So, picture this. You’ve spent 10 years planning, designing and then building your dream home. And two weeks after you’ve completed it, it’s completely destroyed in the Black Saturday bushfires of 2009.
Would you start rebuilding after bushfire on the same site? Chris Clarke did, and created a stunning home he called Callignee II.
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.
Chris has an incredible story to share, and a lot of insights that are both practical and mindset related to really help anyone who is rebuilding or building in a bushfire prone area.
So let’s dive in.
Amelia Lee + Chris Clarke (Builder and SWALE Modular)
[Amelia Lee]: Well, Chris, it’s fantastic to have you here. I am so excited to be speaking with you about your journey with Callignee II, and to be sharing you with the Undercover Architect community. I know that you all have a wealth of information that’s going to be a huge benefit, particularly to those who are rebuilding after a bushfire. But also just generally understanding how to build more strategically, and to make better decisions with the types of homes that they’re creating.
Now, I want to just sort of start with framing the picture of where things were at for you. Because of course, you know, you’ve spent years planning and building Callignee I and then saw it all get burned down in the Black Saturday fires.
Many wouldn’t have questioned you wanting to leave or just walking away and trying something else somewhere else. What actually compelled you to build again on the same site?
[Chris Clarke]: Well, thanks for having me Amelia, I love what you’re doing. There’s so many people out there that are in the same position now. And it is an interesting first stage of ‘what are you going to do, and what choices do you have’.
I think that, you know, to me it came back to passion and connection on the site. And I wrote the brief before designing my home and couldn’t believe how well the brief actually went. And this was a place that I really wanted to connect to.
I guess that once you put a few of those things together, that’s … it was the connection to nature and the connection to the wildlife and … those things that I actually wanted … I wanted to get them back. And of course you think, you look at the other side of it and you say ‘well, what options do I really have as well?’. Because we’ve just had mass destruction around us. So we’re going to sell a property? And how long is that going to take? And what’s going to happen in the middle? Is the best option to actually get a house back on it and then actually sell it, or try to actually fit back into that environment and that community?
So I don’t think it’s an easy choice. And with planning, like BAL Flame Zone and all of those hurdles around you … I think that they have the ability themselves to really upset communities.
[Amelia Lee]: Yes. Did you find that others were really … I mean, were you sort of unusual, that you were ready to kind of make a decision to build again? And others in your community just was stuck? How … I mean, I can’t imagine what that was like for everybody. I know there was huge devastation where you were.
[Chris Clarke]: Because I was in the industry, obviously, it was a lot easier for myself. But of course, we all had to jump the same hurdles. And there was some planning gateways that opened, and we could actually get in and start. But of course, the big one was that the committee really didn’t understand what was actually in front of them as well, because we had all of these changing. The hurdles were getting higher, and nobody really knew it that early.
So people who were in these heavily treed sites were classified as BAL BAL Flame Zone. And I’m sure that people if they’d actually knew what BAL BAL BAL Flame Zone ended up being at that particular time, it probably would have made a difference to their decisions.
[Amelia Lee]: You weren’t allowed to clear any of your trees where you? That was part of the issue around it being the BAL Flame Zone and not being able to sort of actually create an asset protection zone around your property.
[Chris Clarke]: That’s the biggest thing about the codes and regulations. It’s that … we’re stuck between a rock and a hard place, really. And virtually, they’ve promised us $20,000 for BAL Flame Zone, and obviously, the additional cost, and one tiny little part of that was $20,000.
[Chris Clarke]: So you had all of these people that were forcing you to actually spend money in areas that you really didn’t want to spend. And that’s what made it tough. And I think that that’s what made it tough in most of the communities as well, because a lot of people were over capitalized and ended up being okay. Thanks guys, because now we’re stuck in for the rest of our lives and we can’t get out.
[Amelia Lee]: Yes, it is. It’s one of those areas. And it’s, you know, I think it’s one of the reasons I’m so passionate about bringing this information out, and being able to speak to incredible people like you who can share your experience.
So having been there and navigated this scenario, because it’s … that thing of having the right information up front can really help you be far more strategic about the decisions that you move forward with. I know that the research that I’ve been doing is that if you can actually, give yourself pause. Help yourself to, I suppose, think and plan ahead of how you might do things differently. You can create far better outcomes for yourself and make the process more achievable for yourself. And I saw great success for you in this regard, too.
Because, you actually, in watching the Grand Designs episode, said, you know ‘the first house I built as a statement, this house I’m building for me’. And, I thought it was incredible that you gave yourself whatever you did. You set yourself up to have the chance to think differently about what you would do differently for this … this build.
How did you actually get into that frame of mind to be strategic rather than just rebuild what you had? I mean, you would have had … it would have just been like a copycat, I kind of just roll it out again.
But how did you give yourself pause to actually give yourself the bandwidth to think, ‘okay, I’m going to do this differently, I’m going to plan it differently. I’m going to approach it differently?’.
[Chris Clarke]: I look at the industry and … people that build houses, really only build one of them in their lifetimes. And most of them actually make so many mistakes … it isn’t funny and they over build them into their dream.
And so, to actually have a fire take everything from you, and give you a second chance to actually really take a look at what you’ve just built and tear it apart … It’s almost a forced minimalist style of living because you start completely again. No furniture, no nothing, and say ‘great, well, okay, what have I got to work with?’. And your parameters are completely different. You go into a completely different headspace.
And it’s been now part of my life, you know. When I look at my homes that started off at 300 square meters, and the next one was 160 and the next one probably about 60. We’re even down to … in our 30s at the moment. And I think the smaller they are, the more joy that I’ve actually had from moments. And so, well in some ways you’re blessed to have another opportunity to have another stab at it, I guess. So, it’s definitely turning something that was so horrific into a positive, and trying to control it. It was a big one.
[Amelia Lee]: No, it’s remarkable. I mean, that’s the thing that really struck me when I watched the Grand Designs episode. Your mindset and your approach in that was such a key part of the success of that project. And how inspirational it was to say, having suffered such trauma and losing your home that you were able to turn that around and see that as an opportunity to shape the environment differently, and the process differently, and the outcome differently for yourself.
So it’s, yes, it really blew me away to say it because I know how much people are suffering with that rebuilding exercise. Because they’re grieving what they’ve lost. But it was very clear that you saw that this was a chance to actually turn it into something positive.
[Chris Clarke]: To me, it was just a really good opportunity to be more sustainable. So, if you have the size, obviously, you have the embodied energy. You can spend that money on being off the grid and not having to build for the rest of your life. It’s great.
I remember the guy up the road, we were doing an interview for the ABC and he said ‘I throw stones at the guy who reads the power meter, because he just might take the hint that I just don’t have one!’. They all try and come up his driveway and he was just … crazy old guy … he just said ‘I’ve been living off the grid for 10 years go away!’.
THIS IS PART 1 OF MY INTERVIEW WITH CHRIS CLARKE, BUILDER + SWALE MODULAR.
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
Callignee Links and Resources