Should You Build a Timber Home in a Bushfire-Prone Area?

If you’re building a new home in a bushfire-prone area, creating a design that includes the appropriate features to minimise risk is a must to give you peace of mind and provide your home and family with the greatest level of protection.

But what about materials?

On the surface, it may seem reasonable to expect that using non-flammable materials like concrete and steel is always the best choice, but this is definitely not the case. With the right design decisions, it is absolutely possible to build a beautiful, sustainable timber home in a bushfire-prone area.

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Despite the common misconception that timber should be avoided in areas at risk of bushfire because it is flammable, it is in fact a great option. Like the other common building material choices, it all comes down to the right design and appropriate products. When you tick these boxes and your design is built to meet the relevant Australian standards, timber can safely be used to ‘build out’ bushfires, even in areas with the highest BAL ratings.

So if you’re looking to build your dream home on a property located in a bushfire-prone area, read on to learn more about how timber homes perform in fire and what the requirements are in at-risk areas, to discover if a timber home could be the right choice for you.

Is it safe to build a timber home in a bushfire-prone area?

This is often one of the first questions we get asked by clients looking to build in a location at risk of fire—and the answer is yes! There is absolutely no issue with building a timber home in bushfire-prone areas when it is designed well and constructed in accordance with AS 3959. It is also important to note that the Australian standard rules apply and are the same for all building materials, whether they are timber or not.

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When you choose the right timber products, and design to meet and exceed the standards, a timber home is a smart choice. For example, in Australia, there are a range of high-density timbers that provide a natural level of bushfire resistance including Blackbutt, Red Ironbark, Spotted Gum and Kwila (Merbau). In addition, products such as Fireshell intumescent barrier coating can be added to other varieties of timber to increase their level of resistance and allow them to meet the requirements of up to BAL-29. Building a mass timber home also offers an increased level of protection due to the air tightness and density of the panels, as the structure and design results in the outer layer first charring, then extinguishing the flame, protecting the inner layer from damage. Interestingly, timber homes can be designed and built in a way that makes them more predictable in fire, meaning they can in fact be a safer option than steel and concrete homes.

What are BAL ratings and AS requirements?

In Australia, if your land is located in an area at risk of bushfires, your property will be classified with a BAL (Bushfire Attack Level) rating. There are six possible BAL ratings, from low risk to extreme, and each comes with its own set of requirements for design, but the overall aim is to ‘build the fire out’. This involves reducing the risk of ember, flame damage and radiant heat. The AS 3959 on the other hand, is the building standard that applies to all new buildings, setting out the rules and requirements that must be followed to comply and receive a certificate of occupancy.

Which parts of the home are built differently in bushfire-prone areas?

In bushfire-prone areas, your BAL rating will determine the type of materials that you can use in some areas of your home, as well as other design features that must be included. However, there are no restrictions on the type of structural timber that can be used for framing and internal fittings such as floors and cabinetry in any homes. This means it is perfectly safe to use engineered, softwood or hardwood structural timber for framing, regardless of the location or BAL rating of your home.

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For homes with a high BAL rating, there are strict specifications for external features such as wall systems, decking and window frames, as well as roofing. Within the requirements there are a range of suggestions for the best weatherboard and cladding materials for use, which gives you the option to select timber products that are attractive and effective in minimising your risk, particularly when fire-resistant coatings are added.

What makes mass timber a good choice?

With the right design, mass timber, or LGL wood can be the ideal building material for your home, including in bushfire-prone areas. It is sustainable, attractive, highly energy-efficient and creates a comfortable and healthy space. Plus, the density and structure of the panels means they will not ignite easily, especially when coated with fire-resistant products and built to minimise gaps and thermal bridging. The panels will act in a similar way to a thick log, which when set alight with a match, the outer layer will char, but it will extinguish the flame before it can penetrate and reach the inner layer. Our timber spruce panels can be deemed to be bushfire-resisting in properties up to BAL-29 with the addition of a fire-resistant paint system coating, while for homes built in BAL-40 and BAL-FZ, fire-resistant external cladding will be required.

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The deficiencies of traditional lightweight construction in a fire was demonstrated in a real-time study conducted by CSIRO fire researchers. A home was built using steel for the framing and walls, set alight and allowed to burn as it would in a bushfire attack. There were breaches in the windows and doors, and gaps in the design allowed smoke to enter the home. The fire also penetrated the walls and burned through the insulation, causing the steel framing to buckle. This again highlighted the importance of design as the key factor in building a home in bushfire-prone areas—if the design is not up to scratch, the home is at risk, no matter what materials are used.

Our mass timber homes have been successfully built in areas at high risk of bushfire around Australia. If you’re looking to build a sustainable, healthy home or backyard cabin in a bushfire-prone area, contact your local YZY Kit Homes authorised builder and supplier today to find out if our sustainable designs are a good fit for your project.