South Coast home designed to survive devastating bushfire unscathed

Paul Whitington and partner Kerri-Lee Harris wander through their burnt Wonboyn property. Photo: Ben Smyth
Paul Whitington and partner Kerri-Lee Harris wander through their burnt Wonboyn property. Photo: Ben Smyth

With black trees and scorched earth as far as you can see, it's incredible to think anything could have survived the New Year's Eve bushfires.

However, for Wonboyn couple Paul Whitington and Kerri-Lee Harris, their house stands, almost entirely untouched, and they are also fascinated by the life returning to their "personal ecosystem".

Paul and Kerri-Lee purchased four hectares of land in Wonboyn in 2003, keen to surround themselves with pristine forest upon retirement from Melbourne academia.

However, as keen naturalists they knew they needed to think carefully about appropriate home building.

Their years of research quite clearly paid off, as their fire-proof home stands unblemished while all around is devastated.

In fact the only thing obviously damaged are the downpipes, Dali-esque in their molten and bubbled appearance.

"We always knew it was going to happen at some point," Paul says.

"Designing a fire-proof home was our number one priority.

"We wanted to be surrounded by nature and not disturb that forest more than was needed to satisfy building requirements. Then on the rest of the block we let nature take its course."

While the house looks plain and unassuming from the outside - "it's just a box" Paul says a tradesman once remarked - it's a gorgeous and comfortable home inside.

Kerri-Lee and Paul's home remains untouched despite their property coming under direct attack fro the New Year's bushfire. Photo: Ben Smyth

Kerri-Lee and Paul's home remains untouched despite their property coming under direct attack fro the New Year's bushfire. Photo: Ben Smyth

"We didn't give up on anything for the sake of fire-proofing. But the compromise people may not be prepared to make is the external appearance.

The "simple and straightforward" rectangle construction avoids "re-entrant corners" where embers or combustible material could get trapped.

The home is around 150sqm in size on a slab ("so no embers can get underneath anywhere"), and constructed from Hebel blocks.

There's no timber used on the externals, including the main deck, which is concrete and slate tiles.

It even has concrete sheeting for eaves rather than any combustible material.

The only obvious damage to the external of the house is the loss of the downpipes, which melted in the intense heat.

The only obvious damage to the external of the house is the loss of the downpipes, which melted in the intense heat.

The extension of those eaves was also accurately measured to keep out summer sun while short enough to allow it to shine through in winter.

Windows are steel framed and double glazed, with electric shutters installed. Cleverly, the shutters' mechanisms are all built into the wall cavities.

That, along with the decision not to have air conditioning, makes the home energy efficient and essentially airtight.

"We were pretty confident the double glazing and shutters would be enough, but it turned out it was cheaper to have external sprinklers installed at the time of building rather than later on, so we had those commissioned too," Paul says.

"As it turned out we didn't end up using them as we weren't here - but they weren't needed."

Paul and Kerri-Lee's home still stands while all around it is black and burnt. Photo: Ben Smyth

Paul and Kerri-Lee's home still stands while all around it is black and burnt. Photo: Ben Smyth

The fire-proof design was constructed by Bermagui company Drakos Bros, at a cost of around $400,000 all up, with the specific fire-proofing measures only about 10 per cent of that total the couple says - provided the materials used throughout were appropriate.

"You don't have to build a weird house. It's conventional," Paul says.

Paul and Kerri-Lee said their intention all along was to stay at home, so confident were they of their design withstanding a fire.

And until January 2, that's exactly where they were.

"But the emergency services were pleading with everyone to leave and at that stage there was still a road out," Kerri-Lee says.

"We have friends in Canberra and thought, with our family watching what was happening on the news, we can't put them through that."

Kerri-Lee says, according to her sister, when her mother found out they had left for the capital "she was doing cartwheels".

"We didn't even take much with us as we assumed it would all be here when we got back, but leaving felt like the right thing by then."

The couple said they would have been more than confident to stay though.

"Sure we would've been anxious, but we were very confident the inside of the house would've been safe," Kerri-Lee says.

"We know that because when we returned, the conditions were very unpleasant, very smoky, the trees were still smouldering and roots underground on fire, but inside it was cool and comfortable."

Life returns

As Paul and Kerri-Lee share their story over a coffee, a lyrebird scratches in the ashen soil just metres from their door. A few metres beyond, a goanna meanders past looking for tasty morsels in the detritus.

The couples' trained eyes pick up a passing dragonfly and there, again, the first butterfly since the fire.

Across the black and grey wasteland of their property, glimpses of green abound - native flowers and grasses are poking through, burnt shrubs have fresh shoots at their base, and the grass trees have sprung back in numbers, their tips blackened, but with plenty of green beneath.

New signs of life shoot up through the fire-damaged earth. Photo: Ben Smyth

New signs of life shoot up through the fire-damaged earth. Photo: Ben Smyth

The couple "are interested in everything - insects, plants, fungi, birds..."

With their backgrounds in biology and natural sciences they are overjoyed to be surrounded by the natural beauty of the Far South Coast.

"We've become part of this ecosystem," Paul says, "which is what makes it so hard now, but it's been a wonderful experience."

They are both keen "citizen scientists" as well, conducting their own surveys on the property and uploading the results to NatureMapr and the Atlas of Life in the Coastal Wilderness (Kerri-Lee is the current chairwoman of that organisation).

At last count they say they've documented around 300 distinct species of moths, 30 species of butterflies, 200-plus plant species and 120 birds, "all just on this 10 acres".

They've even discovered a previously unknown species of parasitic wasp, which has been named in recognition of its home, Cotesia wonboynensis.

A silver lining to the bushfire emergency - if there's one to be had - is that Paul and Kerri-Lee are excited about the potential of watching their ecosystem regrow.

"It's kind of unique to be able to live on a site and study it for the next 10 years," Kerri-Lee says.

"We've now got the opportunity to watch it all rebuild - we won't interfere in that process," Paul adds.

"You could say we're excited, and that helps ease the pain of what we've lost."

Paul and Kerri-Lee document their life in paradise via a blog Life in a Southern Forest. Pay them a visit to see what else they are up to in this very special patch at Wonboyn.