Australia — Bushfire victims rebuilding homes lost in the latest disaster will have to spend about 20 per cent above standard costs – an extra $100,000 or more for a typical three-bedroom house – to comply with strict NSW regulations.
Builders and architects warn that many of the residents whose homes were destroyed on October 17 may be under-insured. About 200 homes were lost to the fires. While their insurance may have been adequate to cover the cost of rebuilding the homes they built 20 or 30 years ago, it often will not extend to meet the stringent rules that now govern construction in bushfire zones.
Depending on the Bushfire Attack Level rating given to their new home, they will need to pay a premium to build in non-combustible materials and to install metal shutters ($46,000 for a recent project), door screens, toughened-glass windows, 10,000- to 20,000-litre water tanks with petrol pumps, metal decks and stairs, roof protection, and much more.
While architects and builders support the strict requirements, they complain about the mountain of government regulations they must navigate – and the extra layer of bureaucracy added by the NSW Rural Fire Service approval process.
After the Black Saturday disaster in Victoria in 2009, Australian Standard 3959 for building in fire zones was agreed nationally, but the RFS then created exceptions in the Building Code of Australia to impose even stricter rules for NSW.
”The regs gave gone beyond a joke,” said Philip Bartush, a designer-builder who is about to rebuild his brother’s home at Winmalee.
Nigel Bell, a Blue Mountains architect who specialises in fire-zone buildings, complained that the RFS, having centralised its assessment process, made its judgments without visiting the sites and without deference to local RFS or other experts who knew the topography, vegetation and other fire risks. He cited a proposed addition of a covered porch and disabled toilet to a meditation centre at Leura, which was meant to cost up to $70,000.
Mr Bell said the project was almost abandoned when RFS headquarters, using only aerial mapping, insisted on a bitumen sealed road 800 metres long, eight metres wide and curbed and guttered on one side – threatening to blow out the cost to $500,000.
He said he was forced to deal with four different RFS planning staff who refused his pleas to come to the site because ”they were not allowed to leave the office.”
Nine months later, the RFS had suddenly dropped the one-sentence requirement for the road, but only after creating delays, frustration and extra expense.
The RFS said it used a combination of ”aerial photography, local knowledge and/or site visits.”
”The suggestion that development applications are assessed without local knowledge is wrong,” it said in a statement. The details of the Leura case did not match its own records, it also said. ”When people choose to live in an area that is bushfire-prone, there will of course be an additional cost.
”This is similar to works which may be needed to protect a home situated on a flood plain.”
But Mr Bell said a rigid application of the rules could prevent renovations that might make houses safer.
The prohibitive cost forced residents to do nothing, even though a modest renovation would make the homes at least somewhat safer, agreed Blue Mountains builder Joe Mercieca.
Asked how many jobs he had lost for this reason, he said: ”How long have you got?”