‘It’s not about architects having solutions’: Kim Irons on architecture after the fires

An architect and former Country Fire Authority volunteer who worked in both of these roles during and after the Black Saturday fires in 2009, Kim Irons of Irons McDuff Architecture cautions patience to those looking to offer aid to those affected by the bushfires in a conversation with ArchitectureAU associate editor Patrick Hunn.

Patrick Hunn: While a recent reprieve meant that the process of repair has begun in some places, many places are still very much under threat and the fire season is not over. What would you say to those who are keen to help?

Kim Irons: Be patient. Be considerate. This needs to be strategic. There may be a need to reconsider where and how we’re building – certainly we need to look at landscape as a major issue.

But it’s really about being patient, and the best way to respond right now is to remember that there is a lot of strategic work that needs to occur, both by government and not-for-profit agencies that have a lot of experience in these areas. In Victoria, we obviously have the experience of the Black Saturday fires, and a lot of lessons were learnt at that time.

From listening to recovery authorities, both nationally and in the states, it’s clear that this thinking is happening – they’re on to it, but it has to be strategic. Now is the time to listen and let people work through their trauma. The emotional trauma is phenomenal – the trauma is different [to that experienced in the Black Saturday fires] – but it’s still trauma. People are in shock and they need time. There’s also a lot of clean-up to be done before anything else happens.

PH: It might be helpful for those eager to help to have that desire contextualized a little bit. What were your experiences working in the wake of the 2009 fires?

It was certainly an emotional year – and my emotions were nothing relative to others – but it’s important to remember that it’s a highly emotional area. You’ve got children, for instance, who are deeply affected.

You need to be resilient psychologically, and listening is the biggest thing. It’s not about architects going in with solutions. It’s about architects listening and reflecting and advising when asked – answering questions. I think that was the biggest thing at the time. It’s also about remembering that people are experiencing grief, and grief is a rollercoaster.

What also occurred for me in those months is noticing how some people were keen to stay, while some people were ready to leave – they couldn’t live there anymore. And some others changed their minds, the trauma became too much and they had to go.

It’s a very different situation when you’re someone who has to rebuild as opposed to someone who is considering building a new house or an extension. This is something forced on them, so it takes time to reconcile whether or not that is something they want to do.

PH: You’ve been involved in both volunteering with the CFA and in working on post-fire design, including for clients referred to you by the Bushfire Homes Service. How has your experience with the former informed the way you approach the latter?

KI: I feel a more intimate understanding of what could potentially happen. I guess the biggest thing is I wouldn’t want a client to stay [and attempt to defend the house from fire].

We can design and build fire-resistant houses that may or may not protect you during a fire, but the scale of what we’re talking about and the descriptions we’re hearing this year from the affected areas are exactly the same as they were on Black Saturday. We would much prefer our clients leave.

So I suppose that experience makes us aware; it allows us to walk onto a site and see it differently.

PH: While architects are seemingly very eager to help in rebuilding fire-affected communities, most Australians looking to build a house do not approach an architect to be a part of that process. How do you deal with this when you are looking at clients that are also under enormous stress?

KI: Being seen there is important. For instance, I had a meeting with one person at the Flowerdale pub, and then I spent the rest of the day answering questions from people who began by asking “Are you the architect?” That was providing advice about what next steps might be, rather than building houses, but I think you need to be there.

The advantage of architects is that we design a home to suit a purpose. In a bushfire area, we will design a house to suit the purpose, rather than provide a house that then needs additions to suit the purpose. We have a much more integrated design approach.

Start with listening, see if people want to approach you. We are organizing something with the Institute so that eventually we will have people on the ground, being visible and available. I do think our skills as architects are very valuable in situations like these.

But Helen [Lochhead, National President of the Australian Institute of Architects] has been very clear that people need to be patient and that this is a long-term issue. You could look at the fires in Wye River in 2016, which took a long time to be ready for rebuilding. The whole area had to be cleared and made safe over several months.

PH: Do you have a sense of the way in which those skills might be best applied?

KI: It’s important to capture the enthusiasm people might have to help, so they can feel like they might be able to do, but in the future. We all need time to figure out what things will look like, but we’ve even said that the first steps might just be joining Blaze Aid and rebuilding fences. It’s that straight forward.

For us, it’s a method of being seen on the ground and being seen to be engaged, rather than being in a large city and offering pro bono design services remotely. As an aside, I don’t think Australians typically have a culture of asking for help. A lot of people will have been quite proud [of what they have lost]. That was my reflection of what happened [after Black Saturday]: we were all offering pro bono services, but people then need to find it. Even then, people aren’t likely to cold call and say “I hear you’re offering something.”

Visit the Australian Institute of Architects’ National Bushfire Response website here.

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