Cali’s Matchbox Homes

The California wild fires were on the news the other night and the film crew showed one Cali subdivision on fire then switched to another local subdivision that workers were rebuilding because it had been burned to the ground in last year’s fires.  New homes were being nailed together using wood studs and oriented strand board (OSB) panels.  And there seemed to be plenty of vinyl siding and asphalt shingles in the completed new homes in the background.  OSB panels are a form of plywood manufactured from wood chip kindling held together with highly flammable glues.  And while vinyl siding and asphalt shingles are typically given a fairly respectable fire rating, they are far from being fireproof.  I once told an engineering colleague, who happened to be having a home built, to throw a piece of his fire-rated vinyl siding and a piece of my home’s stucco into a campfire and see which siding is still there when the fire goes out.  He built his home with vinyl siding anyway, due to costs.

A few months after his home was completed and he was living in it with his family, there was a fire in his subdivision.  One house on a block had caught fire due to some kind of carelessness and nineteen vinyl sided homes burned down until the conflagration reached a stucco sided home and stopped.  My co-worker brought photos in to work the next day and confided with me that he now wished he had finished his home in stucco just for family safety.

100_2043 CaliFire

The stucco front of a California victim of wildfire.

But this construction was within a large city, in a totally urban environment.  When building a home in a rural or forest subdivision, material selection becomes even more important.  Many of California’s burned subdivisions still have surviving green trees within them.  The only totally destroyed trees at one site were a row of cedars that had been planted between two houses that had burned.  The homes of the subdivision appeared to be the most flammable items there.  Had the homes been built of fire resistant materials, far fewer trees would have died in the passing conflagration.  Metal roofing in lieu of asphalt shingles, stucco siding in place of vinyl, metal studs instead of wood, even proper veneer plywood in lieu of oriented strand board….all these minor material changes might have been enough to save a subdivision.  Double glazed windows not only ease the heating and cooling loads on HVAC systems, but also protect enclosed furniture from radiant and convective heat from without.  Gypsum wallboard interior walls instead of oak veneers and wooden wainscoting reduces flammability levels within.  Stone or concrete countertops in lieu of composite, metal tables in place of wood, tile floors instead of plastic laminates….further material changes that could save a house and its contents.

Perhaps the best solution to wildfire defense would be completely metal houses of modular configuration installed on lots with reduced carbon landscapes and proper forest cutbacks.  Modularized container homes built in local manufacturing facilities using only fire proof materials may be the answer to the increasingly common problem of drought assisted conflagrations.  By using condemned containers as the structural backbones of steel studded, mineral wool insulated and gypsum lined architecturally designed modularized homes, entire rural subdivisions could be spared the devastation of forest fire conflagration.  Designing fire proof acreage subdivisions that residents could just evacuate on the approach of forest fires, knowing full well that the subdivision will still be there after the fire has passed, seems to be the best approach to this growing problem.

Blindly rebuilding the flammable structures that contribute to the efficacy of the fires, caused mainly by what insurance covers, seems to be the worst approach.  But it is the one we follow.

 

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