Bushfires are a terrifying reality of life in the bush. We recently received yet another humbling reminder of this as multiple fires burned across our corner of the world.
It was after the 10th anniversary of 2009’s Black Saturday fires, one of Australia’s worst ever bushfire disasters, that we chatted to the affable Chris Clarke, a chap that lost his newly-completed Callignee home in the inferno.
After such an immense loss, Chris bravely decided to rebuild his Callignee property, incorporating a more fire-resilient design, and he did so on the very first episode of the Australian edition of the Grand Designs television series. The challenging, yet revitalising, process was laid out to the viewers.
While Chris no longer owns Callignee II (you can stay there via Airbnb and Riparide), he was open to talking about his favourite aspects of the design, the future of regional design (it’s relocatable) and his appreciation for the presenters of Grand Designs.
Can you please share what attracted you to the site in Callignee?
The Callignee I property was untouched, with a winding track that crept up to a slightly cleared pocket of northerly sun. Full of wildlife on the ground and black cockatoos and koalas in the mature gums, a two-level home would give the feeling of being in the treetops.
What, or who were your inspirations for the design of Callignee II?
Two people supported me to give it a go: a long-lost friend Shelley, who shared the dream of Callignee I, and designer Sean Hamilton who agreed the site was ‘not dead yet’.
What aspect of the design are you most proud of?
The light and indoor/outdoor connection. The house had an amazing ability to throw light through the entire building. The home was designed long and thin for the occupants to rise with the sun, have filtered sun during the day and for low, long evening light pour in through the west lounge. Light would bounce off the lap pool and rainbows were created throughout the home.
The home connected to the environment. We used the same limited palette of materials inside and outside, giving the impression of bringing the outside in. The rustic, recycled steelwork and new corten rust steel connects to our wabi-sabi approach of art-style living. The corten skin had a life of its own, which we enhanced by waterfalling stormwater down in cascading buckets in an appreciation of both elements: the downpour of rain and protection from fire.
You’ve since left Callignee, was it a difficult decision to leave a home that you’d put so much of yourself into?
Callignee proved to me that so many people wanted a tree or sea change. Grand Design Australia and Grand Designs UK have created hundreds of interested people looking to live in a more connected environment, not just across Australia, but around the world.
While in Vietnam, I was lucky enough to be working with a modular factory where they were building corten shipping containers. I was able to build the same housing design more quickly, more affordably and make it intermodal, so it was able to be shipped or distributed anywhere a shipping container can go.
A four module concept replaced the Callignee II design, and my life flipped entirely towards the future of standardising design and manufacturing, and I personally just had to live in one. Therefore, Callignee II had done her job and I was easily able to move on.
As it’s 10 years since the tragic Black Saturday fires, do you feel that homeowners are constructing homes that are more resilient to the threats present in the Victorian bush?
I believe that homeowners already face a huge hurdle in obtaining their own home, maintaining it and paying for rates and facilities. Are we constructing homes more resilient to the threats? Potentially, yes, but at what additional cost to homeowners and rural communities?
Personally, I was forced into a new Bushfire Attack Level (BAL) wildfire category (Australian construction standard) that made a number of homes overcapitalised and made living in these rural areas unaffordable. The option of removing native vegetation wasn’t allowed, nor did we want to. If you want a tree change, it forces homeowners to cut down the trees, without removing native vegetation, or move to a cleared site, town or city. Not the result I was looking for, so I moved to living on the water and designed our units to be connected to water or land.
SWALE focuses on modular housing solutions. Why has this been an interest for you, and what advantages does modular housing provide?
Modular is the answer to affordable rural housing. There’s no substitute to standardising design, manufacture and the processes.
The real interest in modular for me is our ‘One Vision. One Product. One Process’ philosophy:
— Everything we do fits into one vision. They connect to each other, they fit the environment and are sustainable as a concept and in liveability.
— Our products are made from the same parts in a straight line manufacturing facility, designed so that products are compliant to numerous building categories and climate zones. They are tested in four orientations for thermal compliance.
— The process of real estate is one that requires change. Modular homes are able to be relocated within 24 hours and are an answer. There is a nice middle road to transient living that is far from the trailer homes in the US. It’s one that allows homeowners to own liquid assets that are manageable and feasible for our modern life. Homes that can grow as your family grows, with the ability to snap a branch off your family home to then give your kids the best start in life, with no restrictions to where that may be.
Chris, given your experience and education in building, where do you see the future of regional/rural house design?
Great question and there’s a lot to this answer, but similar to the products we require, the answer needs simplicity.
The future of regional/rural housing needs to be affordable and that is not just the design process, it’s the entire life of the dwelling. Our business model is ‘making the most of underutilised land’. I don’t understand why our land is so restricted and expensive; we don’t live in Singapore, and underutilised land surrounds us with only this approval process holding us back.
Farmers could do with second and third incomes but the real estate system is happy to watch them struggle. Modular can open the gates to affordable land prices through owning your own home and leasing land through land sharing or community titles. Regional economies could profit from the change, especially as off-grid systems are becoming more affordable.
As life is changing so quickly, our lifestyles are changing. There’s less security in jobs and relationships, two big factors that tie us to one location. Owning your own home, one that can be reduced, relocated or recycled at the end of its life, is more efficient.
Steel is such an underutilised product. Once mined from the environment, there is no stronger, more durable or relocatable product than steel. Better still, steel can be recycled at the end of its life. Your life savings are not eaten by white ants, burnt, rotted or washed away. Steel can become a piece of art or be a steel body that can be covered with cladding repeatedly, like fashion, leading to a life of efficiency without contributing to the throwaway society that we can no longer afford.
There is a proliferation of housing in Gippsland, how can we entice more of these homeowners to build more sustainably?
Change is inevitable. You accept it or hold it off as long as you can. Sustainability is inevitable. Unfortunately, for change people need to believe in it, see other people doing it and for it to be affordable. Housing is already unaffordable. Adding to that by spending more on a green sticker is not high on people’s survival lists.
Energy has been the biggest issue, and battery technology will soon make this affordable. Homes that not only have the ability to power themselves, but charge your car as well. We have a wonderful country and region, with all this sun and minimal pollution. We need to treasure that and convince more people to go lean and green. Change will not happen until we have coffee and talk about how someone else did it.
Even though it is quite some time ago now, how was the experience of being on Grand Designs Australia? Is host Peter Maddison as invested in the project as he appears on screen?
We run a growing modular ecotourism business and a big part of that is education. Not by lectures or reading a book, but by demonstration and being a part of something that’s life-changing, sustainable, freeing and bigger than self-interest. The Grand Designs episode touched so many souls and showed there is another way of living, even when the odds are against you. For that, I am deeply grateful.
Both Peter and Kevin understand this journey and the passion of people wanting to change their lives by putting a roof over their heads. There is so much more to a home than a ‘Grand Design’ and I can honestly say that I didn’t fully understand this until that process was over.
For me, Peter and Kevin are educators on the inspirations and traps involved in property. They were both fully invested in my home, but it’s the viewers who must invest in change. For that, we need these presenters of innovative dwellings to promote more alternative, affordable solutions and guide a new understanding into a greener, more efficient way of living.