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Design research projects responding to bushfire risk in peripheral urban communities

    Dayne Trower, RMIT Master of Architecture (Professional) student

Peripheral Living Installation
Project Leaders: Nigel Bertram & Gretchen Wilkins - RMIT Architecture Urban Architecture Laboratory
with RMIT Master of Architecture (Professional Degree) Urban Architecture Design Studio students
& RMIT Master of Architecture (Research by Project) Urban Architecture candidates.

exhibited in:

Bushfire Australia
Tarrawarra Museum of Art
Healesville, Victoria
28 March - 25 July 2010

Bushfire Australia will examine the recurrence of bushfire imagery in the work of Australian artists. The exhibition will draw on works from state, public and private collections, including Australian historical paintings and new works made in direct response to the 2009 fires, creating a reflective, poignant and ultimately hopeful exploration of this dramatic Australian phenomenon.

Peripheral Living Exhibition Pamphlets:

In this design study we took as our starting point design issues raised by the recent Victorian bushfires, from a personal to a regional scale. We considered this tragedy as a catalyst for broadly re-thinking the limitations and possibilities of community life within such bush environments on the fringes of our cities. The communities of Kinglake, Flowerdale, Healesville, Yarra Glen and others in Melbourne’s north-east are neither truly rural nor urban, but exist in an overlap zone of low-density peri-urban settlement, physically detached from, but still reliant on the metropolis for jobs and services.

We researched contemporary and historical physical manifestations of this type of ‘peripheral living’ both in Australia and around the world, while considering the liberties, restrictions and possible future directions for life on the edge of the city. Design projects ranged from landscape interventions on the scale of a township to architectural strategies for individual properties and structures.

Excerpt from studio brief , July 2009
Nigel Bertram & Gretchen Wilkins
RMIT Architecture Urban Architecture Laboratory

The Black Saturday bushfires wreaked most of their damage in the north-eastern hinterland of Melbourne’s greater metropolitan area. The advent of the fires drew attention to a region that is intertwined with but also in many ways outside the culture of the city. The communities of Kinglake, St Andrews, Flowerdale, Healesville, Yarra Glen, Marysville and others in Melbourne’s north-east are neither truly rural nor urban, but exist in an overlap zone of low-density peri-urban settlement, physically detached from and culturally distinct from the city, but still reliant on the metropolis for jobs, services and visitors.

The affected region plays a number of roles on a regional and urban scale. The north-east ranges are Melbourne’s primary water catchment, with their high rainfall and dramatic topography providing many weekend tourism destinations, alternative lifestyle options, and fundamental water infrastructure supporting the lives of millions. As such, the forests, watercourses and other infrastructure of the region are important not only to local communities but crucial to the functioning of the city as a whole – a point made clear by the recent political and land/ water-rights controversy of the Sugarloaf pipeline.

The work started with a series of questions, galvanised by the tragedy of the fires: What is the periphery? On whose terms? What does the annual cycle of fire-danger mean in terms of sustainable (endurable) living in such places? How can we plan better and more strategically understand our inextricable relationships with each other and with the city as a whole? How could we broadly re-think the limitations and possibilities of real community life on the fringes of our cities within such bush environments?

As architects and landscape architects, our field of research is always connected to the physical: where should we build? How should we plan? How can we live spatially together? How can we both move-with and respectfully-control this wonderful and powerful landscape, which has the ability to both entrance and destroy us? How can we think in a contemporary way about community interaction, the sustainable provision of services, and shared life in a region of low density and sparse, scattered settlement?

Research started by looking at what exists: how land has been used and settled in this area over time, the types of infrastructures and landscapes (formal and informal) that have developed to support private and community life. In this case we were also literally looking at what remained after the fires: scarred bushland, concrete floor slabs and remnant infrastructure, emergency housing around football ovals, temporary buildings and makeshift town centres; all imbued with a strong sense of community resilience.

Ultimately this work was about rethinking the role of the rural periphery and its relation back to the city, from a personal to a regional scale. Master of Architecture research students in the Urban Architecture Laboratory developed particular design responces that ranged from landscape interventions on the scale of a township to architectural strategies for individual properties and structures.

Rutger Pasman proposes re-grouping and strategically connecting neighbouring properties to better work together in times of emergency. A careful analysis of existing landscape and settlement practices in the area around St Andrews allows a series of small but focussed interventions to change the way this scattered community relates and grows over time. This proposal raises the potential for shared emergency infrastructure to double as small-scale accommodation and recreational facilities in non-fire times.

Viet Tuan Pham explores intensifying and making more strategic the use of existing community facilities clustered around football ovals in small towns - and considering these as a network of support centres throughout the region. The existing public space is augmented by a range of adaptable programmes and structures, enabling different events to take place during emergency, transitional and permanent phases of living.

Simon Venturi develops a housing model on the edge of existing farms, utilising the farm’s existing infrastructure (dams and sheds) as community collection points in emergency situations, and connecting new residents to the local knowledge of the farmer. This model is based on the co-existence of residential and productive uses of land, seeing new development as potentially contributing to the endurance of other land uses, in a mutually-dependent relationship.

Lan Tian takes a landscape systems approach and maps the water infrastructure around the region of Healesville. An alternative water collection and distribution system is proposed which links landscape and infrastructure to community space, also considering the potential for shared resources on the scale of residential development.

This design research project was undertaken in the second half of 2009 by Master of Architecture by Research candidates within the Urban Architecture Laboratory research unit, in conjunction with Architecture and Landscape Architecture professional degree students at RMIT University. We would like to thank all students for their many insights, and for their commitment to contributing in some way in the wake of the tragic events of February 2009.

Nigel Bertram & Gretchen Wilkins
RMIT Architecture Urban Architecture Laboratory


TarraWarra Museum of Art shrouded in smoke from Kinglake and Bunyip fires.
 TheAge online. Photo: Jenna Blyth

Tarrawarra Museum of Art
Healesville, Victoria

Opening hours

Tuesday to Sunday 11am to 5pm
Open public holidays except Christmas Day

311 Healesville-Yarra Glen Road
Healesville VIC

By public transport from Melbourne
Rail to Lilydale Station (from City Loop)
Bus route 685 Lilydale to Healesville via Yarra Glen

By car
Eastern Freeway and Maroondah Highway
Driving time from city approx. 1 hour
Melway ref. 277 B2

2009 Design Challenge: Fire
Presented by the RMIT Design Research Institute

The 2009 Design Challenge: Fire has brought together a diverse range of researchers and experts to generate innovative transdisciplinary design projects in response to bushfires. This exhibition of the finalist teams' ideas is an insight into the role of design in fire prevention and planning, emergency response and the mitigation of fire impact and post-fire regeneration in our communities.

6.30-8.30pm, Tuesday 10 November 2009

11 Nov 2009 - 28 Feb 2010, 10am-5pm

Melbourne Museum, Discovery Centre, Lower Foyer
Nicholson St, Carlton, Victoria, Free Entry

Design Competition Website:
09 Design Challenge: Fire

Gavin Jennings, Victorian Minister for Environment, Climate Change and Innovation
Professor Margaret Gardner AO, RMIT Vice-Chancellor and President
Jenny Bonnin, City Director, Clinton Climate Change Initiative
Naomi Brown, CEO, Australian Fire and Emergency Service Authorities Council
Brandon Gien, Executive Director, Australian International Design Awards and General Manager, Corporate Services, Standards Australia
Justin Leonard, Research Scientist, CSIRO
Tim Shannon, Managing Director, Hassell

More than 75 researchers, industry and community experts collaborated in transdisciplinary teams and presented their ideas to the jury and the public as part of the 2009 State of Design Festival in July. Five teams were shortlisted and funded to develop their proposals further for the second stage, exhibited at the Melbourne Museum in November. The winning team received the RMIT Design Research Institute Challenge Award, a grant contribution to the value of $25,000 toward research and development of the proposal in 2010.

The Winners of the Design Challenge Award 09 were:

Team members: Firoz Alam, Jordi Beneyto-Ferre, Nigel Bertram (RMIT Architecture), Laura Harper (RMIT Architecture Alumni), Professor David Mainwaring (RMIT Applied Chemistry), Professor Robert Shanks, Victoria Smith and Associate Professor SueAnne Ware (RMIT Landscape Architecture)

Research question
What alternative strategies and tactics can designers employ at both domestic and infrastructural scales to reconsider fire diversion and site rehabilitation?

This project provides a strategic approach to:
* Increasing the amount of time available during fire events for evacuation
* Diverting fire components away from housing and road infrastructure
* Demarcating safe, visible passageways during fire events
* Ensuring post-fire site rehabilitation

In essence, the project re-purposes and reconsiders existing light weight polymer materials that are activated by fire-events. The polymers may be cast into screens, road barricades, and construction fencing which when heated during a fire event will transform into a protective porcelain membrane. The objects will then provide a diversion of fire components (embers, wind gusts, radiation) and augment the amount of time for evacuation as well as create way-finding devices in heavy smoke cover. After the fire, the material can be crushed to degrade into the soil where it can assist in rehabilitation by containing nutrients, wetting agents or even seeds. As such they can actively help to protect homes, communities, and infrastructure, and rehabilitate the immediate environment.

Exhibition Pamphlet:

Shortlisted Exhibited projects included:

Communication and Community Shelter Networks
: Smarter Stay Smarter Go
Team Members: Luke Adams, Travis Dean, Jacqueline Edge, Rory Fort, Stuart Harrison (RMIT Architecture) and Matt Tonner, Marcus White (RMIT Architecture)

Research question
How can vertically-integrated design enable the improvement of rural communities in terms of both fire protection and better connected sustainable and community-based living?

We propose a series of information networks that provide communication and shelter: connected nodes that manifest as both sensors and information ‘fire poles’, to be located at community bus and fire shelters, as well as on individual isolated rural properties. All data is networked; real-time data is shared with and interpreted by different organisations.

Exhibition Panels:

Design Challenge 09 Shortlisted Project Summaries

RMIT Design Research Institute

Nineteen firms unveil bushfire designs
Architecture & Design
10 June 2009
by Gemma Battenbough
The Victorian government has launched an online catalogue of house blueprints that promotes architects’ pro-bono efforts to bushfire victims. Nineteen architect-designed models that comply with new bushfire building codes and embody sustainable principles have been selected for the free architectural service, which will help people rebuild the 2,000 homes lost in the February fires. The new Architects Bushfire Homes Service will allow displaced Victorianswho are interested in a design one free consultation with its architect who can advise on suitability and make any amendments. Architects who have donated their time and designs on a pro bono basis include RMIT Master of Architecture (Research by Project) alumni Donovan Hill and John Wardle.

Prefabricated Happy Haus by Donovan Hill

Bushfire Rebuild Architecture Happy Haus Australia
Exterior Design
January 8th, 2010


Building Commission Bushfire Industry Resources
News and Information for Industry

Building Commission - Before a bushfire: Building and Renovating

News and Information for Consumers

Competition Entry: Tanked - download full submission (pdf)
Tom Morgan, RMIT Master of Architecture (professional) student. Practice: Sharkmouse
International Re-Growth House Competition
Supported by Tarkett and InDesign Magazine,
Announced 11 May 2009
1st prize $2500

RMIT Architecture student Tom Morgan has won an international competition for the design of a family house for Kinglake residents hit by the bushfires. The competition is based around the idea of a “House re-growth Pod”, a robust pre-fabricated concrete structure which in the short term acts as a habitable starting point for the building of a new home. In Morgan’s design, Tanked, the “suppression system is gravity fed, reducing reliance on fickle, two-stroke fire-pumps at the crucial juncture. Eaves and under-crofts are banished, reducing the chance of stray ember spot-fires.” The scheme was described by judges as having a “high level of creativity and innovation... A simple, intelligent and level-headed approach to bushfire mitigation”.

Tuesday February 10, 2009

Our thoughts are with the communities, families and friends affected by the Bushfires that have taken a horrific toll in lives and property across Victoria since Saturday. Michelle Black, architecture design studio staff member and partner of RMIT academic Richard Black, has been in the frontline fighting the Bushfires in her role as a Castlemaine CFA volunteer. Our support goes out to the fire and emergency services and volunteers who are battling the blazes  threatening towns and communities across regional Victoria and providing relief to the survivors.

Victoria Bushfire Appeal donations can be made to the Red Cross by phone or online:
ph: 1800 811 700

Bushfire Support Volunteer registration information:
ph: 1300 366 356
Victorian Bushfire Support - Register

State Government online information:

News and Media Releases on the Victoria Bushfires:

Victoria Bushfires: news, tributes, photos, video, audio
The Age, 2009
Photographs of the Aftermath

Bushfire information for staff and students
RMIT Openline News Article, Feb 09, 2009

Finding answers to our darkest day
RMIT Openline News Article, Feb 09, 2009
"RMIT University Adjunct Professor of Architecture Norman Day said design solutions needed to be found for people living in bushfire zones. “There must be cheap, quick alternatives for getting people safely undercover when a fire is looming,” Professor Day said. “People living in these areas only need protection for a short time, while the fire passes through. We should look at ways to offer emergency protection, places where families could shelter and survive.” Professor Day, who has worked on rebuilding projects in devastated East Timorese communities, said emergency housing options need to take into account the trauma people have suffered. “The design of these spaces must work on two levels – the physical relocation for day-to-day survival, but also their mental and emotional state,” he said."

Architect calls for bunkers in fire zone homes
ABC News, Wednesday 11 February 2009
"Architect says fire bunkers should be included when rebuilding communities affected by Victoria's worst bushfires.
Retiring Victorian Police Chief Commissioner Christine Nixon will run a new agency that will help bushfire ravaged communities rebuild. Professor of Architecture at RMIT Norman Day says a simple and inexpensive concrete bunker in the ground next to or underneath each house would be the best protection from fierce fires. He says little can be done to give new houses more protection. "Once you get a fire bomb it really wouldn't matter, this is more like the Gaza Strip," he said. "We're not just talking about a little bushfire here, these are serious war zone problems and there's nothing you could build that could possibly survive a fire bomb of the order that's happened on the weekend." "

Bushfire tragedy rewrites rules for architects

By Oscar McLaren
ABC News, Thursday 12 February 009

Architects Respond to the Victorian Bushfires
RAIA Victoria Chapter Article, 20 February 2009

Toyo Ito leads donations to Australia bushfire recovery
by Anna Winston
Building Design, 23 Feb 2009

Message from the RAIA Victoria Chapter President Karl Fender on the Victorian Bushfires
Karl Fender, RAIA Victoria Chapter President
RAIA Victoria Chapter Article
13 March 2009

Buffer zone planned to protect Marysville
Michael Bachelard
The Age, March 29, 2009
Richard Blythe, the head of architecture and design at RMIT University, has called on all parties to "slow down" to allow time to think about how the town might be rebuilt. "We are seeing a gross overreaction and willingness to jump to solutions while, at the moment, it's not clear what successful solutions might be," Professor Blythe said. He called on the architectural community to come together with authorities and residents to talk about the issues. "There is a huge willingness among universities, the professions themselves, to participate in that process of reimagining," Professor Blythe said. "But it's about the people who live there realising their dreams, visions, aims about how they feel about their place."... Professor Blythe said a buffer zone around Marysville could be "part of the mix" and, as part of an environmentally sustainable village, could include some productive farmland.

Compiled by:
Brent Allpress, RMIT Architecture Research Director