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Baby steps after the floods

[Article reprinted from the January-March 2012 edition of ATA’s ReNew magazine.]

Architect Mark Thomson’s first experience after the Queensland floods was as part of the ‘mud brigade’. Now he’s trying to set a smarter, hands- on approach to rebuilding in flood-affected areas, writes Jacinta Cleary.

Mark Thomson has been involved with most aspects of Brisbane’s flood recovery this year, from cleaning mud and debris from people’s homes, attending green rebuilding forums, participating in community education events and meeting face-to-face with insurance companies to push for more support for householders looking to rebuild sustainably.

He laments that, despite all these activities, he’s only seen one practical example of a household rebuilding with sustainability or future resilience in mind, and that’s a project he’s “persevered with as no one else has seemed to bother.”

Living in Brisbane, Mark and his family knew a few flood-affected households in need of help, either with or without insurance. Attending a Build It Back Green flood recovery forum earlier this year (the group behind the inspiring resource for Victoria’s bushfire-affected communities, Mark met a representative from insurance company Suncorp, so raised an issue he became aware of while helping an insured household.

Insurance policies generally make no provision for flood-damaged houses to be made more flood-ready; at most, householders are insured to rebuild to the previous standard, no matter how inefficient or poorly designed. The household Mark was working with wanted some flexibility though, to build a more sustainable, resilient home. Suncorp was receptive and from this stemmed various meetings involving Mark, Suncorp, AMP and Lend Lease to discuss the issues around insurance policies and sustainability.

It seemed many in the insurance game loved the idea of sustainable rebuilds, but the rigid insurance procedures in place did not encourage any changes within the approved flood recovery rebuild process, leaving Mark wondering how anyone could build back sustainably. “The only way to get sustainable improvements was in consultation with the builders on the ground,” he says, giving up on talking to the insurers and project managers who were only committed to build back what previously existed.

New plans

Mark is working with Suzanne and Peter Davies to repair their home, with the project potentially doubling as a case study for insurance companies and the Build It Back Green team, providing lessons and inspiration on sustainable rebuilds. Their two-storey brick veneer house incurred substantial flood damage to the lower level and moderate water damage to the upper floor. The insurance repair work, which commenced in November, came some time after the final scope of work was agreed on between all stakeholders. Sustainable rebuild strategies needed to be priced in detail as an additional project stage, potentially slowing down the claim progress and complicating the outcome. Instead of approving new sustainable features at the insurer level, Mark is working with the nominated insurance builder instead, using a bit of give and take to see what improvements can be added while working to the same budget.

David Kelly of Priority One Building Services supported the idea to build back in a flood resilient and sustainable manner, so worked within his commisslon to assist in costing new initiatives.

With the Davies in their 60s, one aim was to make their home accessible and adaptable to future needs. This includes planning for a bedroom downstairs, changes to the bathroom and an improved kitchen layout. The home flooded in 1974 and 2011, so resilience against future inundations was now considered essential. In fact, if a flood is forecast in the future, the kitchen may not even be there, as it’s being designed to be easily dismantled.

It’s all part of Mark’s ‘design for disassembly’ approach to building in flood-prone areas; if inundation is likely then parts of the building can be relocated to higher ground by conventional road transport in under a day. And if damaged, dismantl-able joinery or building elements means that damaged and salvageable materials can be separated. Leading the ‘pull-apart’ kitchen design is Druce Davey from Greener Kitchens and Bathrooms. Druce, designer of Jamie Oliver’s Ministry of Food kitchen in lpswich, is adept at creating healthy, low-impact spaces for cooking (see Jamie Oliver’s Ipswich kitchen profiled in issue 17 of ReNew’s sister publication, Sanctuary: Modern Green Homes).

Mark has taken an interesting approach to selecting eco materials for this rebuild. With history telling him that this house is likely to flood again, he’s approved ordinary plasterboard rather than a more expensive eco or water resistant material; “It’s critical that a brick veneer house is dried out correctly after a flood, consequently the wall sheeting must be removed. The removal process creates damage and waste, hence a cheap recyclable product is best,” he says. Plasterboard can be recyclable provided it doesn’t have fibre glass reinforcing as is the case for sound or fire-rated plasterboard. More expensive water resistant materials can potentially be wasted and often prove more difficult to be recycled.

The contractors are on-board with efforts to recycle and reduce waste- indeed Mark comments that they generally all seem to know the answers, they’re just never asked to put them into practice. Others already use best practice, for instance the painter already uses non-VOC paints. To facilitate good communication and gain the contractors knowledge and experience, Mark has left a notebook on-site for contractors’ ideas on how processes can be made more efficient, or to leave queries for Mark such as ‘is there a specific
low-toxic plasterboard glue?’

So while changing the insurance industry’s approach to resilient rebuilds is a challenge, Mark’s hands-on ground-level approach might give a blueprint for best practice in the future. “The essence of sustainability is to get people working together and sharing ideas,” says Mark. “Deep down I believe these sustainability steps are achievable and can be more widely implemented.”

Renewable energy tips

There were interesting lessons regarding the electrical wiring in this flood-damaged home, which was wired on a single circuit running upstairs and downstairs. The floods brought this single circuit down, and with it the entire household electricity supply. Now the circuits are split in two, so in the future only the damaged downstairs section might need to be cut off. This means the grid-connect solar power system could be operable sooner should another flood occur, avoiding income losses from lost feed-in tariffs and electricity generation. Regardless, the solar power system has been inoperable since the floods because the inverter needed replacing, and the insurance claim was only assessed in October. Another tip is to ensure the inverter is positioned above the flood level.

The Federal Government’s current phase out of new electric hot water systems took a backward step after the Queensiand floods. The Queensland Plumbing and Wastewater Code was amended so that flood-affected households could replace electric hot water systems with another electric system, instead of supporting households to upgrade to a more efficient solar or heat pump system. “In Cuba they cleared the entire country of inefficient appliances,” says Mark. “It’s such short-term thinking to allow new inefficient systems to be installed!”

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