You’ve discovered that your property has a BAL 40 or BAL Flame Zone (BAL FZ) BAL rating on it. And everyone is telling you this Bushfire Attack Level, or BAL rating simply means your home will cost A LOT more to build or renovate.
However, there are specific things to know and ways that you can navigate this, to simplify the process overall. In your material choices, your project strategies and the help you seek.
Jeff Dau, Ember Bushfire Consulting, shares what to target in your bushfire resistant design strategy for rebuilding, building or renovating in a smarter, more resilient way.
In this interview, I speak with Jeff Dau from Ember Bushfire Consulting.
EMBER Bushfire Consulting is a team of qualified, accredited and experienced fire industry professionals.
Co-Founder, Jeff Dau, has had 28 years of experience as a professional in the fire services industry. For the past 12 years this has been in a range of fire safety fields including fire safety engineering, bushfire protection, building certification and regulation and urban planning.
So let’s dive in.
Amelia Lee + Jeff Dau (Ember Bushfire Consulting)
[Amelia Lee]: I can imagine you get a lot of pushback from people saying “it’s just going to be so much more expensive. Do I seriously need to do this?” Particularly if a BAL 40 or a BAL Flame Zone rating comes in.
That can be a horrendous shock to people to see what that might mean.
How do you talk through clients in terms of … I know that you’ve had a client who had a property that didn’t have a building on it that went through the recent fires, and they’re now kind of considering how they’re going to actually build on that property to be better performing?
How do you, once you deliver your assessment, how do you talk through clients, that process of ‘Okay, this is the scenario, but this is actually the opportunity’.
[Jeff Dau]: So I think the hardest part is, is that when I look at a site, I see a, you know, I try very much to visualise what it’s like on a bad day. And trying to relay that to the client. And they obviously say “What is the, you know, what is the threat? I don’t see any threat here, you know, like, it hasn’t burned in 50 years, it’s not going to burn again”.
So that’s, you know, they’re not seeing what I see. And that’s often the hardest part of it. Even like in a grassland setting (they’ll say), “it’s an empty paddock for goodness sakes”. But we know that grass fires can still be very, very destructive, very dangerous.
So that’s the first part is that, you know, you know, ‘why do I have to do this?’ I think that argument now is becoming less and less. We can just see that when we’re vulnerable, and more and more areas are vulnerable. So that’s hard.
But what I do try to do, obviously again, if there’s opportunity to move, and this is again that he planning system working, is push you to areas where it’s a lower BAL rating, so it’s safer. It’s also less to build. So that’s the response.
Luckily, the places that I’ve assessed, where they haven’t built yet, that that BAL Rating wasn’t that high. The trick will be, as I said, in these spots where it was always BAL Flame Zone, and the houses 40 – 50 years old or older, and now they have to rebuild.
But I think if it’s been burnt out, then the argument speaks for itself, I think. But it is going to be very hard, you know, just being straight up, it’s going to be hard for some people to deal with that BAL 40 and BAL Flame Zone.
And also councils when they let, you know, people rebuild. But I don’t think that’s going to be the case. You know, Rosedale will still continue to re built, but they’ll have to have some pretty tough ones there.
But what I would say is that it is what it is, you know. Let’s … don’t try to duck and weave. And it’s when we duck and weave, that it ends poorly from a planning and a DA (Development Application) point of view, because they can see that you’re trying to avoid that.
And the council doesn’t want to, you know, sort of have a bar of that. They don’t want to have ownership in under-constructing or building in places that you probably shouldn’t build.
Don’t be fearful of it, get good advice, and then you know, and listen to that advice as well.
But don’t … I think soon as we start to avoid, then that’s when you start running into trouble. Or put it on the shelf … “Oh we’ll deal with that later”. That’s when it really hurts. Because then you have to retrofit. Or that design that you’ve had, that hasn’t taken into account is all of a sudden, you know, you begin to lose all your timber facade or your timber deck, it’s gone. So get in early.
[Amelia Lee]: And I think that’s the key thing, isn’t it that if you actually understand these assessments and rating up front early and can factor them into your design process, then it’s not a budget shock down the track. It’s actually creating a different strategy.
And I think that’s going to be key for rebuilding in a lot of these areas. That you’re not necessarily just replicating what you had before, but you’re actually using it as an opportunity to strategise something different.
And something that’s much more resilient.
Can you perhaps … just with the BAL 40 and the BAL Flame Zone (or BAL FZ) … could you just talk through some of the detail of what that can mean for the construction of a property?
And also I suppose other strategies that could come into play?
You touched on bunkers. I had heard that somebody was able to, in a recent project, they were able to include a bunker and that gave them some leeway in the construction of property itself.
How can BAL 40 and BAL Flame Zone be approached and what kind of strategies can you use to get good results in those kind of ratings of areas?
[Jeff Dau]: Well, I think the first thing is in BAL 40 and BAL Flame Zone is (having) absolutely no combustibles at all. So timber is off the shelf all together. That said, you can use products like Modwood for decking and any number of other products that are still reasonably visually appealing.
So that’s, I guess that’s the first thing. As I said, there’s more and more products that are becoming available. And then BAL Flame Zone it gets up there.
One of the recent changes has been the shutters. So in AS3959 if you can, and certainly in New South Wales, you can use shutters. So you can go for good traditional sort of window set, if it’s protected by the by an appropriately rated shutter.
So that opens up some opportunities. And I can hear people saying “Well, yeah, but shutters are ugly”. Yes, but there are ways of putting within the reveal. There’s … there are you know, there are design, there are techniques, there are ways to address that.
So there’s a little thing there, is the shutters, and that can also reduce the price, particularly if you’re in the BAL Flame Zone area. There is some benefit. So that’s BAL 40 and BAL Flame Zone.
Going on to the bunkers. Bunkers is an area of kind of new work. There’s only recently a standard that came in. At the moment, I can only speak to New South Wales. I know in Victoria where, from what I heard through the industries that where you were in Flame Zone, if you put in a bunker that was built to the standard, then you could possibly come down a BAL rating.
So that I think that they do … Again, I think there’ll be more …. there’ll be improvement here. New South Wales RFS (Rural Fire Service) are kind of not sold on it. They’re certainly not opposed to the idea, but from my understanding, it’s not going to get you any concessions.
That said that, you know, I think that personally, I think they’re a great idea. There was a client down in Smiths road down in the area adjacent to the ACT. Great, you know, quite an impressive story that the owner of that property had survived or … they had survived for 2003 bushfires, but their property didn’t. And rather than becoming fearful of it, and I think obviously this took some time, they moved out to the bush.
They were in a very bushfire prone area, but that didn’t let them … it didn’t put them off. They accepted the, you know, accepted the threat. And they put a bunker in, and they just they had everything in place. They knew that they were going to leave early.
But the fact that they did that … rather than I guess running away from this …. going, ‘you know what, for 10 years, this place is going to be beautiful every day of the week, you know, and we’re going to enjoy this.
But if the inevitable does happen at some stage, then we do have a plan B which was this bunker’. I was very impressed by that attitude. And I think that it was quite cheap too. I think it was between $10,000 and $15,000 and, you know, that’s a fantastic insurance policy.
And their road was about 20km out. It’s one way in, one way out. So it is a bushfire prone area, you know, and it also has many access issues there. So I think, again to the question, I think with bunkers, you will see more in this space.
And with a hope that, that they may, they may offer some concession to these BAL 40 / Flame Zone areas. And that’s where we hope. The RFSS are always sort of adjusting … so …
[Amelia Lee]: I think it’ll be interesting. It was a report that I read after the 2009 Victorian fires that had mentioned that, that that thing of somebody was then rebuilding and they were a BAL Flame Zone.
And they were told that they could spend $15,000 on installing a bunker to standard and then lower the house to BAL 40. And it was going to save them about $80,000 overall, because to make the house BAL Flame Zone was a significantly bigger investment than putting the bunker in and dropping it to BAL 40.
So it will be interesting to see if these strategies … there’s a lot of contention I hear around bunkers. But I think it’s because we have so many that are kind of just DIY built things that mould ridden, are not properly ventilated, are not actually fireproof at all and end up being traps for people.
So I think that actually to create some legislation around how they’re constructed and what they need to be, the standard that they need to be built with in order to be an offset measure could actually be a huge opportunity to have holistic kind of solutions to to dealing with construction in those areas. So it’ll be really interesting won’t it?
[Jeff Dau]: Yes, I think so. I think that’s the good that comes out of these not so good events, you know, is that there’s these improvements. So yeah, it would be good to see.
This interview is part of our Rebuild + Build Better series.
Be sure to stay tuned as we share more information and expertise in helping you rebuild after bushfires, or build homes more resilient to climate conditions and in bushfire prone areas.
Resources mentioned in this video:
Get in touch with Jeff Dau, Ember Bushfire Consulting >>> https://www.bushfireassessor.com.au/
Find a qualified bushfire consultant by searching for an accredited provider on the Fire Protection Association Australia website >>> http://www.fpaa.com.au/
Get access to the Australian Standards AS3959 (instead of Hardcopy, change to PDF Download for 1 user to change the fee to FREE) >>> AS3959 IS HERE