Design For Catastrophe – FIRE

Dragon of climate change

Building Your Resilient Paradise

We have unprecedented fires raging across Australia. So, we are pioneering new methods of disaster preparation and re-discovering the wisdom of the elders.

Our first priority is to redesign communities and their gardens for safer shelter for all living creatures. Secondly, design to retard embers, absorb the radiation and protect water supplies. Thirdly, find ways to quickly restore food, water and habitat. Ultimately, we create a better design.

If you are planning to build a new home, stop everything now. Above all, design it to be disaster-proof. Set it well into the landscape, have a safe bunker and angle the roofline so embers can fly over and not get trapped.

Re-design your garden to withstand drought, repel heat and store water. Naturally hydrated soils are more resilient to disasters such as drought, flood and fire.

Shock often stuns us into inaction. Design a better future.
You can change your impact starting from today.

Preparation Helps Us Stay Sane

When we design for the worst, we actually reduce anxiety and get to live in a state of pleasant surprise.

Reduce anxiety by planning for the worst outcome. A design for harsh times doesn't mean we must be constantly negative about the future.
Reduce anxiety by design

Deeper Understanding = Better Preparation

Past catastrophes have taught us some methods of preparedness, but not everything. Last year was the hottest year on record for many countries. We are playing by new rules. This is not the new normal, this is a rude start to a big climate shift.

bureau-of-meteorology-chart-shows-how-temperatures-soared this prompts us to design for a cooler future

Recent wildfires have set new design rules. These wildfires didn’t come from one direction like a wave of flames. They behaved more like storm clouds: tilting trees, turning them into flame throwers hotter than 1200k. Moreover, fire tornadoes known as Pyrocumulonimbus, shot live embers more than 30km ahead.

Combination of Threats

The Four threats during a fire emergency: Flames, Smoke, Heat and Noise

Ember attack, strong winds, thick smoke, severe heat and deafening noise combine to limit responses during a catastrophic wildfire. Burning roads and fallen trees trap people as they try to leave. In past years, some people have saved their homes by staying to put out the embers after the fire has passed. The intensity of recent fires has shown this to be dangerous unless you have a fire-proof bunker that meets the standard. In addition to the bunker you need enough oxygen, water, masks, food and the nerve to stay.

In fact, you will need food and water for days. The power will be down and you will probably have wildlife to tend and feed on your limited supplies. Best of all, be ready to share your limited resources with that neighbour who rarely talked to you.

Prepare to share your bunker with all your neighbours, pets and rescued wildlife
Get ready to share your safety plans

“Sergeant Shenton described driving through “8 kilometres of inferno” as he tried to make his way out on local roads “with 30 metres of flames on both sides of me. It was just a very poor decision to stay and I would never stay again.”

Prevention is always better than cure. Design a safer future.

Pebbles, a family cat in Buchan Victoria, sheltered in the outdoor pizza oven. His whiskers burnt, but he survived.

The combination of threats are met with targeted actions ranging from containment (in soil-wicking) through to shielding (inflammable thermal mass) and filters (for noise and ash)
Prepare. Alleviate. Recover. Targeted actions ranging from containment (in soil-wicking) through to shielding (inflammable thermal mass) and filters (for noise and ash)

Prepare Then Go

The traditional firebreak is not enough. At a minimum, we need to seal the building completely so no embers can get in. Firstly, the weakest points of a building are the roof and cavities underneath, especially under a wooden verandah. Secondly, shield the house from the intense radiation of the fire using either dense materials (big standing stones), rock walls or reflective shields (foil).

Model of Adobe and Pitt Homes in Mesa Verde
Model of ancient Adobe Homes – well insulated, fire resistant and made with earth. [Mesa Verde National Park]

Fireproof materials include simple materials such as earth. Fire proof homes fit the landscape to hide from the fire.

"The Fire Torment" by A Sampson-Kelly
Termites know how to build for cooling and fire-protection

Putting this knowledge together, we see a recurring theme: design with knowledge of the landscape.

Design Link

There is design link between passive housing, earthship technology and permaculture design practice. Passive housing insulates the home completely. Earthships connect with the dependable underground earth temperature.

Smart design looks different. It is possible to have a safe home. Fire safe homes fit the landscape, and positioned for good natural insulation and winter warmth.

Earthships are earth coupled, insulated and built with recycled materials. Author looking out of an Earthship in Taos New Mexico
Naturally warmed and cooled Earthship in Taos New Mexico

Re-Design or Retrofit Your Shelter

Design for bushfire resistant, earth sheltered house at Narwee
A bushfire resistant, earth sheltered house at Narwee, created by Baldwin O’Bryan Architects, which won the Bushfire Building Council 2015 Innovation Design award.

There are excellent designs by architects to reduce or deflect threats . These designs create homes with a smaller impact on the environment, and lower costs to build and use. Above all, they are durable and resilient.

Re-design Your Habitat

Forest Mitigates Climate

Forests mitigate climate. In fact, street trees help cool the hottest city in the world.

But during extreme fire threats, many people think if we remove the forests, we remove the threat. The common reaction is to increase back-burning, pull out shrubs and clear land with machinery.

But the truth is, the forest is one of the most important tools we have to fight heat, hold water in the landscape and fight climate change. Getting rid of the garden is not going to help keep the temperature down or maintain moisture. People who had only grass around their homes had it burst into flames. A home surrounded only by rock may be more fire-proof but it will also be extremely hot, devoid of wildlife. Jane Goodall warns about the dangers of humanity being divorced from nature.

Australian aboriginal people have specialised fire management techniques called cool burning where the fire extinguishes itself, and the grasses and trees are not structurally damaged. Not all the area is burned at once, it is burnt in small strips at a time. Even insects can escape the burn.

What Plant is Truly Fire-Retardant?

For years people have talked of ‘fire-retardant’ plants. But, anything that was once alive, will burn in extreme temperatures. As the fire intensity rises we need to re-design food gardens, add radiant heat blocks (these can be mud-brick or cobb walls). We also need more areas for wetlands. Surprisingly, wetlands and boggy soils sequester greater amounts of carbon than forests.

Design to quell embers. Living much can also be edible. Sweet potato has edible tubers and the fleshy leaves are edible.
Sweet potato has fleshy leaves that are edible

We have to question everything and, due to the urgency, we need to collaborate. Whilst we know “Plants with high moisture or salt content and/or low oil content will burn more slowly“, we must now devote funds and time to plant research.

Can succulents and living ground covers help extinguish embers? Lets explore further how deciduous trees with low oil content absorb radiant heat at these unprecedented temperatures.

Consult with your community to prepare and respond to a warming future.
Community Consultation

Involve Your Community

Members of your community doesn’t have to understand the likeliness of a catastrophe for you to help to prepare for them. Consultation builds better preparation. Help your community to find ways to prepare that are simple and effective. For some people, this means trailing ideas, for others it means facilitating conversation. For researchers, it means building the body of knowledge for survival.

Coordinate a working group to help prepare homes helps the elderly and less-abled. Prepare to act when others are busy elsewhere. Some preparatory works, when booked by a neighbourhood, cost less than for individual home call-outs. Furthermore, community consultation enables us to develop strategies for local adaptation

every successful individual knows...achievement depends on a community

During a disaster, a resilient community is able to:

  • reduce the negative effects of hazards on people, ecosystems and property
  • Establish coping mechanisms in stages (safe zones, evacuation centers, temporary accommodation and long term recovery support

After a disaster, a resilient community is able to:

  • recover from the hazard with minimal disturbance to the health (including mental health) of the people and animals
  • rebuild a functioning community system, including power, water, food, fuel, health and education provisions
  • develop from experience
  • design with experts and in consultation with community

Design builds security for a community and the natural world that supports them.

Paul and Padma at International Permaculture Conference in London
Collaboration is vital for survival

Passive Housing & Beyond

hot, cold or passive house - which house is yours?

Less cost, better living

How much was your last heating or cooling bill? Would you like 90% off? And as a bonus, would you like less climate change with that? Passive Housing cuts costs for heating and cooling by 90%. And it also enriches our health with more natural light. Permaculture design steps beyond by actively connecting with nature and community.

Passive Housing Comfortable: Indoors and Out

If you live in a region with extreme cold, then you know the value of insulation. As expected, the cool European alps are where passive architecture was first developed. However, in the wake of the recent climate shock, there’s a fresh demand for energy-efficient buildings.

For the first time, Paris suffered 37c in the night after a day of 46c. But, the solution is not as simple as reaching for the air conditioner. Every air conditioner pumps out the heat. As a consequence, the city gets hotter. Actually, the best solution requires less effort and a lot less energy. Finally, we have a standard for making comfortable homes: Passive Architecture.

Transparent Technologies

There are thousands of passive houses around the world. And every passive house looks different. As a result, you wouldn’t recognise one if you passed by. Except that, the occupants may look nice and cozy.

The success of the Passive House movement lies in the simplicity of the technology, expert data, shared knowledge, and supportive associations.

When Passive Homes was first designed the results were surprising. In fact, a passive house requires very little additional energy for heating because our body heat, lights, and appliances are sufficient. Instead of investing in furnaces or air conditioners, passive housing invests in better construction and design techniques.

Nature knows how to make Passive Housing - says the bear
Passive houses are insulated, have no thermal bridges and good ventilation systems

Principles of Passive Housing

There are a few basic principles:

Firstly, the Passive house has a good orientation. The main windows greet the morning sun. Then when the hot midday summer sun comes, the eaves provide cover. Much later on, in winter, the low sunlight streams under these carefully positioned eaves.

Insulation, thermal bridge, leg warmers are valuable parts of passive housing
Insulation and blocking of thermal bridges are vital features of passive housing

Secondly, these homes have superior insulation. There are no air leaks.

Thirdly, the design blocks thermal-bridges. Thermal bridges are areas that accidentally transmit heat. Like the legs of a sheep that protrude from the fluffy body. Or the large thin ears of an elephant. Of course, big floppy ears transmit heat well. so, to protect an elephant from the cold, we would insulate the big thermal bridges – starting at the ears.

Where are the thermal bridges in a building? Long rafters are good examples of thermal bridges in a building. A rafter that runs from indoors to the outdoors will transmit heat. Likewise, heat is lost at the corners of the building. Especially where the insulation is thin. By redesigning the way the walls connect, passive houses minimise thermal bridges. Luckily, the plan to reduce thermal bridging doesn’t always incur an additional cost.

curtains cover thermal bridges. Thermal bridges: lintel, doorstep, window frames
Quick retrofit curtains cover thermal bridges: lintel, doorstep, window frames

Lastly, Heat Recovery Ventilators (HRV) are an important part of passive building design. Unlike opening a window to get fresh air, HRV units bring in fresh air without losing heat. Natural HRV units are being developed and the information shared openly. Ventilation systems occur in nature in termite mounds and trapdoor spider chimneys.

termites are naturals at insulation and ventilation
Termites build insulated termite mounds with good ventilation systems

Let’s use Recycled Materials

Good insulation and high durability do not need superior materials. Although specialist materials are readily available, so are simple technologies to reuse recycled materials. Passive homes do not need expensive materials. But they do require awareness. home-made earthships are built with old tyres. And in Guatemala, children build schools with recycled drinking bottles. Windows can be made from bottles filled with water. Similarly, The liter of light reuses old drink bottles. This project has revolutionized homes in the favelas of Brazil.

The Look and Feel

The historic Maximilianeum houses the German Bavarian Parliament. It is a powerful example of large-scale passive architecture. This project demonstrates creativity and adaptability. Recent improvements in insulated glass have sparked a range of creative passive designs. Whilst these buildings embrace natural light, the ultimate goal of passive housing is to use less energy overall. 
How we survived the mini-ice age without air conditioners
Living through the mini-ice age of 17th Europe required quick adaption, insulation with natural materials and heavy clothing. Detail of Thomas Wyke’s painting of a Thames Frost Fair in the winter of 1683/84.

Fossil fuels and Nuclear power are recent energy sources. For generations, people across the globe lived and worked without energy-devouring devices. Even during the mini-ice age of the 17th century, survival depended only on fuel from the forests. The houses were smaller with heavy curtains, and even heavier clothing.

Traditional igloo drawn by MILES KELLY - well insulated and minimal thermal bridges due to the curved shape
Traditional igloo drawn by MILES KELLY – The igloo is well insulated and has minimal thermal bridges due to the curved shape

Growing affluence in developing countries is stimulating higher energy use. As a result, this increased energy use is accelerating climate change. Fortunately, India and China are leading this low-impact technology.

Green passive buildings in China
Pas­si­ve Hou­se pro­jects in Bao­ding

Government Initiatives

Soon China will host the upcoming Passive House Conference. In Gaobeidian, near Bejing, the largest energy efficient settlement in the world will be opened. Likewise, throughout Canada, local, regional and nationwide governments are promoting energy-efficient architecture. Best of all, commercial Passive House buildings provide better work conditions and lower manufacturing costs.

Retrofit Hurdles

Creating a more energy-efficient home requires investment and commitment. Investing upfront to save money later is impossible for most people. Many families are struggling to pay current energy bills. The bills rise as the heat rises. But job security is falling. Therefore, it is harder to commit to a home long enough to improve comfort levels.

The second hurdle for retrofitting a home for low energy use is the issue of connection to society. Commitment helps us overcome the cost and time involved in a retrofit. Because commitment grows from a sense of community, good design builds a connection with others. Otherwise, the passive house entombs us in quiet isolation.

Insulation not Isolation

Today, passive house designs are developing better connections with the outside world. Although passive buildings shelter us from the elements, our connection with nature and others is valuable. Fortunately, Biophilic design principles can enable the residents can reconnect with nature. Beyond this, Permaculture principles actively connect the residents with the landscape, surrounding environment and community.

The passive house insulates us from the weather, the biophilic house reconnects us with nature. Ultimately, the Permaculture house is actively engaged in the landscape

This article was co-authored with Gary Ashton REALTOR® Nashville, TN, USA

our graduates are leaders
One of our graduates, Philip Dolan has a site where you can learn more about Energy Efficient homes and Biophilic design: