Insights > Construction


As temperatures get warmer and natural disasters more prevalent, sustainable building practices are no longer enough – the architectural profession needs to build for a new reality of fires, floods and heat waves. Abi Millar speaks to Thai landscape architect Kotchakorn Voraakhom, and Australian bushfire architect Dr Ian Weir about the challenges of building in the midst of impending climate disaster.

he year 2020 was, by common consensus, straight out of a disaster movie – and it started on a suitably apocalyptic note. The southeast Australian bush was on fire, forcing thousands of people to flee and sending plumes of yellow smoke as far afield as New Zealand. During what became known as ‘Black Summer’, the inferno ripped through 2.4 million hectares of woodland. At least 34 people lost their lives, more than 3,000 homes were destroyed, and three billion animals were killed or displaced. The 2019-2020 bushfire season, the worst on record, followed on from an exceptionally hot and dry year. In effect, the bush had become a tinderbox. It also set a ‘hazard cascade’ in motion. Air pollution levels soared, and as rain finally fell on the charred landscape, the

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soil erosion led to polluted drinking water and floods.

It was a tragic start to the decade, but sadly it was no anomaly. Along with the Australian bushfires, wildfires are now a staple part of life on the American Pacific Coast. There have been floods, typhoons and hurricanes. This summer, Pakistan reached temperatures ‘hotter than the human body can handle’, while a ‘heat dome’ lurked ominously over Canada, killing around one billion marine animals in an ecosystem unused to 40ºC heat. All the evidence suggests that extreme climate events are here to stay – and despite our fastidious attempts to cut waste and offset carbon. In this context, there is something feeble around the now ubiquitous ‘net zero’ rhetoric, in which corporates pledge to cut

carbon emissions with a view to staving off a future crisis. By many measures, that crisis point has already arrived.

An eye on the clock From an architectural standpoint, this poses some serious questions. Sustainable building practices are all well and good – but what about if disaster can’t be averted? Can the built environment go further than cutting emissions, and actually protect humans from the flooding, fires and heat waves that have become a fact of life? Dr Ian Weir, a research architect specialising in bushfire-resilient architecture, has been pondering these questions for some time. “As far as I know, I’m the only architect in Australia that does

exclusively bushfire-resilient housing, and I've been working on that for about 25 years,” he says. “I’m now 57, and as an architect, I feel like I'm only just getting started.” Weir grew up on the south coast

of Western Australia, in one of the most botanically diverse corners of the planet. He was both fascinated and repelled by the land clearing practices that took place there, in which acres of trees and shrubs were burned down to make space for farms. “I saw it cleared before my eyes in a really devastating fashion,” he recalls. “There was a certain excitement around the huge bulldozers and the massive fires, but at the same time, I had this innate sense that it was just extremely brutal. We really felt the effects of the land clearing not so long after, when we had droughts and floods.” As is now well documented, land clearing has significantly altered the regional climate patterns, not least by reducing rainfall. This contributes to the drought conditions that exacerbate bushfires, creating a continental climate crisis on top of the global one.

Nonetheless, land clearing practices are still the preferred choice for state governments, who see land clearing as the best means of saving lives. Their reasoning is straightforward, if short-termist – with less vegetation around your house, it’s significantly less likely to catch alight. Weir, however, disputes this premise. Quite aside from the climate-altering effects of land clearing, he argues that trees keep a moist microclimate around the house, meaning the landscape is less prone to igniting from sparks and embers. At least 85% of homes lost to bushfire actually start out with an ember


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