Pioneering Flood-Resilient Housing in Australia

15 Aug 2019

We caught up with 2012 Churchill Fellow James Davidson to find out about his Fellowship investigation into designing flood-resilient housing and the impact his research has had on building design for parts of Australia affected by floods.


What made you apply for a Churchill Fellowship?

I wanted to do something good for my Australian community and society in general and thought the Churchill Fellowship could assist with this aim.

What was the aim of your Churchill Fellowship investigation and why is it important in the Australian context?

Flood resilience is a critical element in adapting Australia’s current and future built environments to climate change. The aim of my Fellowship was to build on the flood resilience (built environment adaptation) work I had already been doing in my architectural practice and broaden my understanding by learning from other experts from around the world. 

On his Fellowship, James visited the floating houses of Ijburg eastern Amsterdam to learn about the construction techniques and associated social dimensions of these housing typologies.

 In New Orleans, evidence of house raising as a solution to ground subsidence and riverine flooding and storm surge from the Mississippi and Gulf of Mexico respectively.

Right Biloxi Mississippi where James spent time with the Gulf Coast Community Design Studio (architects embedded in the community) who have rebuilt over 230 homes and renovated 100 others in response to Hurricane Katrina

What were/was the most interesting/exciting/insightful thing/s discovered on your Churchill Fellowship?

I learned that while our experiences of flooding in Australia were similar to other places around the world, the way we had approached adaptation was unique and we could share our learnings with others as well. It became a wonderful exchange of knowledge which resulted in us continuing to work together to this day on ideas in both Australian and International contexts.

Since returning how have you been disseminating/implementing your findings?

In 2014, I coordinated a workshop at the Deltas in Times of Climate Change Conference in Rotterdam on regional flood resilience for southeast Queensland. I also presented at the Resilient Rockhampton Workshop in 2015 and was a steering committee member for the bi-annual International Conference on Amphibious Architecture, Design and Engineering. In 2016, I facilitated a 5-day design charrette which brought together 170 professionals from over 20 different disciplines to work towards a regional water management plan for Southeast Queensland and in 2017, the culmination of this work titled, “Water Futures: Integrated Water and Flood Management Strategies for Enhancing Liveability in South East Queensland” was published. This led to me authoring the Flood Resilient Building Guidance for Queensland Homes for the Queensland State Government, working with the City of Gold Coast on their the Flood Resilient Home Design Guide, and assisting Brisbane City Council with the rollout of their Flood Resilient Homes Program - the largest residential flood resilience project to date in Australia.

Top Left
 Deltas in Times of Climate Change Conference in Rotterdam 

Bottom Left Design workshop in Brisbane in 2016 that saw 170 non-Government and Government professionals across 23 different disciplines attend across 5 days to collaboratively develop a holistic framework for water issues across the Southeast Queensland region.

Right This resulted in the publication of Waterfutures: Intergrated Water and Flood Management Strategies for Enhancing Liveability in Southeast Queensland. 

 Evidence of the reactionary planning responses in Brisbane after the 2011 floods where elevation rather than resilience was seen as the only answer 

Right The front façade of the Chelmer house by James Davidson Architect, the most state-of-the-art flood resilient house in Australia, designed with the flood resilience recommendations from the guideline. The key to this design is it looks like a normal house which is the aim of James’ flood resilient design philosophy. It has to be affordable to achieve the greatest impact and uptake by the Queensland and Australian community more broadly. The design thinking in construction detailing was critical to this outcome.


The publication of this document led to James authoring the Flood Resilient Building Guidance for Queensland Homes which was a joint initiative of the Queensland Government, Brisbane City Council, Ipswich City Council, Lockyer Valley Regional Council, Somerset Regional Council and Seqwater. This document provides information about improving the flood resilience of new and existing Queensland homes and has a broad impact across the State and internationally.

Right The release of the guideline. James in the centre with the Hon. Cameron Dick, Minister for State Development, Manufacturing, Infrastructure and Planning on the left and Mayor Graeme Lehmann of Somerset Council on the right.

Has your focus changed since going on your Fellowship? If so, how?

No. It’s been strengthened and I’m more committed than ever.

How have your ideas been received by the key stakeholders in your field? Any major challenges?

Very well received. My architecture practice has grown from 3 employees in 2013 to 10 employees currently. No major challenges other than continuing to bring work in while continuing to develop the design thinking and content behind the work. I have become good at advocacy. One of the main wins I’ve had is to lobby the insurance industry to lower flood premiums in recognition of flood resilient design. So far a number of my clients have had their insurance premiums lowered between 40-50% on this basis by Suncorp Insurance. My aim is to continue to engage with insurers so we can achieve a broader impact with others in the industry. This is a potential game-changer.

What is next for you?

Continue on. I hope to continue to assist other communities across the country and possibly overseas.

What do you hope to achieve in flood resilient design in the next year or the next 5 years?

To become the best flood resilience architectural practitioner I can possibly become and assist as many people as I can. Perhaps I could move into other areas of climate change adaptation for our Australian built environment.

James’ advocacy of this work resulted in Suncorp Insurance lowering flood premiums between 40-50% on this and other JDA flood resilient residential designs. A huge win and a potential longer-term game changer.

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