Bushfire Proof Homes – Can we build safer homes to withstand bushfires?Tips and Advice
Devastating fires have impacted on much of the country. More than 29 people have died, and more than 2,000 homes have been destroyed.
We’ve always had bushfires in Australia, but not like the size and intensity of the ones we are currently experiencing.
And it’s possible that it’s only going to get worse in the coming years. With the predictions of a drier climate producing longer and more dangerous fire seasons. In the face of all of this, people are beginning to ask: “Can we build bushfire proof homes?”
Before we go any further, I want to make a couple of things very clear. Firstly, I am making general statements in this article which cannot, and should not, be relied upon as advice. If you want my advice about your specific circumstances, call me.
Secondly, I am not going to say that it’s possible to make bushfire proof homes. And here’s why …
The temperature at the base of the flames can be as much as 1100°C, with temperatures in the ‘reaction zone’ reaching as high as 1600°C.*
To put that into perspective, steel melts at 1370°C.
So, I am not going to say it’s possible to build bushfire proof homes.
What I am going to talk about, is creating fire-resistant designs that can hopefully offer high levels of protection in the event of a fire. Homes that may be able to survive a fire if luck is on your side and all other conditions are favourable such as cleared land, available fuel loads etc.
Is my home at risk?
A lot of people who live in large towns and cities may feel that their homes are safe from bushfires. That perhaps they are far enough away from bushland to not be at risk. But in these changing climatic conditions can you be so sure?
Look around you, do you have a lot of vegetation nearby? Are you close to bushland/scrub? Brisbane is a reasonably ‘green’ city, there are large parcels of bushland and scrub. And certainly, in the outer suburbs there is very much the risk that in the right (or should we say wrong) conditions, bushfires could potentially pose a risk.
Of course, your home doesn’t need to be directly bordered by bushland to be at risk. It’s important to understand how homes ignite in a bushfire.
How do homes catch fire?
The most common cause of building ignition is through embers. Embers can cause spot fires well in advance of the fire front but are also a risk after the main fire front has passed.
They cause ignition through contact with combustible materials such as dry garden mulch, timber decking or fences. But during extreme bushfire events they can also pass through gaps in roof cladding, or through broken windows, gutters and eaves etc, causing the home to ignite.
Direct flame contact can also obviously cause ignition however this is less common than ember attacks.
Radiant heat is a major concern with approaching bushfires. It is one of the greatest risks to human life, with the potential to be deadly up to 200m in front of the fire front in extreme cases. Radiant heat can super-heat components of the building which can, in turn, ignite from flammable gases. Both radiant and convective heat work to dry out and pre-heat vegetation and materials, making them far more likely to burn.
What steps can I take to make my home safer?
Now everything I’ve said may make you feel like there is nothing that can be done. But that’s not the case. You need to be aware that no building will be 100% safe in all fire conditions. We’re probably never going to have truly bushfire proof homes. Regardless of how fire resistant your home design is, you should have a written fire plan in place, and you should follow the advice to leave early if there is an imminent threat of bushfire.
However, with that said, there are some design measures that can make your home more fire-resistant.
Selecting fire-resistant building materials is a great place to start. This is particularly true for any decking around the home, that is a major concern regarding embers. Bushfire resistant timber, doors and windows can form part of your home protection plan.
A key to protecting homes is stopping embers from entering the building itself. Most bushfire plans will involve blocking up downpipes and filling gutters with water to prevent embers from starting fires in the roof cavity and walls. But in extreme fires, it’s not uncommon for windows to be blown out due to the high winds and temperatures generated by the fire itself. Appropriate screening may be able to help in these circumstances, acting in much the same way that a fire screen does around an open fire. The screens can also stop insects and can be visually appealing.
A lot of people ask me about sprinkler systems on roofs, and whilst these can be successful, keep in mind you need access to a lot of water to keep them going during a bushfire event. There’s also the matter of how to pump the water through them when the power inevitably goes out, or potentially your pumps catch fire. So, whilst they can be part of the design mix, they should not be considered a silver bullet.
A novel approach is to create an earth roof, in a lowset home. Here, having a lawn area as the roof of the home can offer advantages in the event of a bushfire, as even though the grass may catch on fire, there would not be the entry points for embers found in homes with traditional style roofs.
Fire bunkers and cellars
A lot of people talk about fire barriers and bunkers, or even cellars. And whilst these seem like attractive options, care needs to be taken with their design.
Various materials in and around your home could give off a toxic smoke when burning. Often these fumes are heavier than air causing them to sink to ground level. If your bunker or cellar are not air-tight those fumes could be fatal.
Any design also needs to be mindful of exits once the main fire front has passed. It’s important that they be designed and positioned in such a way that the exit can’t be obstructed by falling trees or other debris.
There are so many factors that go into creating a bushfire resistant home design. New homes need to meet the National Construction Code (NCC) guidelines, and any home design in high-risk areas would benefit from the advice of a fire engineer or bushfire-hazard assessor in addition to our expertise as architects.
Remember, over 29 lives and 2,000 homes have been lost in these fires. Bushfire dangers are only set to get worse in the coming years. And whilst I doubt we’ll ever see truly bushfire proof homes, I cannot stress enough the importance of getting the right advice and the right home design for anyone who is concerned about future bushfire threats.
If you do want some advice, call us today and let us help you get the best designs for your family’s needs.
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DION SEMINARA, DION SEMINARA ARCHITECTURE
Hi, I am Dion Seminara, practicing architect and licensed general builder for 20 years as well as an environmental sustainable design (ESD) expert. I graduated from Queensland University of Technology (QUT) with honours, QLD in 1989. Registered as an architect in 1991 and registered as a builder in 1992, I am also a fellow member of the Australian Institute of Architects (AIA). Having received 12 ArCHdes Residential Architecture Awards, LJ Hooker Flood Free Home Design Award and the 2016 AIA Regional Commendation for Public Architecture, my expertise with both residential renovation (to all types of houses, especially Queenslanders, 50s/60s/80s), new contemporary homes and luxury residences has earned me a reputation as one of Brisbane's architectural specialists in lifestyle design architecture, interior design and landscape design.