People who have lost homes to bushfire this year are now facing a ticking time bomb. Most insurance companies cover rent for a year of temporary housing, starting from the day of the fire, but five months of that year has already passed and many sites are only now being cleared of debris, leaving a shrinking window for rebuilding.
A group of bushfire victims in the Bega Valley has banded together with Melbourne-based modular construction company Atomic 6 with the aim of being housed on their land by the end of 2020.
“We are dreaming of having a permanent structure on our burnt land in Yowrie when our insurance-paid rental runs out on 31 December,” says Felicie Vachon, who has spearheaded the idea locally.
“With the Atomic 6 project, we could be on our land, in an off-grid house with solar system, wastewater management and water catchment for a reasonable price in less than a year,” she says. “But to do that we need others to join us. The power of this project is in numbers.”
Atomic 6 CEO Andrew Lennox was in Cobargo last week and met with 12 households who are interested in the project, including Harry Binnendijk and partner Lena Kuppens, who lost their house, studio, workshop and sheds in the New Year’s Eve bushfire.
“At first, we thought about living in a caravan on the land and rebuilding, but after talking with people who have done it, we realised we could still be in the caravan in five years,” he says. “The reality of building is different to the dream. Now we just want something quick and Atomic 6 is offering that.”
Although Harry and Lena have a rental home for the winter, he says being without a home “throws your life upside down”.
As well as being off-grid, permanent, customisable and factory assembled in as little as two weeks, Atomic 6 homes are fire-resistant.
“It’s not really flames we’re worried about, it’s heat,” explains Andrew. “The fire that went through Cobargo created temperatures of up to 2000 degrees so we’re testing our building material under sustained high temperatures.”
The houses can also be equipped with heat-sensing sprinklers and shutters for windows and doors.
Harry says after losing everything in a fire, it feels like there are two options for rebuilding: build something super simple and cheap that you expect to burn, or invest in technologies that will help the house survive the next fire.
“The windows are obviously a weak point,” says Harry. “We’ve been talking with a builder in Cobargo, Steve MacDonald, who says we can have shutters that we hang before evacuating instead of having them permanently visible. It’s a good compromise.”
Atomic 6 is keen to employ local contractors where possible and Andrew has put plans in motion to lease a factory somewhere near Batemans Bay to begin putting together the homes.
“We want to create the best chance for people to come home to a house when this happens again,” says Andrew.
The Atomic 6 team is providing free support in the planning and permission stages because, says Andrew, this is where many people get held up, including architectural drawings, surveying, BAL assessments, septic permits, application forms and lodgement and liaising with local councils.
“The intent is to combine resources to tackle the planning and consulting en mass to gain better outcomes for very little cost,” says Andrew. “It’s the solution to the question: ‘Where do I start?'”
There is no obligation on residents to continue using Atomic 6 after the planning stage.
“A quotation will be done on an M2 rate/formula and in situations where a property is underinsured, Atomic 6 will seek assistance on top of our own contributions to narrow this gap,” says Andrew.
People often think of modular homes as temporary accommodation, but that is not the intent of these homes. The basic structure is streamlined to keep costs down but the homes can be customised.
“We are very keen to have a home again,” says Harry. “We’re happy to make it our own on the inside and pour our energy into the gardens and landscape instead of building.”
Andrew, who says the women of Cobargo are “driving everything”, says he saw in the eyes of the people he met this week a desperate plea not to let them down.
“My biggest fear is letting down these people,” he says. “But we’re doing it [the rebuilds] anyway because we had to do something.”
If you live in the Bega Valley or Eurobodalla Shire and want to replace a burnt building, contact Atomic 6.