A Spark of Genius: Modern Chic Meets Fire Resistance

Photos by Jody Q. Kasch

It’s one o’clock in the afternoon on a sunny September afternoon, and in the span of a few hours the blue skies of an otherwise perfect Southern California day have darkened to an ominous dark grey.  The air, thick and hot, is made more suffocating by a deafening roar, the sound of hot Santa Ana winds echoing through the canyons.  You suddenly wonder why you’re still standing there.

Ask any firefighter and they’ll tell you that if you’ve waited this long to evacuate, you’ve waited too long and risked too much.  “You will be way dead before the flames ever reach you,” says Battalion Chief Rick Reeder, Orange County Fire Authority, on Ventura County Fire Department’s website.  “What will kill you is the super heated air that precedes the flames.  It comes up and over the house, around the house and acts just like water.  You will not be able to breathe it.”

Enter John Davis and Lorrie Brown of Ojai-based Davis Brown Architecture, who take the relatively new fire-fighting concepts of hardening a structure and defensible space to an extreme.  Their recently completed, roughly 2,500 square-foot home on 27 acres of oak, walnut and laurel sumac in Ojai is a monument to the latest practices in fire-resistant construction blended with green building.

Barn-style steel doors open and shut with ease

Hardening a home involves using non-flammable building materials to build or retrofit the most vulnerable parts of a home.  Creating a defensible space considers the landscaping:  plant species, plant spacing, and boundaries between the home and the wild land.

But that’s not enough for Davis and Brown, who doggedly defend their clients’ homes and contents by designing with the goal of having their homes “survive a fire, independent of fire-fighting efforts or potentially extending survival times sufficient for fire-fighting intervention.”  According to Davis, “The house is not fire-proof, but we expect it to be able to survive an hour.”

A monochrome kitchen keeps the home light and bright

In designing their home, they considered the space as six equal parts – or bays.  Each of the six bays is built in 4’ increments and several are protected by a sliding steel shell – much like a barn door - which serves as a sliding wall.  In this case, however, the steel side closes off the entire bay -roof to ground - with the whisk of a wrist, protecting the interiors from both direct flames and equally devastating embers.  Aluminum windows are recessed within the steel shell four feet to protect the glass from imploding.  Steel framing and metal shearing replace the typical wood framing commonly used in California.

A gravel path leads to the home's front door

Decking made out of Ipe – a sustainable, harvested tropical hardwood that carries the same fire rating as steel and concrete – is used outside the doors and at the far end of the pool.  The balance of the exterior hardscape is in the form of small gravel, creating an exterior entertaining area bereft of even a hint of lawn.  Roofing is metal, the floors are the home's slab with an integrally colored, smooth texture on the inside and a washed finish on the exterior.

A pool surrounded with gravel and Ipe create a defensible space

To create a defensible space, Davis and Brown cleared out all the Laurel Sumac and other plants within 100 feet of the house.  “When we first saw the site, we loved it.  We’ve always wanted to live in the chaparral,” explained Brown, gesturing at the rolling hills behind the house.  “Once we cleared it, we reseeded some of the lower hill with natural, low grasses.  See how far away they are from the decks and house?  The distance keeps the home safe while retaining the natural character of the land.”

Proponents of self-sufficiency, Davis and Brown have interwoven green-building strategies to create a net-zero energy requirement.  Conveniently, many of the fire-resistant techniques dovetail nicely into the concept of green building, accomplishing two goals with one strategy.  The metal, non-flammable roof has a 5 KW photovoltaic thin film system applied between its standing seams and is almost undetectable.  Ipe qualifies as a green building product.  Concrete floors are a passive heat system, and the placement of the windows, which provide cool breezes in the summer, create passive ventilation, eliminating the need for air conditioning.  Even the home’s orientation to the South provides warm sunshine into living spaces in winter while keeping an overdose of hot rays from blasting through the windows in the summer.

Barn-style steel doors open and shut with ease

To Davis, a native of Sydney, Australia, designing buildings and the environments around them in dry, arid environments is nothing new.  “We’ve always been on board the green band wagon,” he explains.  “In fact, we were interested in energy systems, passive solar, environmental stresses and the importance of landscape as part of a holistic approach back in the 1970’s.  The rest of the architectural world is just catching up.” 

“We wanted it to seem as if we are sitting lightly on the land,” says Brown.  “We feel we’ve accomplished that.”

Ready, Set, Go!

The Ventura County Fire Department’s wildfire prevention program coined “Ready, Set, Go,” is designed to prepare at-risk homeowners – those living in the urban-wildfire interface – get their homes wildlife-ready, be set when the fire comes, and go early.  This program provides information on protecting your home and property, setting up an evacuation kit, creating an evacuation plan, and explains why it is critical homeowners leave the area early.  According to the Ventura County Fire Department, statistics show that 80% of the homes lost in wildfires could have been saved if the building and landscape techniques the program recommends had been implemented.  Here are some of the Department’s recommendations:  

I.     Retrofit homes with fire resistive building construction materials.  This includes:  roofing with non-combustible products, lining eave air vents with 1/8” metal mesh and encapsulating eaves, installing dual-glazed, tempered windows; and replacing wood siding with stucco.

II.     Create a defensible space, a buffer between the flaming front and your home by considering the landscape around the house.  Keep plants down and away from the house, plant trees apart, and use species that are least likely to move fires forward.

III.     Go early!  According to Lynnette Round, Community Relations/Education Supervisor, OCFA on VCFD’s website, “Most brush fire fatalities occur when people change their mind about staying, evacuate too late and are overtaken by a fast moving fire.”  Firefighters advise being prepared and leaving early.

This "hardened" house sits in the heart of California's wildfire country


For more information on the Ready, Set Go! program, hardening your home and creating a defensible space, visit http://fire.countyofventura.org/wildfirepreparedness.

To reach John Davis and Lorrie Brown of Ojai-based Davis Brown Architecture, check out their website at www.dba-studio.net/

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