Monday, January 31, 2011

THE 'FLOOD-PROOF' HOUSE REVIEWED

THE RAYNER FLOOD HOUSE
Mr. Rayner’s design concept for what could be described as a ‘floodable home’ published in The Weekend Australian 22-23 January 2011 is a concern - (see THE 'FLOOD-PROOF' HOUSE for the full report). The ideas are schematic and simplistic: raise some of the habitable spaces above flood level and make the rooms easy to clean out; yet the image suggests a fully resolved scheme that promises more complex and refined possibilities than these basic aims. The words suggest that there is some relationship with the character of the traditional Queensland house, but this seems to be optimistic. The concept of stumps, or structure, going to the roof, all clad in a skin of what is called ‘bling’ may describe many of Brisbane’s recent buildings with their dramatic ‘Sieg Heil!’ roofs, raking posts, floating panel walls and projecting planes; but the words conjure up a smart pole house rather than the subtle sophistication and necessity derived from the traditional building system that was used with eminent success for buildings varying in scale from the basic humble worker’s cottage to the elaborate decorative grand mansion. This range of success was achieved without apology or tension and with much integral grace, charm and dignity, free from the whims of forced fashion with its egocentric, self-conscious search for style. The Rayner sketch is also graphically ambivalent, indicating a puzzling patch of blue that starts one wondering: Is it river frontage or flood? What are the various pieces and other patches for? What are the blocked forms and projections doing? The Queenslander has an honest form and is adaptable for all sites, not just for river frontage or flood-prone sites. It fitted all locations - the modest, narrow inner-city streets as well as the grander avenues of more open areas, all with memorable outcomes.

There is another concern with this proposal that promotes itself as a solution for flood-prone sites using a financial parallel: it equates the cost of building this floodable home with that of the rebuilding of a typical Queenslander, as if the Queenslanders will need rebuilding. I can recall the 1974 floods and the ridges projecting above the liquid sludge in Fairfield, but I cannot remember the rebuilding of Fairfield. Indeed, the homes are still there, and can still be looked at with some incredulity – until January 2011 when we saw it all again. The buildings on the 12,000 plus extra post-1974 inundated properties may be different, but if a Queenslander needs to be relocated away from the flood waters, then it can be moved on the back of a semitrailer. If the traditional house needs to be repositioned above the floods, then it can be raised on taller stumps. Some of the newer homes are capable of a similar flexibility. The Queensland house is an extremely adaptable design that used durable materials. Why rebuild the Queenslander that had water rise through it? The Rayner solution seems to ignore these qualities and possibilities as it does the essential character of these places. It also glosses over the issues of functions, context, and orientation in its model, disregarding the significance of these matters for the shaping of form while having no qualms about being explicit with stylistic elements.

The Rayner strategy overlooks critical questions: Is the existing design flood level for Brisbane too low? What is the most appropriate design flood level for Brisbane? This matter of flood heights is brushed aside with the apparent brash implication that, with the Rayner concept, water level just does not matter; that water can be readily accommodated in the design. Flood levels may not be important for a new home that is apparently happy to go underwater at, it seems, whatever level might arise, but it is critical for the rest of Brisbane and for Brisbane’s future.

In spite of this floodable home solution, I suggest that the flood trauma will remain. The floodable home concept seems to be happy to have the lower carport, store, laundry, living area, entry and main stair all flooded, along with the upper-level kitchen, dining and living areas – and perhaps a toilet/bathroom space too – all apparently without any significant impact. It is as though these areas can all be made water and mud-proof, and built to be easily hosed out. The design promotes the uppermost floor (of bedrooms, study and ensuites) as the refuge for belongings to be moved to above the rising flood levels that are anticipated never to reach higher than the intermediate level. The acceptance of this arbitrary flooding limit appears to be one of the more obscure aspects of this scheme that seeks to promote some assurance on the basis of a hopeful design assumption alone. The principle is that if the water gets to the third level, then the whole of Brisbane would be in serious trouble too. This communal disaster seems a strange limit to use for a design criterion. Having the walls opening on the second level to allow for the mud to be removed from these spaces might provide an opportunity for interesting awning walls but it will not mean that life will be easy or back to normal without any major hassles. One must also remember the obvious: that costly kitchen and bathroom areas are not easily moved up to a higher level.

Images like the Rayner sketch suggest a quick fix to a very complex matter and avoid yet another fundamental question: Should we continue to build on the flood plains? It is a question that should have been asked in 1974 but was sadly ignored, put aside by the apparent (or hoped-for) miracle of Wivenhoe Dam with its promise of a reduction of two metres in the 1974 levels. These figures seemed to be taken as gospel by the Brisbane City Council that illustrated them on maps to show the reduced impact of a future flood on Brisbane. The fact that Wivenhoe Dam only ever managed water flows from one portion of the total Brisbane River catchment never appeared to be a concern to anyone, just as the idea that the dam might fill up never seemed to be contemplated. One new danger with this floodable home idea is that suavely presented schematic concepts like Mr. Rayner’s only offer us yet another ‘Wivenhoe’ distraction and assurance. The heartache will remain even with Brisbane’s transformation into a quirky third-world-styled river village – a pole city complete with copious layers of ‘bling’, a fashionable word that can be defined architecturally as an exuberance of expensive and ostentatious excrescences for a slick and smart show, like flashy jewellery worn especially as an indication of wealth.

This concept is really no solution to the problem of flooding or for the character of a rebuilt Brisbane. One might as well suggest a ‘pontoon’ house that rises up the poles with the floodwaters. At least it would always be above the wet. If one was to use some sarcasm, it could be said that such an approach could become yet another icon to show how Brisbane is a ‘world class’ city complete with ‘world class’ technology – a little like that used on our floating walkway, a part of which is now apparently still floating away out to sea along with numerous other pontoons.

The problem of floods in Brisbane needs to be looked at in all of its complexity and addressed with the hard decisions that were neglected in 1974. It is this delay that makes everything much more difficult today. There are no easy design or other solutions to this dilemma. If the issues are ignored again, we can only look forward to a future of flood; clean up; patch up - flood; etc., again and again. Being told that Queenslander’s are tough and resilient may be somewhat reassuring in times of hardship, but this does not make such a future set of confronting challenges a necessity. Decisions on actions needed to change the future require careful and rigorous assessment and review, and should not be sidetracked by attractively entertaining diagrammatic images that divert attention by delineating the ghost of a mirage for a hopeful future that is unlikely to be what the design seems to want to promote.

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