be avoided.

“On the other hand, more effective solutions may require people working together. If you’re part of a settlement that was affected, communities can and should be part of the future planning and decision-making process so investment and reconstruction benefit the broader community. For example, it may be possible to build back safer community infrastructure and put in fire breaks in public spaces to protect housing against fire travel in the future.”

Key considerations for rebuilding also include ensuring adequate clearing around the house, self-cleaning gutters, fire resistant decking on verandahs, enclosed underside of buildings to prevent embers getting trapped underneath the floor, and adequate stored water, whether tanks, pools, ponds or dams in more isolated areas to fight fires if they do occur.

Lochhead also advises the use of fire resistant materials such as masonry, brickwork or rammed earth, and concrete as opposed to timber. Timber could be used inside rather than the outside of buildings in these locations, she added.

Observing that these design considerations are more sustainable and cost effective in the long term, Lochhead says, “We’re not promoting buildings that are beyond the reach of the average person. We’re just talking about designing sensibly, sustainably and for the long term, acknowledging the climate and environment which we live in.”

Lochhead is also President of the Australian Institute of Architects, which has provided free access to their acumen practice notes, a resource base for building in bushfire prone zones. The Institute is also providing pro bono architectural services for bushfire affected homeowners.

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