Architects Assist: Australia bush fires

Australian architects offer pro-bono design services to those impacted by bushfire crisis

Over 100 Australian architecture studios have formed an organisation called Architects Assist, which will provide pro-bono design services to people affected by Australia's bushfire crisis.

Architects Assist will offer free design and planning assistance to help people "rebuild their lives" in the wake of the massive fires, which have been blazing across Australia since September 2019.

The initiative was established by architect Jiri Lev, founder of Australian studio Atelier Jiri Lev, in light of "the growing scale of the disaster" that has escalated in the last week with a number of towns being evacuated.

Lev believes that individual action will not be sufficient in providing disaster relief to those impacted by the crisis, and therefore is inviting architects to come together to make an impact.

"There are many generous people in architecture always willing to help," Lev told Dezeen. "Though the resources of individual firms are naturally somewhat limited, both in acquisition and delivery of pro bono work," he explained.

"Further, some geographic areas have few architects whilst others are supersaturated to an extent where multiple simultaneous efforts may overlap or conflict. A joint referral and coordination platform appears to be the natural outcome."

Group will coordinate pro-bono work

Architects Assist will provide people affected by the disaster with designs and planning for structures to replace what they have lost.

It will also offer support to small businesses or communities to replace structures such as shops, halls, churches or theatres.

After contacting the group, individuals or businesses in need will be connected to the "most suitable" architecture or design studio that is currently available to take on a new pro-bono project.

"At this stage, we act as coordination centre. We evaluate pro-bono work requests and refer them to suitable practitioners," explained Lev.

Once paired, the architecture studio will design a replacement structure for the person or business. This will be "owner-builder friendly", resilient in natural disasters and made of sustainable materials.

Gold Medal-winning architects offer support

Despite being founded just four days ago, close to 300 studios have already joined including multiple Australian Institute of Architects' Gold Medal-winning architects.

The group has also seen a more than 500 students and young architecture graduates offer their help and expertise, for which Lev has started a separate database.

"We've had interest and kind offers of help from right across the spectrum: from undergraduate students to Australian Institute of Architects Gold Medal winning architects," said Lev.

"I think when you face the reality of a great catastrophe, it becomes unbearable to not do anything about it. Practitioners and students continue to sign up."

Architects Assist to "operate indefinitely"

While the fires continue to rage across Australia, the number of people who will require the support of Architects Assist is so far unclear, though Lev says the cause has already received a number of enquiries from people affected by the fires.

"We've started receiving client enquiries. We don't anticipate great numbers at this early stage, as the fires are still raging and many people continue fighting for their lives," Lev explained.

"When the fires are finally over, people will likely need some time before they can even begin to think about rebuilding. At this point, I can say with some confidence, we are ready when they need us."

Lev hopes that the initiative will continue well beyond the bushfire crisis and continually provide support to Australian citizens in future disasters, and that it also acts as a catalyst for a number of other grass-root initiatives the world over.

For this reason, he has set up the Architects Assist: Global Directory – a list to raise awareness of other countries with bono assistance coordination and referral services that are similar to Architects Assist in Australia.

"I'm not a great planner, but there will always be people in need, so Architects Assist will hopefully continue to operate indefinitely," said Lev.

"I would like to see similar local grassroots initiatives addressing issues in the countries where we traditionally send international workers, despite the availability of local experts, who may perhaps just not be suitably organised."

Members create "bushfire-zone design knowledge base"

As part of the initiative, members are currently collaborating on a "bushfire-zone design knowledge base", where they are sharing knowledge and expertise to improve the initiative's ability to provide support.

"Our operations are continuously evolving as we are gaining a better understanding of our clients' needs," said Lev.

"We've also begun compiling a bushfire-zone design knowledge base. Good ideas keep flowing in and we may continue to expand our services. It's all volunteer work with no funding. We keep our minds open as to how and when best mobilise this growing potential."

Bushfires are not uncommon in Australia, and are often the result of natural causes such as lightning strikes. However, it is believed that the severity of this year's fires may be due to the changing climate, which has resulted in hotter, drier conditions in the country.

Airbnb is another company offering support in the ongoing crisis, by providing free temporary housing for people who have been displaced in the affected states of New South Wales and Victoria through its Open Homes platform.

The last year has seen a sharp rise of climate awareness, since the United Nations warned that humanity has 12 years to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, or risk catastrophic changes to the planet.

The announcement of Architects Assist follows the recent establishment of Architects Declare – an initiative founded by Stirling Prize winning architecture firms including Zaha Hadid Architects, David Chipperfield Architects and Foster + Partners in light of the climate crisis.

Architects Declare is calling on all UK architects to adopt a "shift in behaviour" over climate change, and since launching in May 2019, now has over 600 signatories in the UK, and hundreds more internationally.