This fire-resistant home is the next line of defense against climate change

It is impossible to build a fully fireproof home, but researchers are now focused on making homes at least fire resistant. They have to, because climate change is increasing the intensity of wildfires around the world, putting billions of dollars’ worth of real estate literally in the line of fire.

Wildfires destroyed more U.S. homes and buildings last year than at any other point in recorded history, and the eight most destructive years for wildfires ever have been in the last 13 years.

“There is no reason to think they are going to get better,” said Roy Wright, CEO of the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety. “You look at this kind of impact — the variations in the climate we have had, we are far more susceptible to the size and intensity of fires.”

Roughly 14,000 homes burned to the ground in just two of the enormous California wildfires last year. Wildfire damage to residential and commercial property in California alone last year totaled nearly $19 billion, according to CoreLogic. The rainy season in California is getting shorter and the droughts more prolonged, meaning there is simply more combustible material and a greater chance of wildfires.

But it is not just California. Wright points to increasingly intense wildfires recently in Colorado, Texas, Florida, Tennessee and South Carolina. All of those states have huge homebuilding industries.

“There are steps that we can take so that the impact of that fire is narrowed, it doesn’t spread as far, and it impacts far fewer structures,” said Wright.

Wright’s insurance institute built two test homes at its facility in Richburg, South Carolina, one a typical structure, the other using fire-resistant materials and landscaping. Using large fans and ember generators, it showed how quickly one house erupted in flames, while the other did not. Though a wildfire’s wall of flame might look most destructive, 90 percent of fires are ignited by flying embers, some the size of a human hand.

“Fire resistance means you’ve incorporated building materials and design features that will get the ember exposure, will get the fire exposure, but would resist it,” said Daniel Gorham, research engineer with the institute.

Landscaping is key

The siding on the fire-resistant home was a fiber cement composite, rather than typical wood shingles or planks. This composite is offered in different colors and designs that look just like wood.

Landscaping was also key. The typical home had mulch, the fire-resistant home, rocks. The fire resistant home also had all its plantings at least 5 feet from the siding and the siding was raised 6 inches off the ground.

“We have noncombustible landscaping. In this case, we have rock mulch from zero to 5 feet away from the building. We also have the ornamental vegetation outside of that 5-foot zone, and spaced strategically,” said Gorham.

Satellites have captured embers flying up to 7 miles from a wildfire. These start secondary fires. The embers can land in gutters and siding and smolder for up to 12 hours before they ignite. Using metal instead of vinyl gutters mitigates fire risk: vinyl can melt and drop fire onto the side of the house — metal will not.

Windows and doors also need fortification in the line of fire.

“We have a dual-paned, tempered glass window, and we have a fiberglass door. Dual-paned is important because if we do get a fire here, single-paned glass would break, and then we have a window break, we now have a breach in the opening and that’s when flames and embers can get into the home,” said Gorham.

While the cost to real estate from wildfires is rising, the cost to build and landscape a fireproof home is actually the same or slightly less than the cost of a typical home. The savings is in the cement siding, cheaper than wood materials. That offsets cost increases in gutters and vents.

In the institute’s experiment, with equal amounts of embers blowing on them, the fire-resistant home did not burn at all, while the typical home, which was connected to it, was fully engulfed.

Paradise lost

“This work that we do here in the lab, this is real. I think all too often, we can watch something on TV, we can listen to it and go, ‘That’s interesting, but it won’t happen to me.’ But it does. It invades a family’s life,” said Wright.

Wright is a former FEMA official and native Californian. His parents lost their home in California’s Camp fire last year, the worst in the state’s history.

“I’ve always led my team saying, ‘Make sure we know the names of those people,’ but when that fire came through Paradise — and you get the text message from your mom that says, ‘Our home is gone. Where do I start?’ … the nature of how destructive it is hits home,” said Wright.

This business owner builds homes out of shipping containers

Carl Coffman is betting that in the near future, people will want to live in shipping containers.

After 35 years as an excavation contractor, Coffman decided he wanted to spark a conversation about climate change and natural resources. The retired contractor set up shop in Oregon City. His company, Relevant Buildings, fabricates finished homes out of recycled containers from nearby ports. He hopes to sell them for between $50,000 and $230,000.

“It’s simple if you just use these how they were designed,” he says.

Coffman’s operation sits in a gravel lot just off I-205, easily recognizable by the pile of 450-foot steel containers. A model home village features containers outfitted with windows, electrical wiring, plumbing, drywall, tiling and all the other accoutrements of a modern home. They range from single-container homes to three-container creations of more than 1,000 square feet.

Coffman’s latest project in the city of St. Helens is an eight-unit shipping container condo complex. The 650-foot, one-bedroom units are stacked together like Legos, four below and four above. Coffman is leasing the land from the city.

He’s also in the early stages of a ten-unit development in Milwaukie and a 20- to 30-unit project in Roseburg.

With affordable housing in crisis across the state, planners and developers are scrambling to accommodate new homebuilding solutions. Some alternatives include encouraging “missing-middle” housing like duplexes and triplexes. Portland recently amended its code to allow accessory dwelling units — small backyard living quarters often offered at an affordable price. And of course there are tiny homes.

Coffman insists his containers bring something different to the real estate market. They are not tiny homes, he says. Nor are they affordable housing, exactly. The St. Helens units will rent for around $1,200, and Coffman hopes to offer ownership options at or below that rate.

Coffman does hope to sell future developments to nonprofits. “Once we get to scale, we’ll make a dent in affordable housing,” he says.

The idea has the potential for provide housing at low cost. As with accessory dwelling units, developers can take advantage of modular construction. They can build the entire unit and ship it to the construction site, cutting down construction times and disruption to the neighborhood. The container homes also use only about an eighth of the wood in traditional light-frame U.S. homes.

Each home sits on a foundation and a thick bed of insulation. Various models feature different bumpouts for windows and doors welded to the container. The interiors are games of Tetris, with laundry machines in the bathroom or clever storage nooks. Some units even boast small porches.

Though relatively new to the United States, container architecture has become a worldwide fad. In an era of increasing urbanization, the structures can provide quick and flexible housing. Coffman was inspired by student housing in the Netherlands—an entire dorm built of stacked shipping containers.

With disaster resilience a frequent topic of conversation these days, Coffman says his containers are just the thing, water resistant and earthquake proof. “If you put a traditional house on a ship, stacked it seven high and sent it across the ocean, I don’t think it would do so well,” he says.

Before Coffman can scale up, however, he needs to get approved for state permits. That will require expensive testing of the homes’ structural integrity.

The entreprenueur doesn’t seem to have much of an idea of where this project will take him. So far he’s only sold two units.

He just knows he wants to shake up the traditional home building industry. “We’re trying to push back on the common way of doing things,” he says.

View the full article here at Oregon Business