Meet Mittul Vahanvati: Expert in housing and community resilience

The homes we live in, and the homes we’re building, are not what we need in a changing climate. Dr Mittul Vahanvati explains what this means and what we need to change to support climate resilience in Australia.

Working with regional communities in the town of Tarnagulla, housing and climate change expert Dr Mittul Vahanvati is developing a resilience action strategy to plan for future climate extremities and emergency management, such as heatwaves and bushfires.

Here, Vahanvati, from the RMIT Centre for Urban Research, discusses how our planning, design and construction system needs to change for our cities, homes and economies to become climate resilient.

What is wrong with Australian housing?

Right now, our housing is rapidly expanding either in the inner city by infill developments or on urban fringes through the extension of growth boundaries. 

Planning approaches for the urban fringe allocates housing developments on at-risk fragile coastal, bushfire prone, flood prone or cyclone-prone areas.

Infill urban dwellings are equally vulnerable due to the urban heat island effect and flood risk from impervious and heat reflecting surfaces.

With current and future climate scenarios suggesting that Australians will experience more extreme weather patterns, we desperately need to address policy for climate resilience, starting with our homes.

Who does climate-insensitive housing affect?

On a social level, housing that isn’t easily adaptable for climate change has particular implications for vulnerable households like low-income groups or residents in public housing.

These groups can neither afford to retrofit their homes nor adapt to the rising energy costs to maintain comfortable living.

Poorly adapted housing already comes with high heating and cooling bills, and there will be higher long-term costs associated with increasing energy or higher insurance, reducing affordability.

What are the economic impacts of housing failing to address climate resilience?

This could come with high economic and social loss.

Deloitte Access Economics estimated that bushfires annually cost about $380 million on average. 

The 2009 Black Saturday bushfires in Victoria alone cost $1.2 billion in insurance claims and damages totalling $4.4 billion.

Should anything happen to the eight million residential buildings across the country, reconstruction, repair and recovery is expected to exceed  $3.5 trillion

Dr Mittul Vahanvati at the launch of the project Resilience Action Plan, for and by Tarnagulla Community.

How does your research address this issue?

Climate resilience is a continuous process rooted in the local socio-economic, political and physical context.

My research looks at identifying the key factors that influence the success of housing resilience to slow-onset disasters such as floods and climate change, as well as rapid-onset disasters such as earthquakes.

These factors include government goodwill to work collaboratively with industry and academics, social mobilisation for providing people with a political voice in a way that gets heard, technical modifications that consider once-in-a-century climate extremities, and capacity development.

These factors play a major role, above and beyond changes in construction, in enhancing the resilience of housing and its communities for a long time after a disaster. 

When I started my PhD in 2012 after seven years of industry practice there was limited research focused on long-term impacts of housing reconstruction after a disaster.

But disasters offer a unique opportunity to implement changes at multiple scales and in multiple sectors. When things go wrong, it’s a chance to learn and to change.

What can government do about this?

Given that the Australian population is going to increase at an exponential rate, there is an urgent need for national scale improvements addressing issues such as land-use planning, urban form, building standards for greenhouse gas emissions and insurance concurrently.

Such improvements will only happen when the Australian Government works in partnership with state and local governments, practitioners and communities. 

We need a suite of policies to take a strategic or whole-of-life cycle approach to housing, with an understanding of its interdependencies with other systems.

Without this, our climate resilience will be painfully slow.

 

Story: Chanel Bearder

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  • Sustainability
  • Urban Design
  • Environment

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