The risk of losing a home to fire is a familiar concept for many Australians. The immediate response of support and relief is, sadly, often only for short periods of time – as long as an event stays on the news. But the long-term impacts are felt for many years. The reality is, rebuilding a house takes months (if quick), but often years and rebuilding a home can take decades and generations.
On Christmas eve 2015, a major bushfire ripped through the coastal town of Wye River, located along Victoria’s Great Ocean Road and clustered with Separation Creek, Kennett River and Grey River. The blaze claimed 116 homes – both holiday retreats and permanent residences between Lorne and Apollo Bay.
There are rarely any paved roads in Wye River, and there is a lovely casual sense of place. A quality that explains why there is a permanent population. Many of the houses in Wye River pre-bushfire resembled beach shacks. Built in the 1950s and 60s, most were made of timber, stored timber under verandahs and decks or perched in very dense dry bush – all things highly conducive to burning.
Matt Goodman Architecture Office (MGAO) has a close and enduring relationship with Wye River. Matt’s family have been going there for years and were there the weekend before the 2015 bushfire. His immediate reaction was: How can I help?
The studio put out an open letter through the local CFA, the pub and the general store. An invitation, if you like, to the permanent residents of Wye River who lost their homes. Three of the twelve permanent residents took up the offer – all pro bono. The offer was to assist with either rebuilding the original house like-for-like or designing something new. Each client opted to design something new.
The practice’s mindset was “whatever it takes”, not some phases only, no caveats – from concept design to practical completion, MGAO was there the whole way. Matt admits he was very naïve, and “ill-equipped” with the skills needed – tricky sites, tight budgets and the emotional toll his new clients were experiencing. He reflects on this experience, “if I had only helped with concept design, rather than from concept to completion and move-in for these clients, I would have made their situation worse. They had just lost everything; I was determined to help get them into new homes.”
Following three pro-bono projects in Wye River, Matt’s approach to future pro-bono work is two-fold. Firstly, wherever possible, always provide full architectural services. It’s hard work, but very rewarding. Secondly, being open to learning from each client, and providing architecture services for free is one thing, but the amount learned from the people who have experienced hardship and this kind of loss, is much, much more.