News and culture through the lens of Southern California.
Hosted by

How do you fireproof a neighborhood? Architects are helping Napa County rebuild

The remains of the Signorello Estate Winery in Napa, California, on October 11, 2017.
The remains of the Signorello Estate Winery in Napa, California, on October 11, 2017.

Listen to story

Download this story 6MB

More than 8,000 buildings were destroyed when wildfires swept through Sonoma and Napa Counties last month. As vineyard owners work with CalFire to rebuild and prevent future fires, Napa County residents are working to replace their lost homes.

Architect Brandon Jorgensen watched as flames burned through Napa. While his home was safe, he knew others weren't so lucky. So, as the orange glow of the fast-moving fire reflected on the ceiling of his home, he texted his friends. "We've got to do something," he wrote, "because if we don't, we're going to make the same mistakes that we made before."

With those friends, Jorgensen created "Architecture of Resilience," a group of architects working on thoughtful design as Napa starts rebuilding burned structures.

What is thoughtful design?

For Jorgensen and his group of architects, thoughtful design is taking all kinds of factors into account, from landscape to the studs in the walls.

It's understanding the landscape, understanding what, if anything, we can do to the landscape. And then, moving from a bigger approach, we would get down into the nitty gritty of the details of the assembly of specific buildings. How can we build a house better so that the studs inside of the wall don't combust? We're trying to start off big and end up with something small and holistic in the end."

Some of the issues they're thinking about...

1. Technology

Technology has been a big point of contention during these NorCal fires. The emergency alert system that was supposed to notify residents failed. So alternatives are being brainstormed.

"Setting up some sort of radio system where each of the houses are spread out, sometimes miles, could communicate with each other. But then using that system, that technology behind that to alert one another or even the computer in the house that a house is down or possibly on fire to register a water suppression system on the exterior of the house."

2. Landscape

"Where the landscape meets the structure -- what that can look like -- could be a very interesting solution to how these fires move so fast, immediately addressing that."

The way to address that? Density. As Jorgensen mentioned, a lot of these homes were miles apart. When looking to rebuild, the Architecture of Resilience group thought to build more densely, which may seem counter intuitive.

"But what we're trying to do is create a break around the structures. So give ourselves at least more than 100 feet of area around these structures that are close together to use the typography to break down the wind, slow down that storm."

3. Materials and shrubbery

A lot of the homes that burned in these fires were surrounded by shrubs and trees, even woodchips. The greenery served as fuel to the fires and increased the likelihood of spontaneous combustion.

By eliminating those factors and considering alternative building materials, such as  "concrete or CMU or some other sort of assembly that is fireproof," Jorgensen said, "I think you'll stand a better chance."

To hear more about how resilient architecture and design can be used in Napa County's rebuild, click the blue play button above.