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Tough Enough

Fires. Earthquakes. Mudslides. Floods. California's climate and geology can be brutal on houses. Every disaster teaches builders, architects and homeowners how to better withstand nature's fury. The truly indestructible house is still more concept than reality. But there are proven measures for toughening a home enough to keep it intact through the oscillating waves of an earthquake or the blast furnace of a wildfire. Defense is the key.

October 17, 1998|PHIL DAVIS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Stephen Ball could design a house impervious to the seismic rumblings, sliding hillsides and raging firestorms of California, but it's doubtful it would sell outside the survivalist bomb shelter set.

"I've sat down and brainstormed with structural engineers about what would be an indestructible house, and we all agreed no one would live in it," said Ball, a Laguna Beach architect who has designed buildings from Newport Beach to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. "It would be windowless, concrete--essentially your '50s bomb shelter. The problem is the American lifestyle. We like big windows. We want to live with nature, to make both inside and outside into living areas."

What's a hillside house without a big wooden deck for taking in the view? A little safer from a wildfire, sure, but also a lot more dreary and lifeless.

"The idea of building is that it's an exciting time to create a place that's special," said Mark Singer, a Laguna Beach architect known for his expansive hillside homes. "My approach is an inclusive one. We can build something that is safe, enjoyable, aesthetic and even poetic--a place to celebrate living. That's the primary purpose of a home."

So instead of building indestructible houses, Americans build defensive homes. Walls divert mudslides around a hillside house. Shrubs are replaced with rock gardens to give wildfires less chance to ignite a house. And those flammable wooden roofing shingles that used to be so popular are finally becoming one of those foolish, antiquated ideas--at least in neighborhoods prone to wildfires.

It pays to think defensively. No one proved that better than Laguna Beach homeowner Nolan Bui. When 1993 wildfires burned his neighbors' homes to the ground and caused $528 million in damage in his community, Bui's uninsured home survived with only cracked windows.

Bui built the $350,000 dwelling to take a beating. Thirty-foot-deep reinforced concrete pilings hold the house on a steep slope. The concrete walls are a foot thick--resistant to heat and fire.

Bui had also cleared his home of surrounding brush--what firefighters call fuel modification. That ensured that when the fire swept up the hillside, it had nothing to keep it alive on Bui's doorstep. Three windows cracked in the intense heat and then the fire moved on.

"He really went that extra mile with keeping things that will burn away from his house," said Tim Grady of Grady O'Grady Construction in Laguna Hills.

Bui's house is among the more inexpensive examples of a tough house.

The toughest houses--with reinforced foundations and steel frame construction--cost more than twice as much to build--sometimes more than $250 per square foot. That puts the bottom line too high for most homeowners.

"We're still very much a culture of how fast, how much and how many. Decisions are really driven by the bottom line," Ball said. "But if you spend an extra $10,000 to $20,000 more on your foundation, it's the cheapest insurance in the world if it's going to keep someone from getting hurt or keep the house from sliding down a hill."

Ball said the indestructible house could be more of a reality if insurers made at least a minimal effort to encourage it: "If insurance companies offered incentives to make defensive improvements, it would happen."

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Tough Enough

Fires. Earthquakes. Mudslides. Floods. California's climate and geology can be brutal on houses. Every disaster teaches builders, architects and homeowners how to better withstand nature's fury. The truly indestructible house is still more concept than reality. But there are proven measures for toughening a home enough to keep it intact through the oscillating waves of an earthquake or the blast furnace of a wildfire. Defense is the key.

THE HOUSE

Frame: Wood provides a flexible structure that--when properly bolted to the foundation--will flex safely in an earthquake. Outside stucco coating helps deter wildfires. Individual frame studs are joined by solid plywood sheets and framing anchors.

Foundation: Each house requires a unique foundation. This hillside house is built on concrete pylons--similar to those of an ocean pier--to anchor it to the bedrock in case the hill slides. More emphasis has recently been put on hold-down bolts that secure frame to foundation. Combined with framing anchors, bolts join the house to keep it from tearing itself apart during the lateral movement of an earthquake.

Roof: Lightweight clay tile prevents cinders from igniting fire. This roof lacks eaves--a weak flank that could allow fire into an attic despite fireproof roofing.

Windows: Triple-glazed laminated glass, similar to car windshields, won't shatter if it breaks. Automatic roll-down storm shutters provide another line of defense against fire and help deter looters.

Laminated glass consists of two panes of glass bonded with an inner layer of plastic.

When broken, the glass fragments tend to adhere to the plastic.

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