Calls For Floodplain Building To End
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Calls For Floodplain Building To End

Following the devastation of recent flooding, experts are urging government intervention to drive the cessation of building in areas at risk.

By Terry Christodoulou
Wed, Apr 6, 2022 10:48amGrey Clock 4 min

Despite the watery devastation that has recently plagued much of Australia’s east coast and specifically the Northern Rivers region of NSW, state planning minister, Anthony Roberts, scrapped a requirement to consider the risks of floods and fire before building new homes.

The move by Mr Roberts came just two weeks after the decree came into effect – at the same time the town of Lismore was continuing to clean-up from a first round of flooding that decimated much of the northern NSW town.

Despite bearing direct witness to what played out in Lismore, Mr Roberts revoked the ministerial directive of his predecessor Robert Stokes and which outlined nine principles for sustainable development, including the necessary management of risk pertaining to climate change.

Less than a week on from the decision, Byron Bay and Lismore were inundated with rains (in excess of 400mm in just 25 hours) and further flooding. It also led to the evacuation of more than 2800 people from the region.

A spokesman for Mr Roberts claimed the minister was working to a set of desired principles brought by Premier Dominic Perrottet, “a clear set of priorities to deliver a pipeline of new housing supply and [to] act on housing affordability.”

LISMORE, AUSTRALIA – MARCH 31: Houses are surrounded by floodwater on March 31, 2022 in Lismore, Australia. Evacuation orders have been issued for towns across the NSW Northern Rivers region, with flash flooding expected as heavy rainfall continues. It is the second major flood event for the region this month. (Photo by Dan Peled/Getty Images)

While affordability is a growing issue for the NSW housing market, is the safety and viability of housing in floodplains mutually exclusive from notions of affordability?

Dr Karl Mallon, CEO of Climate Valuation – a climate change risk analysis provider producing reports for financial institutions and home buyers — believes that continued building on flood (and fire) prone areas must cease, calling out repeated government inaction on the matter.

“It’s in everyone’s interests to avoid building on flood plains — long term it’s better for house values, banks, developers but the state government and council set the planning rules,” Dr Mallon told Kanebridge News. “With homes built in flood zones, like they are in Lismore, soon it’s going to become possible to insure them. And if they are impossible to insure, then they are impossible to mortgage and impossible to sell.”

Dr Mallon suggests a strong disconnect — between levels of government and councils, banks, developers and insurers — is ultimately failing homeowners.

“There’s a lot of blind-eye compliance with the government not checking to see if [buildings] are safe and viable, and going forward – especially with the planning requirements scrapped — we’re still building [on] flood plains.

“The bit that’s dangerous is that the developer can build, sell and not be responsible.”

Professor Jamie Pittock from the Australian National University in the Fenner School of Environment and Society agreed, arguing that current reactionary cycle of flooding, clean up and rebuild is harming the livelihoods of Australians.

“Where homes are repeatedly flooded, essentially we are creating poverty traps,” said Professor Pittock.

For Professor Pittock, the solution is simple – stop construction on floodplains and rehome those already living in affected areas.

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA – MARCH 09: SES survey floodwaters along the Hawkesbury River in Windsor on March 09, 2022 in Sydney, Australia. Flood warnings and evacuation orders remain in place for parts of Sydney’s southwest following heavy rain on Tuesday, while a severe weather warning has also been issued for damaging wind gusts. Prime Minister Scott Morrison has declared a national emergency in response to flooding across New South Wales which allows the government to access more resources, including help from defence forces, for affected communities. (Photo by Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images)

“It’s critical to help those on the most flood prone lands to relocate. Not only because it keeps people safe but also it is more cost effective than rescuing people on the fly and all the public and private investment in rebuilding,” said Professor Pittock.

“Clearly this is a case where the financial interests of property developers, targeting cheap flat, flood plain land has impacted the political process and approvals that should not have proceeded — where governments have been too spineless to say ‘no.’”

While there’s been no direct federal or state government response to calls for rezoning, Premier Perrottet has just announced a new $112 million ‘Back Home’ grants for Lismore. The scheme provides up to $20,000 to residents whose homes have been declared damaged or destroyed and who are unable to claim insurance or utilise the natural disaster relief fund.

The program is not limited to Lismore, extending to other flood prone areas such as the Hawkesbury, Ballina, Byron, Clarence Valley, Kyogle, Richmond Valley and Tweed local government areas.

For Professor Pittock, prevention is the only effective option — especially in the Hawkesbury Valley where the NSW government has currently paused new developments while it revises its flood strategy.

“In the past year, in the Nepean and Hawkesbury Valley, an area of 600 homes that has been flooded twice in a year and those houses just simply shouldn’t be there,” said Professor Pittock. “There’s a little bit of an upfront public and private cost to help these people relocate, but the long term benefits in terms of safety, lower costs, socioeconomic development really make that worthwhile.”


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But as house prices increase across the country, the conversation has started to shift from size for the sake of it towards more flexible, well-designed spaces better suited to contemporary living.

For the owners of this 1920s weatherboard workers’ cottage in Fremantle, the emphasis was less on having an abundance of room and more about creating cohesive environments that could still maintain their own distinct moods. Key to achieving this was manipulating the floorplan in such a way that it could draw in light, giving the impression at least of a larger footprint. 

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Positioned on a site that fell three metres from street level, the humble four-room residence had been added to over the years. First order of business for local architect Philip Stejskal was to strip the house back to its original state.

“In this case, they were not quality additions,” Stejskal says. “Sometimes it is important to make sure later additions are not lean-tos.”

The decision to demolish was not taken lightly. 

“Sometimes they can be as historically significant as the original building and need to be considered — I wouldn’t want people to demolish our addition in 50 years’ time.”

Northern light hits the site diagonally, so the design solution was to open up the side of the house via a spacious courtyard to maximise opportunities to draw natural light in. However, this had a knock-on effect.

A central courtyard captures northern light. Image: Bo Wong

“We had to make space in the middle of the site to get light in,” Stejskal says. “That was one of the first moves, but that created another issue because we would be looking onto the back of the neighbouring building at less appealing things, like their aircon unit.”

To draw attention away from the undesirable view, Stejskal designed a modern-day ‘folly’.

“It’s a chimney and lookout and it was created to give us something nice to look at in the living space and in the kitchen,” Stejskal says. 

“With a growing family, the idea was to create a space where people could find a bit of solitude. It does have views to the wider locality but you can also see the port and you can connect to the street as well.”

A garden tap has also been installed to allow for a herb garden at the top of the steps.

“That’s the plan anyway,”  he says. 

A modern day ‘folly’ provides an unexpected breakout space with room for a rooftop herb garden. Image: Bo Wong

Conjuring up space has been at the core of this project, from the basement-style garaging to the use of the central courtyard to create a pavilion-like addition.

The original cottage now consists of two bedrooms, with a central hallway leading onto a spacious reception and living area. Here, the large kitchen and dining spaces wrap around the courtyard, offering easy access to outdoor spaces via large sliding doors.

Moments of solitude and privacy have been secreted throughout the floorplan, with clever placement of built-in window seats and the crow’s nest lookout on the roof, ideal for morning coffee and sunset drinks.

The house has three bedrooms, including a spacious master suite with walk-in robe and ensuite overlooking the back garden. Adjustable blades on the bedroom windows allow for the control of light, as well as privacy. Although the house was designed pre COVID, it offers the sensibility so many sought through that time — sanctuary, comfort and retreat.

Adjustable blades allow the owners to control light on the upper floor. Image: Bo Wong

“When the clients came to us, they wanted a house that was flexible enough to cater for the unknown and changes in the family into the future,” Stejskal says. “We gave the owners a series of spaces and a certain variety or moods, regardless of the occasion. We wanted it to be a space that would support that.”

Mood has also been manipulated through the choice of materials. Stejskal has used common materials such as timber and brick, but in unexpected ways to create spaces that are at once sumptuous but also in keeping with the origins of the existing building.

Externally, the brickwork has been finished in beaded pointing, a style of bricklaying that has a softening effect on the varied colours of bricks. For the flooring, crazy paving in the courtyard contrasts with the controlled lines of tiles laid in a stack bond pattern. Close attention has also been paid to the use of veneer on select joinery in the house, championing the beauty of Australian timbers with a lustrous finish. 

“The joinery is finished in spotted gum veneer that has been rotary cut,” says Stejskal. “It is peeled off the log like you peel an apple to give you this different grain.”

Rotary cut timber reveals the beauty of the natural grain in the kitchen joinery. Image: Bo Wong

Even the laundry has been carefully considered.

“The laundry is like a zen space with bare stone,” he says. “We wanted these different moods and the landscape of rooms. We wanted to create a rich tapestry in this house.”

The owners now each experience the house differently, highlighting separate aspects of the building as their favourite parts. It’s quite an achievement when the site is not enormous. Maybe it’s not size that matters so much after all.


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