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$vuetify.icons.faPhone1300 650 620

Avoid, adapt, mitigate

Avoid, adapt, mitigate

Kristin Brookfield

Deputy Managing Director

2022: the year of the flood

Australia’s climate has always delivered its share of extreme weather. Young and old will recognise Dorothea Mackellar’s famous poem, My Country, with its dramatic verse describing ‘a land of sweeping plains, of ragged mountain ranges, of droughts and flooding rains… her beauty and her terror, the wide brown land for me!’ 

These lines reflect the place we live and the reality of how harsh our climate can be at times. 

In 2020, following the tragic 2019 bushfire season, the weather changed once more – but this time we experienced buckets of rain. And three years on, it hasn’t stopped. 

Repeat flood events have impacted metropolitan Sydney, northern NSW coastal areas and greater Brisbane. More recently, major flooding has impacted Victoria, Tasmania, and once again, parts of NSW. 

The frequency of these natural disasters and their impact on existing cities and homes has become a focus for governments collectively – federal, state and local. There are two key questions now for the housing industry with which to engage. What might change in the way we develop new suburbs and build new homes, and how do we make the homes we’ve already built more resilient to these severe weather events? 

Equally important to ask is: what is the right tool to address the risk, and who is responsible for doing the heavy lifting?

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With floods impacting much of the east coast over the past two years, the resilience of our cities has come into sharp focus. How should we build homes that can withstand future natural disasters?
Managing the risks from natural disasters is a fundamental role of the planning system

 

The frequency of these natural disasters and their impact on existing cities and homes has become a focus for governments collectively – federal, state and local 


Where we build

Managing the risks from natural disasters is a fundamental role of the planning system. The zoning and planning system has always been used to manage where and what we build. 

For housing, the zoning and planning process identifies where it will be too risky to put houses because of possible bushfire, flooding or rising sea levels. 

The decisions made every day by local councils across Australia about ‘where we build’ are based on historical maps using weather patterns and engineering knowledge to estimate what impact an event will have on homes. The recent floods have called into question the accuracy of these maps. 

HIA expects that some areas previously zoned for housing may need to change, meaning houses may not be approved in the future. This is something we experienced a decade ago when sea level rise emerged as a risk. There is also a likelihood that some homes previously not required to adopt specific design standards for a risk may need to be built to a higher standard. 

For HIA, our long-held position is that mapping must be based on accurate, scientific information and coordinated at a state or regional level. As the debate on where we build continues, we will continue to work to ensure governments are delivering this outcome. 

For HIA, our long-held position is that mapping must be based on accurate, scientific information and coordinated at a state or regional level. As the debate on where we build continues, we will continue to work to ensure governments are delivering this outcome
The zoning and planning process identifies where it will be too risky to put houses

How we build

Improving the resilience of new homes opens the door to a discussion on the adequacy of current and future building codes and standards. The focus here being the rules on ‘how we build’. 

The National Construction Code (NCC) has contained minimum standards addressing most natural hazards for many decades. The code currently covers: 

• Bushfire risk
• High rainfall and hail
• Flooding
• Cyclones 
•  Heatwaves (through energy efficiency)
Heat island effect (through energy efficiency).

After each natural disaster the building code and Australian Standards are generally in the firing line. In decades past, this may have been justified. But today, the NCC has been proven time and again to be set at an appropriate level to limit damage to homes and to provide safety for residents if they choose to stay rather than evacuate. 

Post-incident investigations continue to show that homes built today, to the current code, suffer less damage than older homes and generally withstand the disaster. For homes built prior to 2010, it would be fair to suggest the same cannot be said. 

Despite this, it is important to acknowledge that the building code has never been used as a tool to make homes ‘bullet proof’. In a disaster, buildings will fail and the code is intended to ensure that they withstand the impact for a sufficient period of time to allow the occupant to safely escape. That tenant is now under scrutiny.

HIA’s view is that the building code, and the standards that accompany it, should remain focused on the safety of the people in the buildings.

Property protection, or more concerningly asset protection inside the property, should not become a core principle of the code. The building code is the wrong tool to be addressing resilience since it relates to location and land use. For example, larger gutters on a home will do little to protect a home from overland flooding during heavy rainfall.

Improving the resilience of new homes opens the door to a discussion on the adequacy of current and future building codes and standards
HIA’s view is that the building code, and the standards that accompany it, should remain focused on the safety of the people in the buildings
Mitigation: can we afford not to? 

While new land releases and housing can be seemingly well managed to address natural disasters, what about the majority of Australia’s existing housing stock? These homes are built to past building code standards and located in areas that may today be considered inappropriate. 

Moving forward, this will be the bigger challenge – how do we effectively and affordably mitigate the risk for the 11 million homes we already have? 

HIA believes a greater focus is needed on governments taking steps to mitigate the risk now and into the future. Millions of Australians buy or rent homes having good faith that they are in the right place and in a home that has been built to withstand what may come. Sadly, the extreme weather being experienced today is calling this assumption into question. 

Relocate or rebuild? 

The hard consequence of this is that we expect to see more discussion centred on whether to rebuild or relocate once a disaster has occurred. 

In 2011, around 100 homes in Grantham were relocated with support from local, state and federal government. This year, the same is occurring following the NSW and Queensland floods, with local and state government supporting homeowners to relocate.

This approach is the right one to take. To assist impacted homeowners move to a safer place because they, through no fault, have found their homes will continue to be affected by extreme weather events. 

Over the next few years, as societal expectations evolve, much will be expected of the zoning, planning and building system in responding to extreme weather. The housing industry will be seen as a key player in responding.

The key to achieving real outcomes will be to choose the right tool for the right risk. HIA is engaged in discussions with the federal, state and territory governments about how to better manage resilience. But the answers are not easy.

Published on 22 November 2022

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