By Jennifer Baum Lagdameo – November 19, 2018

As wildfires threaten the West, architects are developing more resilient homes that can withstand blazes. Could fire-resistant buildings be part of the solution?

California is currently experiencing its most destructive wildfire season to date, and our hearts go out to the hundreds of thousands of affected residents. Research predicts that the number of wildfires in the West is set to increase; however, resilient design strategies can play a part in protecting homes and preventing future tragedies.

We recently talked to LA–based architect Abeer Sweis of SweisKloss, who has been developing fire-resistant homes for years. Read on to learn more about the resilient design strategies and materials that she recommends and employs in her own practice.

Abeer Sweis’ top three tips to make your home more fire resistant:

1. Have a defensible space around your home: A defensible space is a clearing around your home which is free from combustible materials and vegetation. (It can have non-combustible elements such as fireproof decks, pools, pavers, and concrete metal louvers.) Malibu fire department code requires a 200-foot cleared “fuel modification zone” around every house. Sweis says, “This slows the fire as there is nothing to burn.”

2. Create a tight envelope around your home:  The envelope is the entire exterior of your home—including doors, windows, wall material, and roof material. Doors and windows should be tightly sealed, and vents should be avoided when possible because they compromise the envelope. Roof overhangs can present a fire risk if they are not fully enclosed at the bottom with a noncombustible material. If you have a fireplace, a chimney cap will keep moisture out and reduce the possibility that embers will enter your home. If they do make it through, they would fall into a fire-resistant cavity. Damper closures should be kept closed when the fireplace is not in use.

3. Do not attach anything to your home:  Make sure that there is nothing attached to your home that is combustible. Remove wooden pergolas and replace exposed wood stairs and decks with ones that are made of nonflammable materials. You can replace wood staircases with steel or fire-resistant woods like ipe and black locust, which is indigenous to the US and thus a sustainable choice.

Case Study: The Hollywood Hills House

Real estate developer Robert Balzebre hired SweisKlosss to work on his 1960s home in the Hollywood Hills that was long overdue for updates. Acknowledging that the home is in a fire zone, Sweis took steps to fireproof the residence, in effect “creating a sealed envelope for the home.” SweisKloss ended up stripping the house down to the studs and the foundation, replacing everything but the main structure.

Sweis chose non-combustible, fire-resistant materials that met the client’s aesthetic needs. The home is wrapped in stucco, and its exterior features a boxy, contemporary design without vents or roof overhangs where embers could enter or become trapped.

The project is topped with a highly fire-resistant torch down membrane roof, and its aluminum windows are fitted with glass that is tempered up to 450 degrees. The outside staircases are made of steel, the pavers and tiles are made from concrete, and the decking and trim features a dense, naturally fire-resistant hardwood called ipe.

The floor-to-ceiling windows are made from tempered glass that can withstand temperatures up to 450 degrees. The windows provide stunning views from the Sunset Strip to the ocean.

The window frames are made from aluminum instead of vinyl.

Sweis created a number of different outdoor spaces, each with its own feel.

A lower-level patio with benches and a generously sized spa allows the homeowner to enjoy the view while entertaining company. The stairs are made from naturally fire-resistant ipe wood.

Fire-resistant materials can add an additional expense to renovations, but the benefits of using quality non-combustible materials are well worth it. “The city has guidelines for high fire zones, but I think that the codes are not strict enough for the types of fires that we are now seeing,” says Sweis. “The most important thing is to constantly educate as many people as possible about the hazards of wildfires,” she adds. “After a big fire, eventually things go back to normal and then it repeats. Malibu has burned before.”

How you can help:

If you’d like to help the victims of the California wildfires, consider donating time or resources to one of the following organizations:

The American Red Cross is providing shelter, food, emergency supplies, and medical support for fire evacuees.

Direct Relief is providing respiratory masks and other supplies to fire-affected communities throughout California.

United Way of Northern California is providing direct services to survivors and emergency cash grants to those who lost their homes.

United Way of Greater Los Angeles is providing relief to those affected by the Woolsey and Hill fires.

The Salvation Army is providing meal services at evacuation centers.

The Los Angeles Fire Department is accepting donations to help fund supplies for first responders.

The Los Angeles County Animal Care Foundation is seeking donations to assist with sheltering and caring for animals and pets displaced by the fires.