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Contributor to Housing
One summer, 17 million hectares of land, 3094 homes, 34 lives.
These are the shocking statistics of the catastrophic Black Summer bushfires, which shrouded swathes of NSW, Victoria, Queensland, ACT, Western Australia and South Australia in smoke, flames, horror and despair between November 2019 and February 2020.
Sadly, while the scale and ferocity of that fire season drew unprecedented attention – and generosity – from across the globe, it was not an isolated event. Small rural townships become news headlines almost every summer as bushfires wreak havoc, leaving hundreds with their homes and livelihoods in tatters.
In many instances, particularly in small communities, those involved in rebuilding the homes of others were themselves affected. Tony Rettke, HIA member and owner of Rettke Builders, is based at Tathra on the NSW South Coast. One Sunday afternoon in March 2018, wildfire ripped through the suburban streets of his town. Amid the chaos and confusion, he believed his home was among the casualties.
'We had about 65 homes destroyed or damaged that day,' Tony says. 'It got into the middle of town and just jumped from house to house.' In his street, eight homes in a row burnt down. Directly across the road, his home – miraculously, and despite what he'd been told – remained standing.
Tony says the day after the fires, six people arrived at his office wanting him to rebuild. 'We only did two of them because we're only small.' He describes the rebuilds as stressful. 'They'd lost everything, including irreplaceable things, and they were in rental accommodation. There were lots of tears. It was terrible.'
However, while the loss after a fire is almost incomprehensibly immense, those who do have the capacity to rebuild (and sadly, that certainly isn't everyone) also gain an opportunity. In this case, two 50- or 60-year-old homes have been replaced by what Tony describes as 'very energy-efficient, beautiful homes that take in amazing views'.
That homes rebuilt following bushfires are often more energy-efficient than their predecessors is an upshot of the BAL (Bushfire Attack Level) ratings, which mandate minimum design and building requirements based on assessed fire risk.
These include elements such as high-spec glazing (e.g. 6mm toughened and double glazed for BAL 40), flame-resistant cladding and construction materials, and minimising gaps in the building envelope. These are considered good practice in general and will deliver a solid, durable, and very liveable home.
'Along with practices such as installing heavier insulation, building to the BAL 40 code definitely offers ongoing benefits,' says Wayne Campbell, HIA member and owner of Camson Homes.
Wayne is all too familiar with BAL standards, having lived through the fires in Kinglake, Victoria, in 2009, where the tragic loss of 173 lives prompted a revision of the code. 'That was a learning curve. Whenever there was a bushfire, people weren't savvy about what to do; they were waiting around until it was too late to get out. Now we have warning systems in place, and people are more prepared,' he says.
Recently, Camson Homes rebuilt one of the 116 properties lost to fire at Wye River, Victoria, on Christmas Day 2015. Designed by architect Andrew Simpson, the contemporary Y-shaped house hugs the steep contours of the land and captures sweeping views across Wye River and Separation Creek. Undeniably a thing of beauty, it was designed and built to comply with BAL 40, which Wayne estimates added about 10–15 per cent to the total cost.
'The challenge is meeting the extreme tolerances,' he says. 'You couldn't have more than a 3mm gap anywhere. We had to be confident that the house would be able to withstand the same fire conditions the original home went through.'
The 14-month build was both complex and arduous. The site, as well as much of the town's infrastructure – roads, gutters, driveways – was massively degraded, and getting trucks and machinery in was difficult and slow. Because all the vegetation had been razed from the hillside, there was a high risk of landslip on site. 'It had to be heavily engineered. The foundations had to go to six metres deep – enough to withstand a landslide,' Wayne says.
Cobargo, located in the NSW Bega Valley, was among the worst-hit regions of Black Summer, with four lives lost and 70 homes destroyed by a ferocious blaze on New Year's Eve 2019.
Several months after the devastation, Jeremy McLeod and Tamara Veltre of Breathe Architecture convened an incredible effort to rebuild the home of local RFS firefighter Dave and his wife, Barbara. Jeremy designed a new home for the family pro bono and sourced donations of everything from paint to windows. HIA member Jason Davis of Davis Construction South Coast oversaw the build.
'Dave and Barbara care for foster children, and Dave is Cobargo's town Santa,' Jason explains. 'They had lost everything, and we really wanted to get them into their new home by Christmas 2020.' To this end, Jason – and all the trades he works with – dropped everything to get the 'Santa Cobargo Home' built. Even the Bega Valley Shire Council came to the party, waiving fees and fast-tracking the DA.
Unfortunately, COVID-19 lockdowns and border closures threatened to derail the tight timelines. Getting materials to site 'was quite a mission', Jason says. The windows, for example, were manufactured in Melbourne. 'Factories were shutting down, and the freight companies couldn't come to deliver past the border. It was a bit of juggling. Normally we put windows in at frame stage, so we had to jump off that and do the roof and other bits and pieces to keep going.'
Despite the setbacks, the build was completed within six months. The Zincalume-clad home, which complies with BAL 29, is a warm and welcoming delight – a reflection of the generosity of spirit with which it was built. Dave and Barbara were 'very excited' to enjoy Christmas in it.
'It was really good to get them back in there,' Jason says. 'They were so fantastic to build for and couldn't be more appreciative.'