Good friends of ours live at the bottom of Mount Dandenong, in the Eastern Melbourne Suburbs. They are located in a bush fire prone area and have a state forest backing their property.
So, each year when there was an extreme fire danger forecast, they would sit and wait at home, scared, ready to evacuate at any minute, if a fire were to start close by.
However, just recently someone from the local fire brigade came over to inspect their home. And I really could not believe what they told me.
Their weatherboard house has been painted with a certain type of paint (sorry, I cannot remember the name) which is highly flammable. Meaning if embers would ever get to the house their home would light up in an instant. Similar to when clothes that are made out of synthetic fabric come in contact with fire. The house would catch fire so quickly that they might not be able to make it out alive.
This means each time there is an extreme fire danger our friends have to pack all their belongings (or at least the most important things) and leave their home until the conditions improve for the better.
Imagine that? Several times each summer you have to pack your belongings and your kids and leave? And what happens if a threat arrives suddenly when you are not home? This is unthinkable.
Instances like this should not exist.
Our homes should not be built to light up like a firework if struck by embers. They should be able to give you a fighting chance to survive a fire inside if you don’t manage to flee in time.
I have been asked recently if I could write up a blog post about how to combine energy efficient and sustainable construction with bushfire regulations. I kind of think this should not be a question of either one or the other. In my opinion, there is just no way around it. We have to drastically change how houses are built. They have to be more resilient.
Forget about the 6-star ratings. A house that has 6 stars barely complies with the legal minimum requirements for energy efficiency. It is just a theoretical number that does not really take the thermal comfort or the performance of the house into account. It is relatively easy to get a 6-star energy rating certificate even when using single glazing. However, the problem is, there will always be so much cold air coming in through the bad performing window resulting in a draught, as cold or hot air can easily travel through the glass. This weak point means that you can never ever feel really comfortable inside the house without the continuous use of mechanical heating or cooling. No matter what the certificate says. But that is a whole different storey, I could go on about this forever…
You have to look at the house at its entirety. Every element has to work well, there can’t be any weak points anywhere. No exceptions or loopholes in the system. And the actual required performance of the insulation and windows has to improve drastically. Similar to other countries, we need much stricter regulations for all the parts that form the thermal envelope.
And of course, we have to look at airtightness and thermal bridges. It is still not comprehendible to me that the current regulations, when it comes to air-tightness, are close to non-existent. Lightyears behind all other industrialised nations. Even the USA is 20 to 30 years ahead. Seriously??? How can that even be?
I think a massive change has to happen inside the entire industry but also with the consumer. And for all that to happen we need education. Knowledge is the key! I found most people have just come to terms with how badly the houses perform. That it is normal to have the heater running constantly and to have high energy bills. Most people have never experienced real thermal comfort in their life. So why would they even ask for it?
We have to start educating school kids even at kindergarten age about climate change, how and why we need to conserve energy and our resources.
We have to change the curriculum of all our trades. For building designers, architects and everyone else working on the construction site or working on the details. Building physics, energy efficiency and basics about thermal bridges and airtightness have to be a core subject. Everyone needs to know and understand this.
We also need talks, books, blog posts, Instagram stories and all the resources to educate the consumer. Everyone needs to know how it should be done. We need the consumer to demand better homes!
And lastly, and possibly most importantly, we need the government to step up. Sadly, without changes to the regulations and laws there will always be people who take short cuts. That keep doing it the easy or cheaper way. Unless the industry is forced to change, not much will happen.
And while I do love nothing more than designing energy efficient and sustainable homes, I do know that for the majority of people it is just not affordable to get a custom designed home or engage a custom design builder. Meaning that those with the least money or the people that live in rental properties will struggle the most. They are the ones that live in homes that are way too cold in winter and way to hot in summer. And those homes will be everything BUT bush fire resistant.
So, we need big changes. No matter how much money you earn, or whether you are a doctor or a pensioner, you can live in a resilient home. A house that can not only provide shelter and a place to sleep but can also protect you from the ever harsher getting environment.
In the next blog I will talk more about the actual build requirements for each BAL level. Stay tuned.