California fires prompt architects to act

Mountain on fire

The wildfires in California swept through towns throughout the northern part of the state, destroying thousands of homes and businesses.

Recovery and rebuilding can benefit from design thinking

Earlier in October, the most destructive fire in California's history tore through the state and left thousands in Northern California without homes, offices, or health centers. The rebuilding process will take years and raise new questions about resilient design and planning. But, AIA chapters across the state are looking for ways to connect architects to the people and offices at the center of that process.

In conversations with representatives and members from the deeply affected AIA Redwood Empire chapter—including Julia Donoho, AIA, chair of AIA Redwood Empire’s Firestorm Recovery Committee, and Scott Bartley, AIA, co-founder of Hall & Bartley Architects and past president of AIA Redwood Empire—they describe the impact of the fires on local communities, and how architects everywhere can provide smart, measured assistance in a post-disaster rebuilding process.

What is the aftermath of the wildfires in California, and how is AIA Redwood Empire getting involved?

Julia Donoho: It’s a lot more destruction than damage. Over 5,700 buildings have been destroyed; Governor Jerry Brown came down and said, “This is the greatest disaster I’ve seen in California.” He’s a four-term governor, so he’s seen a lot of disasters.

We lost trailer parks, apartments, retail; medical buildings were affected. We lost some historic structures. We already were close to 0 percent vacancy; there’s a housing crisis in the Bay Area, and this is just going to make it worse.

I started a committee at AIA Redwood Empire, the Firestorm Recovery Committee, and volunteered our services at a local assistance center for two weeks, giving advice to people who’ve lost their homes. I’ve also personally met with California politicians, getting in front of everyone possible, including the governor and Senator Dianne Feinstein. One of the most difficult elements we’ve faced is a frenzied response from a tract home neighborhood; we’re working with a builders’ association to develop a plan and rebuild their neighborhood as a neighborhood. That’s very difficult when they all each own their property and have made numerous changes over 25 years; they want things differently but in reality they have a tract home and their insurance will only pay to rebuild, not to redesign. Plus, the homes would need to be rebuilt according to new codes, to bring them up to modern standards: green code, fire code, energy code, and structural changes. The original plans are on file at the city, so we’re exploring coordinated ways to rebuild affordably and en masse.

"We already were close to 0 percent vacancy; there’s a housing crisis in the Bay Area, and this is just going to make it worse." - Julia Donoho, AIA

We’ve reminded homeowners that the architects who originally designed the homes may be a great resource, especially if they have the original construction documents on file, but some of the architects of older homes are no longer in business. In addition, many of our local architects are already at or beyond capacity. We’re reaching out to AIA San Francisco and AIA East Bay to organize “speed dating” between owners and AEC professionals to fill in some of these gaps.

What can architects do, in the aftermath of disasters like these, to make a positive impact?

Scott Bartley: I lost my office in the fires, so I’ve been scrambling to get my business up and running again for the last few weeks. It’s critical that we stay busy and focused; we had a lot of work already, and now the need is even more dramatic. As is the need to be levelheaded contributors to this rebuilding process.

The biggest hurdle I see so far is misinformation. At a luncheon earlier this week, during a conversation about rebuilding, a civil engineer shared that drawings had been tracked down for this certain subdivision and the city would make you a copy, mark it up a tad, and let you start rebuilding. I raised my hand and said, “Excuse me, you can’t take someone else’s drawings without a release.” And he said, “You’re right, I never thought of that.” I know the bureaucracy wants to say all good things, but I don’t want to lead anyone down a path that will hurt them in the future.

"As architects, we owe it to [our clients] and to ourselves to be measured and considerate in our comments and our actions." - Scott Bartley, AIA

Then there’s the issue of people wanting to do tweaks and little changes on top of a straight rebuild; that’s not how insurance works. Insurance gets your life back as close as possible to the way it was; that is its purpose, not to make improvements here and there. It’s going to be a slow process, and though our county is talking about waiving processing fees for people who want to rebuild, I’d be a little surprised. I’m the former mayor of Santa Rosa, California, so I know the size of the pot; the pot is not big enough to hold that kind of money.

Everyone wants to be an optimist right now, and I don’t want to be a pessimist, but architects exist because construction is a complicated endeavor. When talking to anyone looking to rebuild, I’ve told them, “Optimistically, it may be a two-year process.” It’s going to take six months to clean up the site, and they’ll have to wait until next spring because you’ll get mudslides if you tear up the topsoil. Then you have your site, so you start construction next fall, which puts you at about two years out. And if you rush it now, you pay for it later; as architects, we’re trained to plan, and we need to emphasize that here.

I tell my clients, “Slow down, take a breath. I know you want to rebuild, but we’re all still in shock here.” Otherwise, you’re going to set yourself up for disaster. Don’t try to rush anyone back by promising what’s not feasible; as architects, we owe it to them and to ourselves to be measured and considerate in our comments and our actions.

To donate to California fire aid, follow these instructions from AIA California Council.

Steve Cimino is a Los Angeles-based writer who covers architecture, sustainability, and health.

Image credits

Mountain on fire

Kevin Key / Getty Images

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