Rebuilding a house, or want to build or renovate a bushfire house using eco friendly building materials or low tox building materials?
Chris Clarke, builder, when rebuilding after bushfire and creating Callignee II, wanted to go low tox to support his own health and well-being.
In this interview, I speak with Chris Clarke, Builder and Director of SWALE Modular.
After losing his home in the 2009 Victorian fires in the Gippsland region, Chris embarked on the process of rebuilding on the same site. His home Callignee II was featured in the first episode of Grand Designs Australia Season One.
Part of this included choosing building materials that would suit the bushfire prone area, and also support Chris’s health and wellbeing. Chris shares how he did this, and also why he chose hard-wearing materials like corten steel, glass and exposed concrete.
So let’s dive in.
Amelia Lee + Chris Clarke (Builder and SWALE Modular)
[Amelia Lee]: In regards to your personal health and wellbeing, you made a lot of choices in this home to support your personal health and wellbeing really effectively. From things like the materials that you chose, through to the infrastructure and those types of things that you put into the home.
How did you go about researching all of this? Because it can be a bit of a bottomless pit when you start to scratch the surface of research and information around materials, crack through all the greenwash. What was your process for making sure that you’re making the right choices for you?
[Chris Clarke]: Again, I’m a very practical person, and I reference this against a good friend of mine that I actually met in a hospital in Mexico. She went along … we were both building at the time, or about to start building, and I think she went through three architects and two builders. And came up with this non toxic house and consultants left right in the centre. And that’s one way of doing it.
I think I just went in the other way because I just didn’t want to spend the money. So I went in and I followed my nose, and … I had multiple sensitivity at the time so everything seriously needed to be non toxic. And I can tell you straight away that it wasn’t so… it was get it out of here!
So we just went back. That’s half the reason I’ve got such a raw, I think, passion and style of building that’s … everything virtually just went back … that’s okay, I’m not sensitive to glass, I’m not sensitive to steel. I can put an emulsion on the slabs.
And if you look at my Callignee home, there was nothing that was painted in the whole place. And so you start seeing things through different eyes. And you start removing trades and elements, until it gets to a point where you know it’s non toxic and you know it’s simple.
[Amelia Lee]: Did you notice the difference to your health and wellbeing, being in that house? Did you know that, was it really significant, in terms of how it supported you and your everyday life?
[Chris Clarke]: Sure, and I actually had that tested as well because I had people who … because I healed and wasn’t as sensitive. And I brought people that actually couldn’t live in homes there. And they’d virtually walk in through the door and said: ‘it’s the only home that I’ve actually ever been able to feel comfortable in, and not have a reaction to’.
So, you know, after all of that, that work … Because it is, it’s a lot of work to actually start going against the grain of the building process. Because it is and can be quite a toxic experience. So it was all worth it.
[Amelia Lee]: That’s fantastic. Now Callignee II is built from a lot of, I suppose, hard industrial materials, as you mentioned before, and many shy away from these types of materials when it comes to housing. I mean, corten steel isn’t a common building material, unfortunately. So it’s such a beautiful, stunning material, but we often see it in big public projects, not in individual residential homes.
What I found when I saw the finished home was just the level of elegance and warmth in it.
Did you ever worry that it wasn’t going to feel comfy and cozy, when it was all said and done? That it was just going to feel really hard? And I suppose very masculine?
Or did you think that it would have a softness, you just knew in the back of your mind that it was going to be … It was going to work?
[Chris Clarke]: I guess one of the best assets that I have is that I can actually see things and feel things through vision. So yes, I always knew that was actually going to be quite a tough house. And how I was going to soften that up. But I think that that was a part of the contrast as well, of how we were actually rebuilding in one of the most horrific bushfires we’d had up to those sort of times.
And that needed to me, to be a tough house. I needed to be able to soften it along the way and I knew I had the ability to do that. Even to the point where I had some … a contrast of this harshness and the softness of linen. So I would have changed in amongst it, and things, so it would have softened up further, now that I’m in a different headspace then I was back then.
[Amelia Lee]: Yes, I think it’s … when you see it finished, you can see what an incredible fortress it is for you. But there’s still such a strong connection with the site and the natural qualities of the site.
And I suppose, having started that project when everything was probably still quite decimated, and then to see it come to life and regenerate during the construction and then of course, in the post occupancy of the home … was that an interesting process for you?
I suppose, kind of initiating the rebirth of your own living experience and then starting to see the rebirth and regeneration of the land around you? You know, through these great big walls of glazing and that really strong indoor-outdoor connection that you created?
[Chris Clarke]: It was, and I guess that we didn’t actually see it for a bit. Because we finished this home and Sean Hamilton actually drove down with his entire team and saw me. He was a good friend and architect, and we sat down around the kitchen table and we’re all talking. And I opened the place up with the bifold doors. And of course you got to think that back in those days there was greening on the trees, but not a lot more. And we opened the fold up kitchen top, and the doors beside them and the louvres, and It’s like everyone just … everyone went: ‘Wow, I’m outside, but I’m inside’.
So we nailed certain sections, and that was what we were trying to achieve for the first one. So there was a connection. That’s, you know that … the pool was to the north, and the sun used to hit the pool and flicker through on the corten ceiling. And those sort of things were all planned with Callignee I, and all plans we held for Callignee II. And to try and hold as much of that as we could. So it’s nice to get out the other side and see some of it worked – or most of it.
[Amelia Lee]: Yes, I think it’s an extraordinary exploration in sort of … how do you remember what was there?
How do you take hold of the things that, you know, were particularly joyous about the type of home that you initially had?
How do you build a home that protects you?
How do you build a home that heals you?
And then how do you build a home that still celebrates the site and the things that you love about it, even though they’re not necessarily present anymore. But you have to be patient and wait to see. But you’ll be seeing them through new eyes.
It’s such a cocktail of stuff to bring … I mean, most people are bringing a lot to a project anyway. But that’s a huge amount to load a project with in terms of navigating it.
[Chris Clarke]: Protect and heal at the front of the list and and then start working through them and interesting conversations with Peter Madison, Kevin McCloud and them talking about this because of course they do it every day for a living. And what people actually go through, and the paths that they’ve taken, and quite often the holes they dig themselves by having the wrong values in place.
[Amelia Lee]: Yes, I think it’s just extraordinary.
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:
Lifestyle >>> LEARN MORE ABOUT CALLIGNEE II HERE
Grand Designs | Season 1, Episode 1 >>> WATCH THE EPISODE HERE
Swale Links and Resources