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Designing homes for the climate crisis: are we ready?

From rising sea levels and coastal erosion to bush fires, cyclones, storms and record-breaking rainfall, the number of those at risk from extreme events is growing fast

Author: Hugo Cox

02 November 2021

Climate change is hounding Amy Kolle. Aged seven she was caught in a bushfire with her father near the family’s 2,000-acre cattle farm, located near Melbourne, Australia: “I will never forget my fear and that of all the farmers and firefighters we encountered that day.” She developed a sixth sense for fire risk – dead leaves in the garden, foliage of bushes and trees encroaching near a house or outbuildings.

Now 50, working as an art restorer based in Frankfurt, she and her husband recently completed their dream of buying a second home in Provence, France. Everywhere, the couple is reminded of the fire risk: the local forest is closed between 11am and 4pm; local fire officers could drop in and ask her to cut down trees in her garden. Because half of the home was built without planning permission – a common practice in rural France – rebuilding her home after a fire would leave her a home half the size.

“Buying the home was a calculated risk,” she says.

Once the preserve of governments and a few of the largest construction firms responsible for major infrastructure projects, mitigating the risk of natural disaster is increasingly the responsibility of citizens themselves. From rising sea levels and coastal erosion to bush fires, cyclones, storms and record-breaking rainfall, the risk of extreme weather events taking place is fast increasing.

But, even as building materials and practices develop to improve durability, many people can’t afford to make their homes more resilient. In the race to avert the calamitous effects of human generated climate change, will the rich be the only one able to mitigate risk?

On the face of it, growing awareness among many commercial landlords and homeowners is leading to the increased adoption of new building materials.

“We do a lot with non-flammable materials: clay roof tiles, flame resistant building skins, alarm systems, vegetation,” says Ann Gray FRICS, who runs Gray Real Estate Advisors, a commercial real estate advisory firm based in Los Angeles.

Around 85% of homes lost to fire in Australia follow embers igniting garden debris, according to NRMA, a local insurance firm. So even small interventions – closing windows and doors, fireproofing wooden porches – can save buildings. “Fires move so quickly: as long as [the home] doesn’t ignite, there isn’t huge heat for a sustained period,” says Professor Ilan Kelman, at the Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction at University College London. One family fleeing the 2020 fires in Australia turned their garden sprinklers on before they evacuated. “They lost the sprinklers but saved the house,” he says.   

Fireproof homes

For particularly vulnerable locations, Gray sees a future of custom-built homes in fire zones made more affordable using 3-D printing and prefabrication. “A concrete house with roll down metal shutters, where the family packs up and leaves [in fire season],” she says. “There have been nomadic cultures adapting to climate changes since the dawn of man. It’s not a bad way to go. Those who want to live in the wilderness are going to have to accept that they must build accordingly.” 

Even before forest fires tore through Southern France last summer, local Provence architect David Price was doing more fireproofing work, such as removing trees near homes. The vogue for timber framed buildings that’s popular elsewhere in France has largely been rejected. As extreme rain events increase, he is fitting more damp-proof courses (barriers to prevent damp rising through the walls) on local homes, few of which – even the modern ones – were built with them.

Local regulations continue to curb where people can build, especially on desirable coastal locations where growing population density has increased flooding risk from run-off water, says Price. “As for fire, French zoning regulations now include huge tracts where new building is impossible and modifying existing buildings is strictly controlled.”

But both Gray and Price’s clients are affluent. Most who employ Price in Provence are second homers, who will do substantial work on even recently renovated homes to meet their tastes, especially now that remote working means they can spend more time there.

For the majority of those at risk, disaster protection is an big expense they do not have the money to carry out.

In Colorado, Wildfire Partners, an initiative by the Boulder County planning department, combines education and financial benefits to nudge residents towards better protection. A customised report identifies the weak links in a home's defences and provides a checklist of work. Once completed, the department provides a certificate accepted as proof of mitigation by three major local insurers, reducing building premiums. Thanks to grant funding from the Colorado State Forest Service and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), homeowners can apply for financial support - capped at 50% of the total cost and not exceeding $2,000 - for the work towards the cost of a certified contractor.

Highlighting the risks

In Australia an initiative of 10 local councils near the capital Canberra is following a similar approach. Ashleigh Gay, of Edge Environment, a local sustainability consultancy firm leading the project, is about to complete a climate-risk survey of the five most common types of homes in the area, jointly comprising the majority of housing stock.

The next stage is to provide a Climate Resilient Housing Toolkit – a guide that highlights likely risks to buyers and renters and suggests suitable renovations to protect themselves, and which local bodies can provide support like grants or loans. “Ultimately, we want to see more resilient homes across Australia,” says Gay.

But these initiatives also underline the lack of preparedness. The Colorado initiative counts nearly 3,000 homes in the programme, with roughly a third certified. But 2.9m people in the state live in areas at risk of wildfire, according to the Colorado State Forest Service.

In both the US and Australia, the three levels of government – city or county, state and federal – mean the buck is passed or coordination is poor. The state of California, which is best placed to implement initiatives covering the huge areas over which wildfires can rage, is lagging in its response, says Gray in Los Angeles: “Building codes tend to be written by municipalities so the rural, unincorporated areas of the state where fires rage are not governed by a very specific set of regulations. Additionally, the houses that are damaged have likely been there for decades. California has successfully implemented a retrofitting programme for earthquake resistance in old buildings. Similar policies could work for fire resistance.”

In Australia, years of lax building practices mean most existing housing stock is totally unsuited to the pressures of flood or fire. “Australia is full of old heritage properties, built on the cheap. The materials used were selected for the cost of building the house rather than the costs [associated with] living in it,” says Gay.

Australia-wide estimates may understate the scale of the risk, meanwhile. As many as 383,330 addresses were classified high risk in 2020, according to a report produced for local government by analysis platform Climate Risk Engines. But Gay’s survey – which covers 730,000 inhabitants, less than 3% of the country’s 25.7m population – found that 98% were highly vulnerable from fire alone. “Of the 34 towns covered, 32 are located within 3km of a high fire risk area,” she says. 

In a country where more than 9m have been affected by a natural disaster of some kind over the last 30 years, according to industry body the Insurance Council of Australia (ICA), even new buildings fall short.

The national construction code designating requirements for new homes is less stringent than in countries like the UK. High costs for land and construction, and a worsening housing affordability crisis in Australia, provide few incentives to tighten it. “Even then they have trouble with builders meeting the minimum thresholds, the majority of the market performs just above,” says Tom Davies, head of the climate change action strategy for the ICA.

Housing growth in flood zones

Even in countries where building standards are higher, new construction is accelerating in areas facing increasing risk. Thanks to the desirability of a sea view and proximity to the beach, US coastal communities have built nearly 20,000 new homes in areas at risk from rising sea levels in the last decade, according to the analysis by Climate Central and Zillow. In eight states, including New Jersey, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Mississippi and South Carolina, the percentage growth of homebuilding in flood zones exceeds that beyond it. In New Jersey, flood zone development has run nearly three times faster than the state as a whole.

With future sea level rises or extreme weather events hard to predict, existing flood defences may give a false sense of security.

A 2018 UK government report contained a vision of a million new homes by 2050 in the Thames Estuary, an area between London and the UK’s east coast, as part of a far-reaching regeneration project creating 1.3m new jobs.

It will rely on the Thames Barrier, a series of flood defences built following a tidal surge in 1953. “It was not intended to protect against sea-level rises caused by climate change, but it will be used for this purpose during the early part of the 21st century,” says David Humphreys, professor of environmental policy at the Open University, in notes to a film on the project in 2018.

The best-case scenario for the Thames Estuary is a sea level rise of one metre; the worst is an increase of 4.2m, according to the UK’s Environment Agency. Given the huge future uncertainty, building at scale is riskier than it may seem, notes Kelman. “The sense is: there’s a wall, we’re safe, let’s build more homes.”

Insurance

On the individual level, prospects for homeowners to improve their homes’ resilience look slim.  

With Australia’s home prices rising rapidly, few factor in the cost of insurance when choosing a home. In the 25 years to 2018, median house prices have risen fourfold; since then, growth has accelerated - up 20% in the year to September, the fastest annual rate since 1989, according to CoreLogic, a national data provider. “The price of insurance just doesn’t factor into the buying equation,” says Davies.

Banks require insurance to be in place before granting a mortgage, so after a year of paying for home insurance many people will not renew it to save on the cost.

The problem is most severe in northern Australia, where the risk from bush fires, floods and cyclones is highest. In north Queensland, the average insurance premium for an apartment is $6,800 a year, compared to the national average of $3,000. As insurers’ models become more precise, address-level risk modelling means such averages hide huge rises in some at-risk areas. 

In Mackay, a town on Queensland’s eastern coast, retirees Erna-Jean and Claudio Pozzetti saw the premium on their share of an apartment complex triple from 2019 to 2020, according to a report by Australian TV network ABC News. The $174,000 premium is nearly 10 times what they paid when they had bought the units 14 years before.

The result is a dangerous negative feedback loop: as insurance premiums rise, reflecting the growing risk of damage, so does the number of uninsured households. A 2019 report by the Australian government Competition and Consumer Commission found that the rate on non-insurance in northern Australia was growing. Already it is roughly double the national average: one in five residents haven’t insured their home, compared with one in ten nationwide.

In March, the boss of Australian financial regulator the Prudential Regulatory Authority, Sean Carmody, told a Senate hearing that rising insurance premiums following extreme weather events may put coverage out of reach for many people, threatening the stability of the wider economy. Next July, a $10bn government fund, reducing the cost of premiums for homeowners and making sure insurers don’t lose money protecting at risk homes, will be introduced to help stem the increases.

“The biggest nut we have to crack is to provide the premium incentive in an environment where premiums are increasing in line with natural perils,” says Davies. The stakes for governments and insurers to find a way of nudging homeowners to protect themselves could hardly be higher. Until then, in the face of a fast-advancing climate crisis, adequate home protection may remain the reserve of those, like Amy Kolle and the Provençal second home clients of Price, who can afford it.

 

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“Those who want to live in the wilderness are going to have to accept that they must build accordingly.” Ann Gray FRICS
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