The rebuilding of Wine Country after last month’s horrific wildfires will require an army of building- department bureaucrats, not to mention thousands of carpenters, electricians and plumbers.
But what role will architects play in the mad rush to rebuild the 8,889 structures lost in the Wine Country fires? Can thoughtful design help shape a reconstruction effort that is more resilient against future fires as well as more socially and environmentally conscious than what was lost?
That is what Napa architect Brandon Jorgensen was wondering when he invited some of the Bay Area’s top architects — including renowned designers Anne Fougeron and Stanley Saitowitz — to a design charette Sunday afternoon at Grassi Family Ranch on Soda Canyon Road in Napa.
Sitting on pillows around a square table upstairs in an old barn, the architects talked about everything from building material to how the latest modular prefab technologies could be employed to reconstruct neighborhoods faster and cheaper. They discussed how landscape design could create barriers against future wildfires. They questioned whether the reconstruction could add density to help alleviate the Bay Area housing shortage.
“How can we do something better than what typically happens after one of these disasters?” Jorgensen asked.
The group — which is calling itself Architecture of Resilience — is in its early stages. But the plan is to come up with enough ideas to put on an exhibit next spring that would feature a range of solutions to the rebuilding effort. The group also discussed building a prototype house that would give homeowners a broader sense of their possibilities as they confront the depressing and expensive task of starting over on a leveled property that in most cases will not even have a foundation remaining.
Fougeron said it’s important that the group figure out precisely whom it is trying to help. City planners? Blue-collar families in Santa Rosa’s Coffey Park or well-to-do people whose second or third home was destroyed on the Silverado Trail in Napa?
“Are we trying to help the community at large, and who are they? They are extraordinarily varied,” she said. “It’s not one client walking into your office looking for something.”
The 1991 Oakland hills firestorm — in which 3,500 homes were destroyed — was cited as a cautionary tale. Many of the homes were rebuilt as even bigger mega-homes and are just as susceptible to fire as they were before. Saitowitz recalled designing four homes after the Oakland disaster.
“They were the worst experiences I’ve had, because none of our clients had prepared themselves for the idea that they were going to be building a house with an architect,” he said. “They needed so much nurturing to get them where they needed to be.”
A more useful approach, he said, would be to create widely applicable prototypes. “I don’t think it’s right to solve the problems one by one with architecture,” he said. “I think it’s at a much broader scale.”
Density — something that urbanists love but that many homeowners leave the city to get away from — will be a tough sell, the architects agreed. Architect Craig Steely talked about how some property owners might be encouraged to rebuild houses closer together — without the traditional suburban backyard and side yard — which would also free up open space that could create a barrier against fire. “Two percent of the people might see it, and it might strike an interest with them.”
Fougeron suggested that accessory dwelling units — sometimes called granny units — should be encouraged.
“Should everybody have an ADU in the backyard at the very least?” she said. “What should we be encouraging people to think about so that what they rebuild is more socially relevant than what they had?”
As the meeting was wrapping up, Saitowitz encouraged his fellow architects to think bigger than just an exhibit.
“Why couldn’t we build a house? There is enough empty land,” he said. “A firebreak and a beautiful house. We could put it together.”