Architects’ Potential for Community Recovery

Rob Stent , 4 February 2020

As architects discuss how best to support recovery from the current bushfires, it is helpful to reflect on previous experiences and processes. What can we learn? Rob Stent’s examination of the recovery process after the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires provides cautionary insight and suggestions for the future.

My research into architects’ roles in disaster recovery planning following the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires suggests there was little integration of design skills in the process and inadequate community engagement. Architects found themselves working in difficult situations, with inadequate support, and the outcomes for the community were compromised. There are many lessons to be drawn from this that are relevant to architects who intend to be involved in the 2019/2020 bushfires recovery. These should inform their engagement and participation individually and at the level of the profession.

As architects mobilise to aid the current bushfire recovery, the profession must also focus on avoiding repeating past mistakes. Architects must be prepared to participate in new ways. They will need to listen, to be open and collaborative. They must understand that recovery is a challenging, long-term project, and they must be patient and be prepared to put in the time required. This includes co-design methods that may be challenging for some architects. We will also need new models of engagement and practice. Isolated and detached services will not be adequate for the complexity entailed in recovery. Mainstream practice conventions will also need to shift so that we can support the provision of services to a community client base not familiar with architects.

The Challenges of 2009

Design is not part of EMV (Emergency Management Victoria) emergency management processes. If it was, it was neither intentional nor coordinated. – Anonymous emergency management interviewee, 2019.

The 2009 recovery processes were administered by authorities on the basis of “rebuild back brick by brick” – following an exhortation by then-Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd. This was performed in a rush, and overlooked the significance of community input in terms of local knowledge and aspirations. The lack of consultation meant that recovery planning was not well received by the affected communities, and this impacted those few architects who were engaged to deliver services.1 Where architects were involved – such as the masterplanning and design of temporary villages at Kinglake and Marysville – they had to provide “on-the-run services” without a brief or program. The work was procured through unsustainable pro-bono services, and the architects were subject to brutal recovery management processes. This led to significant financial difficulty for the practices involved.Despite these many problems, those who took up residence in the temporary villages appreciated the architects’ efforts, which supported them in regaining hope and re-establishing a sense of camaraderie in the community.

In 2020, design skills are still largely absent in recovery planning in Victoria. At the time of writing, there is minimal engagement between the architectural profession and emergency management services, and neither group understands the priorities and skills of the other. This myopic dissonance is a barrier to enhancing recovery. Serious questions must be asked.

  • Will the current recovery process be a repeat of the past?
  • How can recovery processes adapt and improve?
  • Is there scope for the architect’s skills to be integrated?

Building Back Better

Looking ahead, recent research identifies the need for inclusive, creative transformative recovery models. These include the Building Back Better principles and framework, which are based on the idea that post-disaster recovery and reconstruction present an opportunity to reduce vulnerability to future disasters and to build community resilience in physical, social, environmental and economic terms.3 This is essential as we face a future of climate change disasters of increasing frequency and severity, which are predicted to impact environments at the urban scale. The preparation needed for such events includes considering how to reshape the socio-ecological and urban/socio/built form settings of communities.4 This should be the aim of governments and their recovery agencies – What is better? How can it be achieved in current and future circumstances? Sadly, these questions have yet to be articulated.

If transformative recovery planning models are adopted following the 2019/2020 bushfires, in part or fully, design skills will be required to address the complexity of recovery challenges. Design skills will be needed for spatial planning, while diagnostic design thinking will be crucial to identifying solutions and planning their implementation. But this must be done within suitable frameworks. Traditional design approaches and service models are unlikely to work.

The 2019/20 Bushfires recovery processes will be complex and challenging. Not all recoveries will be the same, as all communities are different. Architects must understand the following if they are to be involved:

  • Recovery is a long-term process, taking five or more years.
  • People who have lost homes, possessions, neighbours or livelihoods will be struggling mentally.
  • Defining the problems is essential for a recovery plan to emerge – these will be different according to the context.
  • Recovery requires enormous efforts, resources and planning.
  • Identifying who is in charge, and of what, can be difficult. There will be many actors and voices.
  • Architects wanting to be involved would be better to do so through professional associations to organise with the relevant emergency/ recovery management.
  • Community knowledge is essential for recovery planning and cannot be ignored or taken for granted.
  • Communities will likely establish Community Recovery Committees (CRCs) to work in conjunction with their local governments and recovery management.
  • CRCs will determine their own priorities for recovery and expect these to be delivered.
  • Architects will need to listen to, understand and respect recovery goals and objectives. If not, they will not be welcome.

The Stages of Recovery – How Can Architects Help?

Recovery occurs in two main stages – immediate relief and recovery implementation. There is potential for architects to be involved in both stages. The following offers some insights into the potential services for recovery and how these can be appropriately undertaken. These could be offered to a range of groups and organisations, including state and local governments, recovery management authorities or agencies, and communities and their representative committees.

Stage 1: Relief: Immediate Post-disaster Needs

How are people and communities going to be able to survive? What is the place making options for communities in these circumstances? – Corinne Bowen, interview 2019

The first stage of recovery is ensuring that people and their environment are made safe and essential services are provided. These include toilets, showers, clean water, laundries, emergency funds, asbestos kits and first aid kits. This stage takes time. It is essential to ensure that the clean-up process removes dangerous materials and determines, considers and resolves other risks that may arise as a consequence. This work is undertaken by the emergency management authorities and agencies such as the Red Cross. It will already be underway and affected areas may remain inaccessible for some time.

Future needs can be considered concurrently. Renewal will require innovative thinking regarding land use options and there is potential for architects to provide services in this.

Architects have the potential to contribute to enhanced recovery planning through research and analysis processes. Collecting, recording and mapping data is necessary for the right decisions for recovery to be made. Considerations include:

  • The extent and causes of damage to existing housing, commercial and business premises, open space and infrastructure.
  • The fires’ directions and levels of impact on the environment and natural systems.

Data collection requires engagement with community members, local government and the recovery agency. It informs recovery options for future facilitated community consultation, which includes testing the viability of various options, along with support and potential investment for their implementation.

In the later part of the clean-up stage, further roles for architects may exist – if there is capacity within CRCs and agreement from the recovery management. These include:

  • Providing iterative design processes within facilitated development workshops. Sketching can be a useful way to enable feedback from community and open discussion across disciplines.
  • Assisting with cost-benefit analysis and implementation methods.
  • Providing graphic visualisation for communicating options back to the wider community and government agencies.
Stage 2: Recovery Implementation

‘Recovery’ does not occur in one or two years. A lifeline of at least five years must be recognised by governments. There is ample research to support this statement. – CRCs Advice for Government, 2011

Disaster impacts routine. People seek to go back to what was, but the old is likely to be unsafe and, most likely, impossible to reinstate. Timing is a key consideration. Restoring communication infrastructure, social capital and identity are among the first priorities of recovery.

After this, time is needed to support recovery. Clinical psychologist Dr Rob Gordon explains that an extensive period is needed for traumatised people to be able to start re-thinking alternative options for their future, including resilient housing and settings for their community.5 This requires planning for future workshops with neutral and experienced facilitation. This should include community leadership and an iterative process that allows options to be reduced and refined through assessment based in evidence from research data.

Communities must own solutions. Best practice recovery solutions emerge when communities are able to acknowledge the risk and benefits.6 This means that if architects are to participate effectively in recovery, we must acknowledge that conventional professional biases and attitudes of authority will likely fail to gain community support.7 Architects need to welcome ambiguity and be open to inquiry. They should not pre-empt solutions and must be prepared to collaborate with community and relevant disciplines to allow solutions to evolve.

Design of Temporary Village Accommodation

Actively engage in post-disaster accommodation options in their area and appreciate that local conditions, culture and history will inform these options. – CRCs Advice for Government, 2011

Following the 2009 Bushfires, architects’ efforts in designing temporary village accommodation (under difficult circumstances) were successful in restoring family life, community social networks and a sense of belonging. These are important ingredients that aid individual and community recovery.

There is potential for architects to be involved in design and coordination of temporary village accommodation with recovery management agencies and CRC. Key considerations include:

  • Masterplanning the village in a way that provides connections yet allows privacy.
  • Ensuring that the type and configuration of housing includes accommodation that is suitable for families and pets.
  • Providing central facilities, playgrounds and barbecue areas that create opportunities for engagement.

It is important to understand that the recovery agency personnel managing the initial process may not have any experience of working with architects. If this is the case, architects must be prepared and skilled to communicate how design principles will lead to beneficial outcomes – otherwise, the result may be a military barrack layout.8

Questions that should be considered for building back better, which should be explored through research and community engagement, include:

  • What are the appropriate options for temporary and interim housing?
  • Who needs to be housed?
  • Where do you locate housing away from risk areas? Can this be done?
  • What types of housing are needed? What are the budgets?
  • What are the better alternatives to conventional land use planning? What would this look like?

Restoring the Social Fabric

Communities have different levels of social capital cohesion and capacity for decision-making. Quickly re-establishing social settings is crucial for developing a sense of normalcy and confidence for the future. This can include temporary or repurposed buildings for schools, commercial centres with pubs and shops, and sporting facilities. Schools can also act as a hub for community meetings.

There is potential for architects to be involved in the design and coordination in the following ways:

  • Working with CRC, or nominated community representatives, on masterplanning locations and potential aggregation for a community hub that will assist in revitalising social, economic and cultural life.
  • Identifying the benefits and communicating these visually – to the wider community and to government and potential philanthropic entities as part of obtaining investment for implementation.

Traumatised Communities and People Require Time to Recover

Short-term and rushed decisions are not good decisions. Trauma psychologist Dr Rob Gordon observes that this applies to people rushing to rebuild and to the well-meaning architects wanting to assist them.9

Following disaster, people can lose their sense of self and confidence. This creates stress, anxiety and mental health issues, which can lead to family violence, relationship break-ups, substance abuse and potential addiction, and self-harm, or suicide. People will tend to want to replace what they have lost, rather than consider what options may be better in the long term. Time is needed for psychological recovery and to overcome the stress of a lost home and belongings to arrive. Only then are people at a point where they can consider alternative solutions.

Dr Gordon says that it may take at least two years of recovery for people to be able to re-imagine a different future. Architects assisting damaged communities must acknowledge this. It will take a commitment of time, involving a series of steps for emotional healing to occur and good decisions to be made.

Economic Revitalisation

Economic recovery has been so challenging for our communities. Supporting businesses and employment into the long-term is critical. Many people had no ‘job’ to return to after the fire or were unable to continue with their careers as they had before. – CRCs Advice for Government, 2011

Bringing life to a community’s economy is a priority post-disaster.10 This may require different decisions depending on the particular circumstances and context of the community. Regional communities that rely on tourism will require significant assistance to attract tourists back to their shops, cafes and accommodation. In some instances, destroyed retail will need to be replaced with temporary pop up structures and buildings. This may require entire new economic ventures or activities to emerge through research for investment and implantation.

Architects can assist in determining priorities with design methods to test, validate and communicate the new economic options. As above, this includes communicating potential masterplan options and architectural proposals to gain support for investment and implementation.

Community is Central to Recovery: Co-design

Design requires one to be relevant to the context. Local government is important, it is leading the way (with increasing resilience capacity). They know their communities. Local knowledge is crucial. Community members can generate amazing solutions – you can be blown away. – Brett Ellis, interview 2019.

Local government and Community Recovery Committees (CRC) are central to recovery planning. The best way to engage community is through co-design, which implies that every decision should be community made and owned. This is a long-term process requiring shared leadership and management, team building and development of relationships.11 However, co-design processes can be challenging in post-disaster contexts, and architects should be aware of potential difficulties.

Not all communities are the same. Some may lack support for local and community-based leadership. This can derail the best intentions in a co-design process. Friction can emerge within communities as to the best approach, and well-considered, evidence-based decision making can also be difficult to achieve.12 There may be a propensity to rush rebuilding. Many people will want to restore the past, while others will seek to consider alternatives.

Encouraging early input from community members assists co-design. This requires a workable framework for management and facilitation. Decisions should be made transparently, with regular outward communication to those not directly involved.13

Further, for architects to be effective, they should not commit to ready-made solutions.14 Unilateral actions and opinions will create barriers to workable relationships within the community. Architects must understand and appreciate their local conditions, culture and history. This will assist collaboration and develop mutual trust. However, there is no guarantee of success. As Webb advises; “even where best efforts are made in these respects, current institutional mindsets, cultures, roles and practices will often be a barrier to the take-up of the direct findings.” This means we also need to shift conventional biases within planning policy and building regulatory settings, particularly as they relate to urban environments.

Participation with the Community

The opinions you need to hear may not be the ones you want to hear. – Marie Aquilino, MoDDD webinar interview, 2016

Listening is an essential skill when working in disaster recovery.15 Community participation can be likened to conversation – it ebbs and flows. Participants must be alert to the nuances of harmony and difference and include both in the presentation and discussion of ideas. Relationships formed on mutual trust can work through different points of view to achieve compromise.

To be positively effective, architects need to listen and work with CFCs to understand their problems and requirements and allow recovery solutions to emerge. In addition, design will need to be evidence-based, not grounded in pre-conceived opinions or ego. The mapping exercises discussed earlier also provide opportunities for architects to be seen engaging on the ground. This helps break down barriers and creates confidence in the process. It also helps identify opportunities for community knowledge and feedback to emerge and, if necessary, to be contested. Design becomes an actionable loop of iteration for testing, input and feedback with community and recovery management.16

It will be necessary for architects to work alongside experienced facilitators in disaster situations to organise and manage community consultation sessions and project meetings. It is also important to seek out the voices not heard, such as children.17 Research provides evidence of the positive contribution they can make for enhancing recovery planning and design of spaces and facilities. They are easily overlooked.


If design and designers could be sensitively engaged early in the aftermath (of a disaster) to help the community out of the dichotomy: rebuild the old vs an unknown future, it would be supportive, but the designers would need to be carefully introduced and establish their credibility, then offer consultation to help the community determine what they would like as a new dream for their community. – Dr. Rob Gordon, interview 2019

Architects should not rush to design. The process of inquiry is an imperative. Adequate time for community recovery is essential to consider better and resilient options. Architects need to be cognisant that there is no one size fits all, easy solutions for housing recovery following disaster. In their research paper following the Black Saturday bushfires of 2009Greg Ireton and Iftekhar Ahmed offered this advice:

Within the array of support from the government and NGOs, there exists an opportunity for built environment and design professionals to avoid focussing in isolation on the final house as product. Such products, though well designed, when separated from context may be unaffordable or not appropriate in the context of the difficult post-disaster dilemmas that disaster-affected people experience. Instead, housing options that blur the distinction between temporary and permanent should be explored. Such housing could be quick to build, offer an acceptable quality of life, be affordable for most people (thereby reducing dependency on extensive government and donor support) and be flexible for adaptation to future use.

In the first stages of recovery, opportunities exist for architects to provide advice for options for interim housing options such as modular kit forms of different configurations. These may be able to be adapted later for re-use or extended to accommodate for the longer term. For housing recovery, research can be undertaken for identifying people’s needs of housing types following on from consultation. The complexity of insurance claims approval, potential under-insurance, government assistance protocols and building approvals requiring fire code construction requirements all must be grappled with. These issues will likely be barriers to construction of much of the housing and may take up to two or more years. This period aligns with the time people need to be able to make better decisions as previously discussed. The construction of housing should aim to assist the community economy by employment and investment and, therefore, novel pre-made housing schemes to be shipped should be avoided.

Lastly… and briefly

Architects, and thereby design, have not been a core component in past disaster recovery in Australia. Asking “Why is this?” challenges the profession to connect with emergency management agencies. Likewise, emergency and recovery management lacks design skills. If past recoveries are anything to go by, the absence of design and comprehensive oversight and analysis of the complexity of recovery will be a barrier to building back better.

To improve recovery, a framework for design to enhance the recovery process should be considered. This would inform the architectural profession as to how they can better contribute their services and acquaint themselves with the processes that are now being prepared, if not already underway.

If not designed, how can recovery be built back better?



1. Greg Ireton et al, Rebuilding lessons from bushfire-affected communities in Victoria, Australia. Chapter 2, Community Engagement in Post-Disaster Recovery, (London: Routledge, 2017).

2. Interviews with Peter Johns and Chris Stanley, 2019.

3. Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery, Building Back Better in Post-Disaster Recovery

4. Robert Webb, Xuemei Bai, Mark Stafford Smith et al, “Sustainable urban systems: Co-design and framing for transformation”, Ambio 47, Issue 1, 2017, pp, 44–77

5. Interview with DR Rob Gordon, 2019

6. A. Scolobig, et al, “Towards people-centred approaches for effective disaster risk management; Balancing rhetoric with reality”,International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction 12, 2015, pp. 202–212.

7. Donald Schon, The Reflective Practitioner: How professionals think in action. (London, Ashgate Publishing, 1993).

8. Interview with Peter Johns, 2019.

9. Interview with Dr Rob Gordon, 2019.

10. Ed Blakely, 2016

11. Webb et al, “Sustainable urban systems”.

12. Ireton et al, Rebuilding lessons from bushfire-affected communities in Victoria

13. Community Recovery Committee, Lessons Learned by Community Recovery Committees of the 2009 Victorian Bushfires– Advice for Government, May 2011.

14. Marie Aquilino, “The Architecture of Disaster Recovery: A Call to Arms for Designers from the World’s Most Vulnerable Regions” The Solution Journal 2 Issue 5, 2011, 43–50; Wen Huei Chou and Ju-Joan Wong, “From a Disciplinary to an Interdisciplinary Design research: Developing an Integrative Approach for Design” Design International Journal of Art and Design Education, 2011.

15. Schon, The Reflective Practitioner.

16. Webb et al, “Sustainable urban systems”.

17. Interview with Dr Rob Gordon, 2019.



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Corinne Bowen, Acting Manager Business and Community Well Being, Yarra Ranges Council; Mike Day, Urban Design and Director of Roberts Day; Brett Ellis, Former General Manager, Risk and Resilience Emergency Management Victoria; Bruce Esplin AM, Former Emergency Services Commissioner, Victoria; Jill Garner, State Government Architect, Office of the Victorian Government Architect; Dr Rob Gordon, Clinical Psychologist with expertise in working with people affected by emergencies and disaster; Greg Ireton, Disaster Recovery Adviser and Research Fellow, School of Population and Global Health, Melbourne University; Peter Johns, Butterpaper Architects/Emergency Architects; Rob Spence, Former CEO of Municipal Association of Victoria, Current Director of Spence Consulting Group; Chris Stanley, Splinter Society Architects.

Rob Stent is a practising architect and a former founding Director of Hayball, where he held the position of leading design in the practice, spanning a broad variety of projects throughout Australia and overseas.

A keen advocate for high quality built environment outcomes and the architectural profession, Rob has served on numerous government and professional bodies, fostering valuable relationships between industry, business, universities and government. He is a past president of the Victoria Chapter of the Australian Institute of Architects (2004–2006) and has been a member of the Institutes National Council and numerous award juries and taskforces. He regularly contributes to professional journals and mainstream media on planning and design issues and policy.

Rob is a Life Fellow of the Australian Institute of Architects, a founding member of the Robin Boyd Foundation and a founding Governor of the Master Builders Association (Victoria) Foundation.

His current interests concern the advocacy of delivery of design services to a wider community where architecture is largely absent. For this, he has undertaken study within the Master of Disaster Design and Development at RMIT with the aim to determine how design can positively contribute to disaster and climate change solitions.