House Design

building houses for bushfire protection expert advice

Written by The ReReport

It”™s been hard to escape the devastating impact of bushfires in recent years. The loss of lives and property in regional and urban areas across NSW, Victoria and the ACT has been significant, prompting reviews of already stringent codes around building in bushfire-prone zones.Director of community resilience for the NSW Rural Fire Service, Corey Shackleton says, put simply, houses built to meet the requirements of the Planning for Bushfire Protection regulations stand a much better chance of survival.media_cameraThe Blackheath renovation project has light, modern interiors. Picture: Nick Bowers“We do a lot of post-fire surveys and look at the houses that survive and the ones that are well designed and protected from ember attack and radiant heat perform a lot better,” he says.Last month the latest Australian Standard 3959 was released, the national standard governing bushfire regulations, which will come into effect in May 2019. It lays out the requirements for construction and materials in bushfire-prone areas.Corey says most people living in bushfire-prone areas are aware that their property may be at risk, although it may come as a surprise to some Sydneysiders who back on to national parks, reserves and other bushland.“We don’t come across a lot of people who don’t know at all but sometimes they will find that the area they live in is at higher risk than they thought — and they’re not prepared for that,” he says. Making an early call If you do think your home may be at risk and you’re considering rebuilding or doing alterations, Corey says it’s worth calling in the experts early.“Getting someone in early on and getting advice could save you a lot of heartache later on,” he says. In the past, some homeowners have been caught out, getting their plans through council only to find that they don’t meet the RFS requirements.media_cameraIt”™s worth investigating the history of bushfires in your area, what direction they took and their intensity. Picture: 7 News“The government is working hard to make the approval process as streamlined as possible,” he says.Seeking the advice of a bushfire consultant and an architect experienced in bushfire design in the early stages can save a lot of time and money in the long run. Check recent history Architect Nigel Bell from ECOdesign Architects says it’s worth investigating the history of bushfires in your area, what direction they took and their intensity.Generally, fires travelling uphill move faster and are more intense, so don’t expect that you will be able to build at the crest of the hill, as tempting as it may be to take in the view.Rooflines should be uncomplicated so that they are less likely to accumulate debris — or falling embers.Creating a buffer zone around your house with less flammable plants and no overhanging trees is also good practice.media_cameraThis generous family home designed by Distinct Innovations is in a BAL 40 zone.Inevitably, building in a bushfire-prone area will cost more, mostly because of the need for specialist windows, doors and shutters.While it can feel like an impost, executive director of building policy at the HIA, Simon Croft says ultimately it’s about saving lives and property.“The provisions are there so that people can get to a place of safety,” he says. “It’s really about that first fire front passing and being able to get out in time.” More:; Banishing the bunkerArchitect Nigel Bell says knowing your Bushfire Attack Level (BAL) should be your top priority, preferably before you even buy your house or block of land.“If your property is bushfire affected, the location, construction materials and details of your house need to match the official BAL rating,” he says. “(If you’re thinking of buying a house near bushland) you would be well advised to check the BAL — and the financial consequences of that rating.”The NSW Rural Fire Service offers a basic online service where you can enter the address of your property and it will tell you whether the site is deemed to be at risk of bushfire attack.If the search results reveal that it is, the local council can provide you with further information on your level of risk, including your BAL rating.media_cameraHomeowners often underestimate the ferocity of a bushfire until they face on.There are six BAL ratings, which refer to the risk of ember attack, exposure to radiant heat and direct flame contact. They range from low-risk through BAL 12.5, 19, 29, 40 and FZ (flame zone). As the numbers increase, so does the risk and the requirements — and the costs to build or renovate.According to home insurance company AAMI, the estimated additional cost for BAL 12.5 to BAL 40 is between $16,000 to $56,000, while BAL 40 is between $19,000 to $73,000.Houses in Flame Zones — the highest risk category — could cost an additional $65,000 to $277,000, to meet requirements.Nigel says for some, that represents most of their budget and he has seen owners abandon their plans because they couldn’t afford it. More: Rebuilding the dream from the ashesIn some parts of Australia, bushfire has caused significant loss of life and property.Architect Nigel Bell spent six months working with the community at Marysville, Victoria, following the Black Saturday fires in 2009 when 173 lives were lost and more than 2000 homes were destroyed. When you’ve lost everything, he says it’s natural to want to rebuild what you’ve just lost. But it’s not necessarily the best response.“The people who replace them quickly tend to want to fill in that hole so they build a home almost the same as the one they lost,” he says.“But It’s usually people who take their time to rebuild who will build something different and often better.”He says for most of us, it’s hard to imagine the ferocity of a fire storm, until it happens.“You have swathes of Sydney that are highly bushfire prone and almost no one is prepared for the real emergency,” he says.media_cameraThis house in Springwood, in the Blue Mountains, was destroy on a 33 degree day with strong winds fanning bushfire flames.“The RFS has done good work to get people better prepared but they don’t believe the intensity until they’ve been through it.”Architect Ben Wollen from Anderson Architecture says there’s a lot to consider before rebuilding, so take your time.“People just want to build what they used to have but their insurance may not cover that,” he says. “The most successful projects look at what they need and maybe downsize the work.”Whatever your plans, make sure your insurance policy covers you for all possibilities — even losing the whole house.Designs on staying safe and stylishIt’s hard to believe but this house at Mt Riverview in the lower Blue Mountains designed by Luke Van Jour from Distinct Innovations is subject to a BAL 40 rating.Characterised by simple roof lines and flame- resistant external materials, it’s a gracious family home with views of the neighbourhood and a thoughtful landscaping plan.Under the regulations, there are two pathways to approval: the Development Application process where the proposed work must meet the Planning for Bush Fire Protection requirements or Complying Development, a faster approval process where the plans must meet specific criteria.media_cameraArchitects suggest taking your time to rebuild after a fire to improve, and perhaps downsize, your design. Picture: Nick BowersComplying Development is only available to properties with BAL ratings of low risk, 12.5, 19 or 29. Properties in BAL 40 or Flame Zones must go through the Development Application process.Architect Nigel Bell says there are some basic principles for designing in bushfire-prone areas, although these will vary according to your BAL rating. These include. ● Keep your building form simple and low to minimise the risk of flying embers settling. ● Put building services such as gas lines below ground to minimise the risk of explosion. ● Install a substantial rainwater tank — not made of plastic. ● Keep up house maintenance, clearing gutters and trimming shrubs. More: Your bushfire checklistIn the lead up to this year’s bushfire season, it’s time to put your house in order. 1 Get stuck into the garden. Creating a buffer zone is key to protecting your property so trim trees and shrubs, mow the lawn and remove anything next to the house that could burn. 2 Check your hoses and make sure you have a reliable water source. 3 Discuss an escape plan with your family, including when to leave, where to go and how you plan to get there. If you decide you want to stay, make sure in advance you have all the equipment you need to defend your property.media_cameraAnderson Architecture prove a bushfire protected home can still be comfortable. Picture: Nick Bowers

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