Design Anthology - Asia Pacific Edition
T he threat of bushfire has always been omnipresent in Australia, but there’s no denying that in recent years things have shifted up a gear, making bushfires a very real danger for up to six months of the year. Increasingly, discourse around bushfires — and climate change — is veering towards adaptation: how do we change our behaviours and lifestyle to accommodate this threat?
One man working to answer this question is research architect Ian Weir, a founding member of the Bushfire Building Council of Australia, director of Ian Weir Architect and senior lecturer at the Queensland University of Technology. Weir advocates a shift in design sensibilities away from the timber-heavy housing popular in regional Australia and towards a style that is sympathetic to an environment where bushfire is an ongoing threat. ‘It sounds facetious, but making a building bushfire resilient is essentially making it non-combustible,’ Weir says. ‘The fires don’t discriminate between bush and building, so what you want to do is make sure your house doesn’t contribute to the fire front.’
Weir wants to see a move towards materials like steel, metal cladding, concrete and noncombustible glass. In particular, he points out that decks are a major firetrap, since the destruction of homes during bushfires is largely due to ember attacks rather than the fire front itself, with embers accumulating on decks that line or enwrap buildings and windows.
Weir’s primary passion is conserving biodiversity. ‘I see architecture as the bridge and the frame for constructing our relationship with landscape,’ he says. ‘And in Australia, if you’re building in a bushfire-prone area, you’re building in a biodiverse area.’
He cites Glenn Murcutt’s Simpson-Lee House, in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney, as the gold standard in terms of bushfire design. ‘It’s all steel framing, and it has a skillion roof so embers can’t get in,’ Weir explains. The body of water in the front appears ornamental but has a practical function: the waters can be turned over for use by the local fire brigade to protect neighbouring houses. ‘It’s been used in three different fire events,’ Weir adds. The house also has a sophisticated sprinkler system, intended for saturating the surrounding landscape in the event of fire or embers.
The Karri Fire House in Western Australia was designed by Weir in collaboration with Kylie Feher Architect to meet high bushfireresistance standards, bringing together fireresilience principles in a forest setting. Built for a professional firefighter and an emergency nurse, the Karri Fire House — which is completely noncombustible — optimises many of the features introduced by Murcutt. According to Weir, one of the key features is that all glass elements are sliding, meaning the facade is dynamic. ‘The building also has three lines of defence: there’s an outside skin made from non-combustible fabric, a rockwool insulation and then an internal lining, which is gyprock,’ he says.
The house eschews curtains and thus privacy, though the surrounding eucalyptus forest provides some coverage and the closest neighbour is 50 metres away. If a fire was to approach, the first combustible material it would reach would be the bedspread, nestled deep inside the structure.
Weir’s next project, Camera Botanica, also investigates bushfire resilience in a biodiverse setting and involves relocating a 60-year-old timber house frame to Content Too, Weir’s study site at Point Henry in Western Australia. ‘It’s a little cabin where I’m sort of testing the whole approvals process, and opening up fifty per cent of the wall area to the landscape. It’s an extreme attempt to conserve the bush at all costs and make buildings really resilient.’