Rebuilding a House After Bushfire with Prefab Modular: Callignee II with Chris Clarke

When rebuilding a house, or building a new home, modular housing, prefab, and shipping container homes can be a great alternative.

In this video, Chris Clarke, builder, went about rebuilding home Callignee II after losing his home in the Black Saturday Fires in Australia, 2009.

Later, he created SWALE Modular and now sees shipping container homes, relocatable homes and modular housing as a great alternative for rebuilding a house.

In this interview, I speak with Chris Clarke, Builder and Director of SWALE Modular.

Chris has an incredible story to share, and a lot of insights that are both practical and mindset related to really help anyone who is rebuilding or building in a bushfire prone area.

So let’s dive in.


Amelia Lee + Chris Clarke (Builder and SWALE Modular)

[Amelia Lee]: You mentioned that you know, there’d be certain things that you do a little bit differently now that you’re in a bit of a different place.

You know, we’re 11 years on from those fires, you’re living in a different environment now, Callignee II has new owners and, you know, you’ve moved on.

Knowing what you do now, how would you approach that project differently if you had to do it again.?

[Chris Clarke]: It was actually an interesting story because I’d finished Callignee II and a good friend of mine actually said ‘can you give me a hand in Vietnam?’, and flew me over there. And I went through a huge shipping container factory where you couldn’t see the other end of it.

And after two weeks, I came back and I had a glass of red and … they built these corten shipping containers and they were building these big 48 footers. And over a glass of red it dawned on me … I stepped out these 48 footers and they were the exact modules of what I’d just built.

And I thought ‘how incredibly stupid’ because I was always looking for a way to take my house with me, if I ever needed to. So obviously that started my modular whole passion, obsession. Yes, I looked at it and went ‘I could probably get this thing a hell of a lot cleaner and true for around half the price’.

[Amelia Lee]: Yes. Can we talk a bit … because obviously since Callignee II you’ve created a modular housing company called SWALE and we’re going to pop links to that in the resources for people to check that out. Because that’s your passion and it’s your business, and it’s an extraordinary adventure. And I’m super excited to be talking to you later about SWALE, because I know that a lot of people will be very, very curious about it as an alternative and a very different way of solving a lot of problems that people are facing when creating affordable homes in all sorts of environments.

Can you talk to us about SWALE … And I suppose that journey of you seeing Callignee II, the mapping of the shipping container module, knowing that people were facing challenges of building in these types of areas, and just the aspect of what modular housing can offer us as a building methodology alternative?

How has that formed SWALE and how to SWALE help people in terms of delivering homes that are sustainable and affordable, and really work for these types of environments?

[Chris Clarke]: I think the big one, actually, at the start was that there’s so much time that’s involved in replacing a home. And when you’ve actually lost your home from the fires and these poor people that are actually out there coming into winter. And you’ve still got people actually wondering what they’re going to do with planning. And you still have to go through the design. You still have to go through this whole whole process.

I really took a look at it, and I said ‘this is what I do for a living, and it’s still taking me SO long to actually open up a drawer and get the knives and forks out to be able to have a meal. So why can’t we have the knives and forks already in the drawer, and be able to drop a complete unit in place that actually ticks all the boxes?’

Why do we … why are we always re-engineering the Porsche when a lot of people can’t afford the Porsche. So I think it was that passion … and it was also the ability to … for us, because we become creative people and we actually want to build these things. These things are not just meant to be on paper.

So, it was the ability to give people something that they actually wanted, that was modular. And I used to say that it’s like driving a Porsche, and it’s like driving something that you want. And to me it was probably a kombi van, or a mini, or something like that. But you had the ability, instead of waiting two years and trying to design your way right the way through it.

And a lot of that passion for design is still there. Because we say with our modular stuff, it’s that we only provide the body. And the body actually needs to be able to be intermodal, it needs to be able to go on any ship, any truck, anywhere. And you can dress it, if you want to dress it, or just leave a percentage of what you actually want to do. Because so many people are just so worn out after the process that they don’t end up doing the beauty of the 10%, to finish their homes. That’s really the part that they can connect to, and call it their own.

So, modular still has that ability and our life in a modular world was based on, virtually, a shipping container factory where there was 2.2 tonne in 20 foot unit. And we could turn that steel work into whatever we liked. And we could get this very raw and designer look in amongst something that was intermodal, affordable and direct.

And that went, for me, it went on to then looking at places to put them, and that opens up a whole new world for me. Because it’s … you go into land sharing, and you go into being able to live on the water and our pontoons … that’s … a 20 foot high cube that’s freshly cut into six. And so everything again is intermodal, and then your modules go on on top of that.

And instead of spending $500,000 for a block of land, you can spend $50 a week or something rather for a marina. And the same with land sharing. Why are we paying $500,000 for a block of land instead of $50,000 for 10 people on a half a million dollar piece of land? It’s just insane.

So it’s a really great space to being amongst, especially now when we say that people believe now in modular … I used to say that no one will buy a modular until they’re having coffee beside somebody who’s built modular! Because that’s the way that it works.

And now people have, I think, a lot of faith, and they want to be creative, and they want to do something different. And life is also changing because people are becoming more and more transient now. And our business is fast and the digital world has changed the way that we can work. And there’s not a lot of security now in jobs, and relationships, and bits and pieces. So the home really is going into a, or has the ability to go into, a different place.

So I see that as being one of the … at the forefront of my interest, it’s being able to build communities again, and sustainable communities, and eco villages. There’s some beautiful ones up the coast around your area that I’m extremely interested in.

And obviously, when you stick something that’s intermodal, you don’t necessarily need to own the land. You can actually … it can be removed within 24 hours and then falls under the Residential Tenancies Act. So that’s an interesting space.

[Amelia Lee]: Yes. When I first spoke to you about this, my brain just started singing with all of the opportunities I think that this does to solve a lot of issues around affordability, around siting, around dealing with Bushfire Attack Level ratings on properties, around strategies of where you might rebuild.

Because it is that thing of ‘can there be a chance for people to pool their resources, share property in a more effective way?’ And it requires a pretty big flipping of mindset of what is our … what we own and what our assets are.

And then also, I think that there’s an element of perhaps the compact living component, you know. I see houses, I mean, (in Australia) we’re still guilty of building some of the largest houses in the world. We still are guilty of having houses that have seven different living spaces in them, more living spaces than occupants sometimes.

And so that whole process, I think, of seeing you go through Callignee I to Callignee II, to a smaller and smaller footprint, to a smaller and smaller footprint. And this real sense of what do you actually need to live in? What is living about?

How do you see that mindset development being such a key part of you really questioning that housing can be different?

That you can not necessarily own the land that your house is sitting on. That you can own the house and take it with you.

That there’s still a permanence about your sense of home without you needing to have all of the frills that we ordinarily associate with homeownership.

How, just in terms of getting into the headspace of that … because I can imagine you’re dealing with a lot of people who are really challenging the norm of what owning a home is all about, when they come to you seeking sort of a modular solution.

[Chris Clarke]: I think that there’s some fundamentals, that’s … that we can really look at. And you’ve got to look at this very objectively. Because we look at a space and how much space that you actually really need. And how times are going to be able to change, so that we can adapt our lives.

It’s like, if you’ve got six kids and you’ve got to drive around in a bus. You’re not going to drive around in the bus for the rest of your life. So you’ll downsize that. And I think in this world to be able to build a house and be able to snap a branch off that family tree and give it to one of your kids is something that’s we all should look at designing into our lives. So there’s some really interesting spaces there.

And I think the big one for the interesting space for me, is that if you’re building something it must remain an asset. And then it very quickly flipped into liabilities if you’re not careful. And so we start looking at tiny homes and we start going ‘Okay if we’ve got a tiny home, at what point does it become a dolls house and when they no longer ready for it?’. Where’s it going to go?

But if you’re clever and designing a tiny home, it’s going to be adaptable into another person’s life or re-use or, something along those lines. Because, you know, you look at the property guys and the system is the system.

And a lot of the major property guys, you know, when they bought out the Amazon house it was extremely interesting, because I wanted to hear what the critics were going to say about it. And they said ‘Well it’s going to end up in the tip!’ Because it’s not, you know, it’s not an asset.

But yes, it is an asset. And it’s going to be somebody’s home. And because it’s not connected to a parcel of land, you’re not just holding the value on the land, you need to hold the value in the part that’s actually going to look after you. Because it’s the one sheltering you from the rain. And the land is firstly just a manipulative tool. And if you go in looking at the process a little bit differently, and you look at it from an indigenous point of view, it’s like nobody owns the land anyway.

So there’s some huge processes to break, I think, along the way. But I think now, especially with COVID-19 and whatnot, I think we’re going to actually start to find a few more openings, and start working with some people that want to be more creative and work together.


This interview is part of our Rebuild + Build Better series.

Be sure to stay tuned as we share more information and expertise in helping you rebuild after bushfires, or build homes more resilient to climate conditions and in bushfire prone areas.

Resources mentioned in this video:


Grand Designs | Season 1, Episode 1 >>> WATCH THE EPISODE HERE

Swale Links and Resources

Callignee Links and Resources
The post Rebuilding a House After Bushfire with Prefab Modular: Callignee II with Chris Clarke appeared first on Undercover Architect.

Choosing the Right Materials: Callignee II with Chris Clarke

Rebuilding a house, or want to build or renovate a bushfire house using eco friendly building materials or low tox building materials?

Chris Clarke, builder, when rebuilding after bushfire and creating Callignee II, wanted to go low tox to support his own health and well-being.

In this interview, I speak with Chris Clarke, Builder and Director of SWALE Modular.

After losing his home in the 2009 Victorian fires in the Gippsland region, Chris embarked on the process of rebuilding on the same site. His home Callignee II was featured in the first episode of Grand Designs Australia Season One.

Part of this included choosing building materials that would suit the bushfire prone area, and also support Chris’s health and wellbeing. Chris shares how he did this, and also why he chose hard-wearing materials like corten steel, glass and exposed concrete.

So let’s dive in.


Amelia Lee + Chris Clarke (Builder and SWALE Modular)

[Amelia Lee]: In regards to your personal health and wellbeing, you made a lot of choices in this home to support your personal health and wellbeing really effectively. From things like the materials that you chose, through to the infrastructure and those types of things that you put into the home.

How did you go about researching all of this? Because it can be a bit of a bottomless pit when you start to scratch the surface of research and information around materials, crack through all the greenwash. What was your process for making sure that you’re making the right choices for you?

[Chris Clarke]: Again, I’m a very practical person, and I reference this against a good friend of mine that I actually met in a hospital in Mexico. She went along … we were both building at the time, or about to start building, and I think she went through three architects and two builders. And came up with this non toxic house and consultants left right in the centre. And that’s one way of doing it.

I think I just went in the other way because I just didn’t want to spend the money. So I went in and I followed my nose, and … I had multiple sensitivity at the time so everything seriously needed to be non toxic. And I can tell you straight away that it wasn’t so… it was get it out of here!

So we just went back. That’s half the reason I’ve got such a raw, I think, passion and style of building that’s … everything virtually just went back … that’s okay, I’m not sensitive to glass, I’m not sensitive to steel. I can put an emulsion on the slabs.

And if you look at my Callignee home, there was nothing that was painted in the whole place. And so you start seeing things through different eyes. And you start removing trades and elements, until it gets to a point where you know it’s non toxic and you know it’s simple.

[Amelia Lee]: Did you notice the difference to your health and wellbeing, being in that house? Did you know that, was it really significant, in terms of how it supported you and your everyday life?

[Chris Clarke]: Sure, and I actually had that tested as well because I had people who … because I healed and wasn’t as sensitive. And I brought people that actually couldn’t live in homes there. And they’d virtually walk in through the door and said: ‘it’s the only home that I’ve actually ever been able to feel comfortable in, and not have a reaction to’.

So, you know, after all of that, that work … Because it is, it’s a lot of work to actually start going against the grain of the building process. Because it is and can be quite a toxic experience. So it was all worth it.

[Amelia Lee]: That’s fantastic. Now Callignee II is built from a lot of, I suppose, hard industrial materials, as you mentioned before, and many shy away from these types of materials when it comes to housing. I mean, corten steel isn’t a common building material, unfortunately. So it’s such a beautiful, stunning material, but we often see it in big public projects, not in individual residential homes.

What I found when I saw the finished home was just the level of elegance and warmth in it.

Did you ever worry that it wasn’t going to feel comfy and cozy, when it was all said and done? That it was just going to feel really hard? And I suppose very masculine?

Or did you think that it would have a softness, you just knew in the back of your mind that it was going to be … It was going to work?

[Chris Clarke]: I guess one of the best assets that I have is that I can actually see things and feel things through vision. So yes, I always knew that was actually going to be quite a tough house. And how I was going to soften that up. But I think that that was a part of the contrast as well, of how we were actually rebuilding in one of the most horrific bushfires we’d had up to those sort of times.

And that needed to me, to be a tough house. I needed to be able to soften it along the way and I knew I had the ability to do that. Even to the point where I had some … a contrast of this harshness and the softness of linen. So I would have changed in amongst it, and things, so it would have softened up further, now that I’m in a different headspace then I was back then.

[Amelia Lee]: Yes, I think it’s … when you see it finished, you can see what an incredible fortress it is for you. But there’s still such a strong connection with the site and the natural qualities of the site.

And I suppose, having started that project when everything was probably still quite decimated, and then to see it come to life and regenerate during the construction and then of course, in the post occupancy of the home … was that an interesting process for you?

I suppose, kind of initiating the rebirth of your own living experience and then starting to see the rebirth and regeneration of the land around you? You know, through these great big walls of glazing and that really strong indoor-outdoor connection that you created?

[Chris Clarke]: It was, and I guess that we didn’t actually see it for a bit. Because we finished this home and Sean Hamilton actually drove down with his entire team and saw me. He was a good friend and architect, and we sat down around the kitchen table and we’re all talking. And I opened the place up with the bifold doors. And of course you got to think that back in those days there was greening on the trees, but not a lot more. And we opened the fold up kitchen top, and the doors beside them and the louvres, and It’s like everyone just … everyone went: ‘Wow, I’m outside, but I’m inside’.

So we nailed certain sections, and that was what we were trying to achieve for the first one. So there was a connection. That’s, you know that … the pool was to the north, and the sun used to hit the pool and flicker through on the corten ceiling. And those sort of things were all planned with Callignee I, and all plans we held for Callignee II. And to try and hold as much of that as we could. So it’s nice to get out the other side and see some of it worked – or most of it.

[Amelia Lee]: Yes, I think it’s an extraordinary exploration in sort of … how do you remember what was there?

How do you take hold of the things that, you know, were particularly joyous about the type of home that you initially had?

How do you build a home that protects you?

How do you build a home that heals you?

And then how do you build a home that still celebrates the site and the things that you love about it, even though they’re not necessarily present anymore. But you have to be patient and wait to see. But you’ll be seeing them through new eyes.

It’s such a cocktail of stuff to bring … I mean, most people are bringing a lot to a project anyway. But that’s a huge amount to load a project with in terms of navigating it.

[Chris Clarke]: Protect and heal at the front of the list and and then start working through them and interesting conversations with Peter Madison, Kevin McCloud and them talking about this because of course they do it every day for a living. And what people actually go through, and the paths that they’ve taken, and quite often the holes they dig themselves by having the wrong values in place.

[Amelia Lee]: Yes, I think it’s just extraordinary.


This interview is part of our Rebuild + Build Better series.

Be sure to stay tuned as we share more information and expertise in helping you rebuild after bushfires, or build homes more resilient to climate conditions and in bushfire prone areas.

Resources mentioned in this video:


Grand Designs | Season 1, Episode 1 >>> WATCH THE EPISODE HERE

Swale Links and Resources

Callignee Links and Resources
The post Choosing the Right Materials: Callignee II with Chris Clarke appeared first on Undercover Architect.

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