12 May 2011 – Queensland, the state of floods and cyclones that devastated property, has become Australia’s laboratory for sustainable building, for creating resilient homes, offices and structures in the face of climatic volatility.

In a radical scheme, Grantham residents who had confronted a deadly mountain of water in the floods, have been invited to apply for land swaps to higher ground after the small southeast town was declared the first designated reconstruction area under the new Queensland Reconstruction Authority’s powers. The local council is working with reconstruction authority to create the land swaps.

Green Cross Australia, the non profit group working with developers, insurers and the Property Council of Australia to encourage sustainable thinking, plans to launch a Harden Up portal in August.

The scheme is a world first. Using social media, it aims to makes people aware of the history of the weather patterns in their region, helps prepare them to protect their homes, families and communities and encourages them to share their insights. People will be able to tap into the portal to assess the weather patterns in their suburb or town over the last 150 years, using data from the Bureau of Meteorology and CSIRO.

They will be taken on interactive multimedia tours and encouraged to share their insights through a page on Facebook.  The exercise is not only about creating awareness, it’s about empowering communities and giving them the know-how and information needed to create more resilient housing.

Green Cross Australia has also run Build It Back Green https://builditbackgreen.org  workshops that seek to reduce household greenhouse gas emissions, improve community resilience through good design and engagement, invest in green school infrastructure, invest in commercial, government and public buildings, invest in green infrastructure projects and  develop solutions for low income residents that reduce energy, water and waste.

Significantly, the Build It Back Green model is now being used by 7000 Victorians whose homes were destroyed in the Black Saturday fires. It is also now being taken up by residents in Perth who faced the bushfires there in January.

Mara Bun with Graham Newton from the Queensland Reconstruction Authority at a Build It Back Green Workshop9

Green Cross chief executive officer Mara Bun says Queensland has become the “test bed of thinking about resilience.”

“We think this could change the world,’’ Bun says.

“What we are about is correcting an informational asymmetry. The insurers, all levels of government and developers have the information. We want to wake up the punters.”

Once they have the right information, she says, they can take steps to creating resilient homes and buildings.

Building something that’s resilient is more than just engineering. It goes beyond replacing plasterboard walls with masonry where the water flows off quickly, or building houses on more solid foundations, or ensuring combustible materials are kept away from property. That’s the easy part.

Resilient buildings and infrastructure are created through planning and preparation. It’s about anticipating and being ready for the flash floods, rising seas and bushfires. That requires changes in planning laws and building codes.

Allen Kearns, deputy chief of CSIRO Sustainable Ecosystems says there needs to be a distinction between engineering resilience and the adaptive capacity of people. In the end, he says, it is all about the ability of people to cope and adjust.

“You could have a resilient building material like corrugated iron or you might have bricks that are more resilient to flooding, but the planning as to where those buildings are located and those roof types and wall types will be even more important,’’ Kearns says.

“Communities with good information access will do better in a crisis.”

Alistair Coulstock

Yasi should be a benchmark for preparation

He says the amount of preparation that went into getting communities ready for Cyclone Yasi should be a benchmark for other less spectacular but more frequent weather events. The fact that many buildings in south east Queensland withstood the cyclone and nobody was killed is testament to the planning and preparation processes that authorities had gone through, using their experience from previous cyclones.

With the freakish storms that have ravaged Sydney and Melbourne and with bushfires, we need to look at the work that went into preparing towns for Cyclone Yasi, Kearns says.

“These are events which are below the radar compared to the big cycles but the costs of them are likely to be significant when you think they will be affecting much broader geographies,’’ he says.

“It’s this slow creeping change that causes maintenance costs, scheduling problems and ultimately you will start seeing systemic failure of infrastructure as these type of events become more frequent as the damage costs starts to mount.”

Alistair Coulstock, senior ecologically sustainable design specialist at engineering firm Aurecon, says the key to resilient building is to focus on long term issues like climate change and peak oil, and plan around that.

“It’s not just about the buildings themselves,’’ Coulstock says. “From a planning perspective, we need to start looking at the long term trends.

“In every part of business in western society, we have a very short term focus on getting returns and unfortunately , that doesn’t give us flexibility in managing long term trends.”

He says the Federal government needs to provide a national framework for councils. Ultimately, that could mean changes in planning processes. “It would be a collaborative piece to look at the long term trends, and turn them into strategies and plans for each local government environment,” he says.

Does that mean buildings would become more expensive? Yes, he says, but so would everything else with climate change and peak oil.

Many agree with the work of Green Cross: the public needs to be empowered with the knowledge to act. As the events of Cyclone Yasi showed, it’s about getting the information out there so that people are better prepared.

Caryn Kakas, executive director of the Property Council’s residential development council says the first step to creating resilient buildings is to map out areas most at risk to floods, storm surge, rising sea levels, and bushfires.

“What we haven’t  done very well as a country is substantially map out the risk and explain it to communities so that they can understand their risk and that local government  can understand their risk and therefore plan for it,’’ Kakas says.

“It’s very difficult to identify the risk you have and proactively build for it if you don’t understand what your risk profile is.

“In some cases, it’s about making sure the infrastructure around it can handle those risks like drainage systems or making sure you have levees and other fortified infrastructure around to ensure you are okay.

“In other cases, it’s about making sure the building is resilient to say a changing environment where we don’t know how great the risk factor is going to be.”

Indeed, getting the infrastructure right could be even more critical than the building itself, she says. A property, no matter how resilient, will be hit hard when roads are flooded and drainage systems overflow.  “The infrastructure has a substantial flow on effect,’’ she says. “It doesn’t matter what we do with the buildings, if the infrastructure isn’t right, the buildings are substantially impacted by the increased risk profile.”

She says planning decisions “should be based on science and certainty so that we can actually plan for and protect against potential environmental risk”.

And that can only happen with sufficient preparation and information. “The ideal scenario is that the Federal Government takes the lead in this area to make sure local governments are provided with data that’s needed and that we are using that national mapping so that they can make planning decisions around science,” she says.

She says the fact that towns like Tully, Innisfail and Townsville withstood the impact of Cyclone Yasi is an example of how forward planning for cyclones creates resilience. The same would apply for other weather events.

“Any of the buildings that were built there after the last changes in the building code from about 10 -20 years ago, they withstood it,’’ she says. “There was no issue.

“We had done the modelling, we had actually done the science and actually understood what was required of buildings.  The homes that predated all of that were the ones that were damaged

“We had the emergency preparedness because we understood the risk profile of that region.”

Still, the Property Council of Australia has stopped short of recommending more radical changes. While supporting the work of Green Cross, the executive director of the council’s Queensland  division Kathy Mac Dermott says there is no need to change building codes and planning laws. What about long term planning and preparing communities for climatic shifts and sudden changes in weather patterns?  The market, she says, will take care of it.

“The market will demand the resilience and some of it will be because it makes perfect sense to do it,’’ Mac Dermott says. “You don’t want to keep having to repair and rebuild after natural disasters.

“I don’t think there will need to be changes necessarily. Developers will respond to it and do it because that’s what their tenants and owners will need.”

She says there is no need to act until the flood inquiry brings down its findings.

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