Working Closely with Bushfire-Affected Communities

Ninotschka Titchkosky , 29 January 2020

As architects consider how they might help bushfire-affected communities, BVN co-CEO Ninotschka Titchkosky revisits the rebuilding of the Narbethong Community Hall and offers some invaluable advice about bushfire recovery work.

The devastating Black Saturday Bushfires burned across the state of Victoria on Saturday, 7 February 2009, affecting 78 communities including Narbethong in the Upper Yarra Valley, 87km northeast of Melbourne. The small community of Narbethong lost the majority of its buildings, including its community hall. BVN provided pro bono architectural services for the rebuilding of the Narbethong Community Hall, which was opened on 26 November 2011 by the Governor of Victoria, Hon Alex Chernov AC, QC.

To learn more about the consultation process and community impressions of the completed project, see the BVN Narbethong Community Hall video.


What was the scope of the project?

BVN provided design, construction and process support to the Narbethong Community to rebuild their only community building. We were involved from inception to the end of construction.

How did you get involved?

We were initially contacted by Andrea Nield, the President of Emergency Architects Australia. Jennifer Wood, the Narbethong Community Hall Treasurer, found that she could not get the attention of the government agencies as Narbethong is a very small town between Marysville and Kinglake, two major communities that were severely impacted. She embarked on a search for help elsewhere and found Emergency Architects. Following initial contact by Andrea, I agreed to go and meet Jennifer and see what was needed. Our role really developed from there.

Unlike other projects, our ability to help the Narbethong Community was amplified because we worked directly with the community and were not hindered by government agency protocols. Emergency Architects were kept in the loop and assisted as needed, but otherwise we operated independently.

Nevertheless, the process we had to go through to help the community was extraordinary and would have been extremely difficult for them to navigate alone. BVN was able to bring Arup into the project (pro bono) to do all engineering and services; we managed to increase (almost double) their funding by inspiring private donors to fund the project and Red Cross to provide additional funding; we navigated extremely complex issues with the brigade and new BAL code (bushfire) requirements for design when they were still in the process of being created; and we managed to move the project procurement back from a Tier 1 contractor to local contractors and suppliers to assist with generating income in the local community.

We were extremely fortunate to have Jennifer Wood and the rest of the Committee, who were instrumental in working with us on these issues.

2 - Community Group

What kind of procurement model / contracts were involved? Was the work done pro bono?

BVN provided all work pro bono. It took approximately 2.5 years to complete the project due to uncertainty in government, changes in fire codes, insurance and donation monies, and procurement model changes. We were engaged directly with the community.

The construction procurement was challenging. The original intent was to ensure local trades would be involved in the new building; however, the Victorian Bushfire Reconstruction Authority (VBRA) decided they wanted to release multiple projects to major contractors in packages and Narbethong Hall got put into this. In collaboration with the community, we had to work hard to reverse this decision, so the community could take carriage of the procurement. Critical to us being able to achieve this was Jennifer Wood’s restructuring of the community finances to enable the insurance and donation money to be held in a way that was acceptable to the VBRA. Ultimately this was achieved, and we were able to tender the project to a smaller builder and trades. BVN then engaged Juliet Moore of Edwards Moore to run the site works in collaboration with BVN. Juliet lived locally in Kinglake and was affected by the fires.

How did you balance the pro bono work to ensure the financial security of your practice?

This is, of course, easier to manage as a large practice, as we have more projects to spread the financial contribution across. The difficulty for any practice is that these projects really do take a lot of time and to get real action you need to stay with them. We did not realise it would take 2.5 years to complete the project, but we equally never faltered in our commitment and nor did Arup. The community became dear friends and the process was incredibly rewarding for us all.

Ultimately, it’s important to assess what time you can genuinely commit to regardless of the project and then seek opportunities that fit this. There is potential that multiple smaller practices could join to help share project loads working as a team, or alternatively collaborations can be formed across all practice sizes to assist with this. Additionally, given donated funds there may be a possibility that some of the costs for services could be covered by this – perhaps the post-schematic design phase – should projects move into being realised.


6 - Community Hall exterior 2

What are the key lessons you have learnt that are relevant to the bushfire crisis and response today? What advice would you give to others who are keen to get involved?

Many lessons have been learnt but the most important ones are:

  • The rebuild takes time. People are grieving. They are dealing with loss and trying to resolve insurance claims and deal with basic issues of shelter, financial security and trying to return to some level of routine. It’s important to empathise with this.
  • Not everyone needs or wants an architect.
  • We should not necessarily approach this with an architectural mindset only. The things that might be most valuable to people are helping them with siting a new house, helping them understand the fire code requirements or how to engage a builder. This advice can be hugely beneficial.
  • We need to be generous in our support but not play each other off to do the most.  It should be about what’s best for the community.
  • The communities can become very divisive in time. Different perspectives on what should be done quickly breed issues that also get exacerbated by communities feeling sceptical of government agencies.
  • Many many hurdles come up along the way – keep going and try and find solutions.
  • For the Institute and other peak bodies, they need to try and help create connections between architects and those needing assistance, and then ideally let those relationships be direct. Control needs to be divested – when all decisions go back through government it leads to feelings of disempowerment and slows things down.
  • The agencies need to understand how they are going to distribute donations. We saw far too much of this money go to waste in government agencies rather than find its way to communities.
  • Procurement should sponsor local engagement wherever possible.
  • Being able to inspire communities and show that there is an opportunity to create something of lasting value for them is very important.



4 - Community Hall interior

Project Team

The project team included BVN, Arup, Edwards Moore, SGM, Rodney Vapp and Associates, Contour Planning, Rodney Aujard and Associates, and Douglas Partners, in conjunction with the Victorian Bushfire Recovery and Reconstruction Authority, DSE, Murrindindi Shire and the Narbethong Public Hall Committee.

Many other suppliers donated, or provided at reduced costs, a range of furniture and fittings to finish the hall to the highest standards while the Victorian Bushfire Appeal Fund and McDonald’s provided major funding.


8 - Hall exterior


Ninotschka Titchkosky is co-CEO of BVN and Strategic Champion of Digital Innovation and Robotics. She is interested in future scenarios and possibilities that can emerge through a project that have global currency. She is passionate about the role architects play in shaping our interactions, communities and cities and continually seeks to effect change through projects. Ninotschka is interested in the changing nature of architectural practice and the potential for new ways of engaging in the design and construction process. She is leading BVN’s research into robotics, which explores live site collaborations with the robot using woven carbon fibre systems. Her work has been recognised through numerous awards nationally and internationally including a RIBA International Award and a World Architecture Award commendation.

The Narbethong Community Hall won the RAIA National Award for Public Architecture and the RAIA VIC Public Architecture Award in 2012.

Photos of new Community Hall: John Gollings