With Australia choking on bushfire smoke, will our designs need to deal with the increased uninhabitability of our buildings-slash-nation?
January 14th, 2020
Back in the old days it wasn’t unusual for a house to smell of smoke. The combination of the romance of wood fires and a concerted worldwide effort by powerful corporate interests to undercut the link between smoking and cancer meant that many Australian houses were rich in the fragrance of freshly-hewn eucalypt stump and/or Uncle Don’s Winfield 25s.
And so, if you want to spin the last five months or so in the most go-for-broke rose-coloured-glasses-half-full manner possible, then the nation has been enjoying a stellar summer of olfactory nostalgia as houses in every state fill with the evocative, particle-dense perfume of burning Australia.
We’re barely halfway through summer and already facing a five billion dollars-and-climbing repair bill to devastated regions, and while the cities have largely been spared (for now) they’ve been blanketed in smoke for weeks at a time.
And what an exciting thrill it’s been, especially for the thousands of Australians rushed to emergency rooms with breathing difficulties – especially people with asthma, the elderly and the very young (my ten-month-old son among them). But for those of us who would like to continue breathing while being indoors, the question has been “how can I best keep the murder-smoke out of my house dear god is this how things are going to be from now on?”
Even our PM, whose response to the fires and environmental policy more broadly could be generously described as “idiosyncratic”, had a bit of a faux pas when a Sydney press conference to talk about the Religious Freedom bill and repeatedly refuse to answer questions about the fires was somewhat undercut by the smoke alarms going on and putting the entire building on lockdown.
That said, staying inside with everything shut tight is generally the first piece of very obvious advice to keep smoke out, although a lot of Australian houses are designed, very reasonably, to allow airflow to make it possible to live in them through record-breaking summer temperatures like the ones we’re now regularly experiencing. So if you’re in a Queenslander, for example, keeping smoke out will effectively require you to somehow laminate your entire house, or at least wrap it Contact.
Those in more traditional houses and flats might have a better chance thanks to fewer openable windows, but that just means that you have the choice between the smoky outdoors or the increasingly oven-like confines of your abode. Oh, and before you switch on the air conditioner: don’t. Unless you’re recirculating air from inside the house you’ll be drawing it from outside with all its bonus death-soot.
If you happened to invest in air purifiers then the 2019-20 season will be a godsend, since Australians have bought up big on the noisy room de-smokenators. Just be sure that you have a HEPA filter therein, you’re not trying to use it in too large a room, and be aware that it probably doesn’t pick up the ultrafine 2.5 micrometer particles in smoke which are the most hazardous. Say, anyone else feeling oddly tight in the chest right now?
Some people have resorted to wearing gas masks in their own homes, which is a last-ditch solution that has multiple downsides ranging from “they’re pretty uncomfortable” to “I’m now considering adding a top hat and forming a steampunk band”.
In fact, the official advice on what to do in times of heavy air pollution is to go somewhere else with less air pollution, which may not be the most useful advice to people with homes and jobs and other responsibilities which mean that they can’t, just as an example, decide to nip off to Hawaii for a bit and leave the deputy PM in charge.
In fact, in an ideal world, the best way to keep your house free from smoke is for Australia not to be gripped by a nightmarish firescape that is the long-predicted first act in a terrifying drama set in a harsh, arid continent uniquely vulnerable to the effects of climate change.
But failing that… you know, maybe a wet towel under the door?
Editors Note: We’d like to make our readers inside the industry aware of Architects Assist, Over 100 Australian architecture studios have combined to provide free design and planning services to the victims of the current Bushfire crisis. If you’re in a position to help we encourage you to get in touch with them, for more information please visit our site.
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