Fire and the Gadi House - Architecture for the Future

Danyon Torpy - Science & Technology

Elevation

The recent ‘Black Summer’ bushfires in Australia, which saw significant loss of life and homes, has brought into question the renewed role architecture can play in dealing with climate change, the severe weather events it will bring, and the impacts it has and will continue to have on the landscape. For architects, this requires the very serious task of interrogating the limits of design for new forms of domesticity, and the subsequent innovation this would bring to the built environment.

One might ask, why not just design and build homes in less at-risk locations? Well, unfortunately for places like Sydney - which is in one of the most bushfire prone regions in the world - rising house prices and the city’s impending capacity has meant those who wish to reside there, be it for work or leisure, are forced into the surrounding fire zoned bushland with all its associated risk. Areas like those in the idyllic Blue Mountains are a popular example of this, with extreme fire danger ratings and tight building controls for all those with intentions to build there.

One method of combating the forces of fire and climate change is to employ an approach used by the First Nations people of Australia that seeks to establish symbiosis with country rather than work against it. Contrary to the ideas around bunkers and fortification, this approach transforms looming disaster into an event that once mitigated, is beneficial for both the land and those living with it.

The Gadi House - named after the species of grass tree endemic to the site that flourishes after bushfires - is a prototype for accommodating this experience. Life that centres around the landscape and fire has been practiced for hundreds of thousands of years by the First Nations people,  however it is one foreign to the Australian domestic realm. This house seeks to reorient the home around fire, celebrating it both inside and out as life for the residents would revolve around fire all year-round.  Fire, as described by Bill Gammage in Dark Emu (Pascoe, B. 2018) is “a friend and totem”, something that shapes the land and makes it the most beneficial version it can be for those living with it. The house welcomes fire like said friend: not closing up and fighting it, but rather embracing it, through materiality, program and site interventions.

Because of the site’s location in the Blue Mountains, fire is used for warmth in the cooler winter months, but also now for cooking, for firing and making things such as pottery and tiles in the workshop, for site maintenance and controlled back burning, for site rehabilitation including banksia germination, for relaxation via a sauna, and for health purposes. This brings the element to the forefront of everyday life within the home and seeks to educate those on how bushfires can be managed the correct way, the same way performed for centuries within Indigenous practice.

The design consists of a series of site interventions or buffer zones that act as an inconspicuous defensive mechanism against bushfires in the future. These culminate around the hearth and fireproof bedroom core that becomes an adaptive ‘bunker’ for the residents when bushfires approach the house. All house programs are connected and radiate around the hearth and utilise its varied functions.

The site located more specifically in Bilpin is in the most severely rated fire zone, and therefore requires these defensive mechanisms to reduce the devastating impacts of fire to the landscape and its inhabitants - both wild and domestic. These buffer zones include obvious things such as roads for fire truck access, shutters, fire rated mesh screens for ember protection and sprinkler systems, but also introduces more innovative methods of mitigation including a native fire terrace made from banksia and gadi trees, a charcoal filter water catchment system and rain garden, the fireproof brick core and a thirty meter back burning radius.

Backburning is a strategic method of wildfire management that uses low temperature fires to burn any dead undergrowth which would incidentally act as fuel.  This is often done by the community and led by the elders with the soundest local endemic knowledge on weather conditions and fire behaviour to reduce the risk of it destroying the natural environment. Backburning at a domestic scale still requires the same care and participation, and could become a community event that seeks to educate those with similar properties at risk. Simply backburning around the home once every year could reduce the threat to life greatly. This is also a cathartic and therapeutic experience for those involved, which sees wildlife return to the site once it is burnt almost immediately.

The building is categorised in two ways, things that are fireproof/waterproof and things that are flammable.  This duality allows for half of the house to be exposed to sprinklers and fire without impacting the life and valuables inside the other half – the brick bedroom core. This core, buried under and surrounded by rooms that are deemed of lesser value by insurance, is made up of adjustable rooms and a bathroom for when residents are forced to retreat for however long it takes for the fire to pass through. The structure of the house also sought inspiration from the banksia seed pod and uses louvres and retractable windows to open up at the presence of fire, and significantly reduce the destructive impact the fire could have on its integrity. The damage from bushfires often tallies upwards of $50,000 on an affected property, not to mention the cost to life, and so any steps taken to reduce this potential destruction is welcome - be it fire resistant/retardant materials or those cheaper to replace.

An attitude towards resourcefulness is extended upon within the house and its materiality. Brick is often the only material left on a site razed by bushfires, and the project seeks to recycle and reuse this versatile material in multiple ways to provide character and texture to the house. Bricks are used for walls and the hearths but also for rubble in the retaining gabion walls, and to colour the concrete a red hue when crushed and added as aggregate.

The building would become a hub for work, living and leisure, and would force those who live there to make the most of the resources and potential of its location. Fire would become a tool for living, transforming the threat of bushfires back into symbiosis with the natural landscape and ecosystem. Home would continue to be a place for learning, and one that is challenging and productive but makes the most of these beautiful sites. 

The Gadi House is just one example of how design can be used to address the increasing problems the housing industry will face as a result of global warming. This home reiterates the importance of the landscape over things such as aesthetic standards and re-establishes a meaningful connection that extends beyond the building, and into the lives of those who exist there. The impacts one has on the environment could be literally observed on the site over time, bringing positive change and perspective to their life and future as a whole. This is all whilst keeping in mind the severity of the location and unpredictability of fire, with emergency safety measures in place that would protect the residents if aspects of the design were to fail. Bringing these notions into the Australia domestic realm provides its challenges but allows climate change to be excitingly fought from within the home, at a personal level and beyond the limits of building sustainability.

Written by Danyon Torpy, Architecture Masters Student at the University of Technology Sydney

 

Acknowledgments:

I would like to acknowledge the traditional and continuing custodians of War’ran (Sydney), the D’harawal, Dharug, Eora, Gandangurra, Gur-rin-gai and Yuin people. I pay my respects to the elders past, present and future.

Special mentions to:

Apocalypse Now! co-ordinated by Deborah Ascher-Barnstone

University of Technology, Master of Architecture Program

Christian Hamspon, Co-Founder of Yerrabigin

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