Many people who are rebuilding after bushfire wonder how to recycle and reuse building materials.
When Chris Clarke, builder, was rebuilding his house, Callignee II, after bushfire, re-use and recycling was a big focus.
In this video, I speak with Chris Clarke, Builder and Director of SWALE Modular.
He shares how he was able to recycle building materials and components, and why this was his choice when rebuilding after losing his home during the 2009 Black Saturday fires.
His use of recycled building materials, and reusing his concrete slab, as well as recycled timber, were all part of creating Callignee II.
So let’s dive in.
Amelia Lee + Chris Clarke (Builder and SWALE Modular)
[Amelia Lee]: I’d love to talk about the reuse and recycling component of your build. Because you had the tank that you found, that you ended up repurposing. You reused your existing slab. There was some glass and steel structure. And you talked in the Grand Designs episode about the difficulties around testing the stability of these things and the reusability of these things.
A lot of people are curious about when they might see their home completely destroyed, but the slab still in place. Or there might be some components of the structure, whether they can reuse those things.
What was the physical process that you went through to test the viability of your reusing these components? And whether they were going to be useful and worthwhile, and not cause headaches in your actual project?
[Chris Clarke]: I think finding the right consultant and trying to work with an open mind to say: ‘Okay, if this disappears I’ve actually got to replace it with X amount of money and X amount of time’. And a lot of that stuff … we live in a very wasteful industry, and it’s very easy for someone to actually say, just put it in the truck and take it away. And it might be easy for some but not so easy for others.
So Jim Cosentino was the engineer, and a guy that I’ve worked with on quite a few projects beforehand. And he was just amazing. So, he has a wealth of experience and he could come in and virtually take a look at something and say: ‘I know when it’s lost its strength and when it hasn’t’. And because of the way that it’s lost its paint or it’s still got its paint. Or it hasn’t lost any of its strength because it’s still straight, and this may be an issue. So let’s just spend a small amount of money in actually adding elements to prop those things, instead of just completely taking them away.
So in that case, we were trying to work with all of those elements that were there … Our concept was that … there’s a shower that took me two weeks to find that was beautiful. It was burnt and bent, rusted and I think it’s one of my favorite places when we put it back into the home. But the home needed to actually suit that.
So when I found the tank, it was another recycled product. And is the structure able to hold the tank? Yes. And these sort of things, just sort of started to go together. But it’s only just communication with good consultants. And being able to make these decisions real, instead of making the terrible decision just to wipe the slate clean and start again.
Don’t worry, I had consultants come in and say ‘just wipe it’. And of course back then you had some, I think, free demolition at the time. But to me it was worth a lot more to actually hold what was there.
[Amelia Lee]: That’s an interesting value proposition, actually, that you assessed … ‘Well, it might be free for it to be taken away, but it’s going to cost X amount for me to put it back. And so, if I can save a certain amount by having the head start’, then I can imagine too that that would have layered a whole another level of constraint over your design process. Because you would have been working with that existing footprint or that existing structure.
Did you find that constraint helpful? Or did it not even sort of occur to you because it was just a given and that’s what you’re working with?
[Chris Clarke]: No, I think it was helpful. I think that the more things that I say that you can lock in place along the way, that makes the journey in front of you a lot easier. And some people can’t believe the way that I work because they say ‘what are you going to do here?’. And I say, ‘I don’t know yet. But we’ll work it out when we get there’. That’s because I have complete confidence in that area, it’s just that we’re not there yet.
So it wasn’t, I suppose, until we had a really good look at the building, and there was a little bit of greenery coming under … when it poured with rain, if you remember. And so, we thought, this could actually come back, and it’s not dead yet. There’s some elements there. And, you know, the structure really stood there in its glory and after going through such a belting so, ‘why should I put it in my truck?’
[Amelia Lee]: I really commend the structural engineer for being willing to, I suppose, assess that in person. Because a lot of engineers would just be wanting to manage their risk and not invest that effort and energy. So you’re so … I mean, finding the right people to put on your team is such a key part of you being able to achieve success in these types of you know, different combinations, different approaches, to be able to get that result.
[Chris Clarke]: Exactly right. And I think they’re getting harder and harder to get, the people who actually will go outside of the square and do these sorts of things.
[Amelia Lee]: What did the fire actually do to the concrete slab? Did it take the top off it? Or what did it actually sort of look like, after the fire had been through?
[Chris Clarke]: There were, actually three levels to my place. One had a timber floor on it, so I wasn’t worried about that section, of course. The middle section was only slightly damaged, and the top section was completely destroyed. And so the heat had blown a lot of the concrete to pieces, so we put a screed on top.
We had hydronic heating in there as well. So we were trying to use the sections with hydronic heating, because all that stuff again is more and more money. So, we put a screed on the top section and started rebuilding and patching in the pool. But some … most of it was there.
But if you understood the amount of exact work that actually went into the polished slabs, for every window and every door and whatnot. It was all pocketed and you wouldn’t want to do it again. So it’s a good excuse for you to reuse it.
[Amelia Lee]: Yes, that’s very true. To actually create a slab that’s worthwhile polishing and getting a good result, you have to be very, very exact in your slab in the first place. So, I can completely understand that, having invested all of that once, you wanted to be able to capitalise on it, the second time around!
Now, the use of recycled timber may seem like a strange inclusion in a bushfire prone area, including timber at all. And it was fantastic to see you in the Grand Designs episode, the adventure that you went on to, you know, source the timber and to get it out to site and reuse it in the various ways that you did in your project.
What made you consider including it? Because obviously preparing that timber is a lot of effort when it’s got bolts and all those kinds of things in it, and a bit of a labor of love to include it. Why was it important to have it in Callignee II?
[Chris Clarke]: I think it was … Number one, it’s just passion. And it was also that everything that I actually buy needed to be non toxic. So, something that had been around for so long … And the wharf timbers, I think you are referring to most of the wharf timbers. I knew that I could put them in, and that would fit into that raw, rustic element of the building. I probably went a little bit far by building actually structural elements out of it. And then, because of course we couldn’t have timber with any structural elements … And then actually covering them and cladding them with corten steel.
The bespoke feel that came out of that is what I was looking for. So it was worth taking the risk. And some of the other ironbark timbers that were used as louvres and things like that were just because that’s what was in the first one (Callignee I). And that’s what I wanted to try and hold for the second one, to try and keep some continuity with the concepts and things that I loved. And to also soften the steel look because we were working with some harsh elements. And of course we even now, in our modular days, we soften everything up with timber.
[Amelia Lee]: Yes, it’s quite amazing how even the chunkiest of timber sections can still add a huge amount of warmth and softness to what feels like quite an industrial material palette. So, when you look at the ceiling of Callignee II and the use of the timber sections through there, and that being offset against the rusted metal and the concrete, it’s quite an extraordinary palette of materials. So it was it was really fantastic to see that timber got included and also all the history that it brings to your project as well as, you know, that other layer of storytelling that goes into the home.
[Chris Clarke]: Sure it gives it the soul and of course it was still a very risky move and I remember the producer of Grand Designs saying to me: ‘I think you’ve screwed this one up’.
[Amelia Lee]: That’s like a red rag to a bull!
[Chris Clarke]: Yes, I said ‘you haven’t seen the end yet! Wait to the end!’ So we were playing on the edge and we like to play on the edge. We always say that if we want a 50/50 house, just paint the thing a beige/white. And you’re not going to win and you’re not going to lose because you’re going to catch the people in the middle. But if you’re playing the 95% rule, you know, you got to nail it at 95. Otherwise 95% of the people are going to hate it, but only 5% are going to like it.
[Amelia Lee]: Wow, I love that you had a team of critics in the production crew as you tried to rebuild this project. It’s like: ‘guys, I’m rebuilding after a fire here, give me a break!’.
[Chris Clarke]: She did say at the end, ‘I just reread your brief’ and she said ‘it brought me to tears because it was just exactly like the brief’, so … I said ‘Well, you should have read the brief. It was middle of the building’. But of course you start placing all of that cold steel in amongst it when it’s black. And you can see where they’re coming from. It hadn’t come to life yet.
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