Protecting your grand designs from turning to ashes

By Helen BeringenOctober 11th, 2021

As we head into another bushfire season, a new online guide offers advice on building and retrofitting homes for bushfire resilience.
Bushfire burns dangerously close to residential property

Protecting your home from bushfire is becoming more important in Australia. Image: HighExposure/Flikr

Do you have grand designs for your dream house in the hills? Have you thought about how to make this idyllic abode resilient to the ravages of a bushfire?

For homeowners living in bushfire-prone areas, this task of building or renovating for resilience requires navigating building codes and standards.

Working through what is required can be complex. Often a focus is on minimum standards. But how can you aim for the gold standard?

As Australia’s national science agency, and a leader in bushfire resilience research, CSIRO has collaborated with The University of Melbourne and the Victorian Country Fire Authority to develop an online tool to help people navigate this complex space.

The guide was produced with funding provided by the Australian Government in partnership with the States and Territories under the National Partnership Agreement for National Disaster Resilience.

Bushfire ready

As we head into another bushfire season, the Bushfire best practice guide offers a range of advice on building and retrofitting for bushfire protection.

Aerial view of bushfire-affected homes. Image CSIRO

Aerial view of bushfire-affected homes. Image CSIRO

The guide helps homeowners who want to build or retrofit a house or garden to:

  • understand that bushfires are a natural part of the Australian landscape
  • understand how bushfires interact with homes and gardens
  • use principles of design to reduce bushfire risks (including injury and the loss of life)
  • understand ways to build on the minimum standards set by regulatory controls.

“Often bushfire building design and landscaping are considered separately when, in fact, there are so many opportunities to have them complement each other,” says Justin Leonard, leader of CSIRO’s Bushfire Adaptation team.

He says the guide, which applies bushfire risk management advice for residential building and landscape design, is applicable for homeowners across Australia. It also includes specific additional advice based on regulations for Victorian homeowners.

“It can be difficult to work out the best ways to build while navigating building and planning regulations that are focused on what the minimum requirements are to be allowed to build,” Mr Leonard says.

“It’s not only useful for compliance, but to explore upgrade and retrofit measures to improve the overall risks.”

Choose your own adventure

“The online self-assessment tool is linked to a new bushfire attack level calculator, taking you through the steps you need to take on your path to regulation process in your area,” Mr Leonard says.

“The Best Practice Building Guide is a bit like an app, where you enter the details of your own situation and it sends you on your own adventure, referencing future reading and pathways for those with particular interest. It’s useful for people who are interested in understanding the bushfire risk to their location.”

“If you are building or extending a house that triggers a building permit, you need to comply to regulations around bushfires if you live in a bushfire prone area. The fundamental question in the back of my head is understanding what my risk is in my situation.”

The best practice guide concept was first tested through a project with the Queensland Reconstruction Authority in 2020, with the development of a Bushfire Resilient Building Guidance for Queensland Homes.

These guidelines were developed in collaboration with Queensland Fire and Emergency Services, Department of Housing and Public Works, Queensland Treasury, Local Government Association of Queensland, Queensland Building and Construction Commission, Livingstone Shire Council, Scenic Rim Regional Council, Queensland University of Technology (Dr Ian Weir), James Davidson Architect, and Barracuda Design.

A sketch of a typical house and its vulnerability to bushfires. Image by Sam Thompson

A sketch of a typical house and its vulnerability to bushfires. Image by Sam Thompson

Practical information

Guide collaborator Professor Alan March from The University of Melbourne, says the guide provides practical and accessible information for people’s own context and design needs.

“This compilation of information is such an amazing resource,” Professor March says.

“Bushfire regulations are very effective at reducing risks. And one of the great things about this guide is that it deals with one of the big problems urban planning faces – how we navigate the rules and to cut through to improve on them in useful ways.”

three people in hazard uniform walking towards property surrounded by burnt bush

Researchers at a property at Strathewen that survived the ‘Black Saturday’ bushfires.

Building resilience

Mark Holland from the Victoria Country Fire Authority says the guide supports people to improve on the minimum standards set by planning and building requirements and ultimately build community resilience.

“This is an exciting resource to build community resilience,” Mr Holland says.

“Working with CSIRO and The University of Melbourne is a perfect fit to support our mission to protect lives and property and ensure Victorian communities are prepared for and safe from fire. The guide shows the do’s and don’ts and shows the complementary safety measures we can build into them.”

Bushfire survivor Malcolm Hackett says every home is going to be different and requires individual assessment, so the guide provides a framework and the most up to date information to start that journey.

Mr Hackett lost his house at Strathewen, at the base of the King Lake ranges, Victoria, on February 7 2009, in the 2009 Black Saturday Fires which took 27 lives, and destroyed 88 of the 130 houses.

“One of the things I learnt is that fire exploits any flaw in your plans. And anything can be undone by one weakness,” Mr Hackett says.

“It’s a serious business that requires you to do some research and some reading, then you have to have a plan and practice it, to see if your assumptions are realistic. This new guide really provides an excellent pathway to doing that research and that planning. For new homeowners, it’s a great place to start, and for existing home owners, it’s a terrific place to cross check your current state of preparedness.”

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