Living in the line of wildfire

DEFENSIBLE SPACE: Not only is this all-new G&C home (above, upper right) built to California’s strict fire code, its low, green, and succulent-rich landscaping provides a buffer against wildfire.

Living in the foothills along the South Coast of Santa Barbara, particularly Montecito, clearly has its upside: long views across the city and on out to sea; a steeply rugged backdrop of sandstone peaks; and all of it soaked in Mediterranean microclimates approaching perfection. Every year, however, as days get dry and winds pick up, we’re reminded that not all is perfect in paradise. That same mix of enchanting climate and landscape is also home to the region’s most common natural disaster: wildfire.

Fortunately, greater Santa Barbara has some of the best multi-agency firefighting cooperation in the state, if not the country. On October 29, 2015, in the canyons above Montecito, for example, the early morning Gibraltar Fire — driven by hot winds gusting to 40 mph — lived a very short life as crews from Montecito Fire Protection District, Santa Barbara County Fire Department, the U.S. Forest Service, and other agencies contained the blaze to just 21 remote acres of chaparral before it raced down-slope, where it would have mounted a very serious threat to San Ysidro Ranch, Lotusland, and billions of dollars worth of surrounding real estate.

Certainly, homes built to code — stucco and tile, tempered glass and sprinklers, and with little to no exterior wood, for starters — are made to fend off super-high temperatures and deadly embers. As Montecito is home to many of our all-new estates and extensive renovations, Giffin & Crane is keenly familiar with California’s strict building code in aptly named Very High Fire Hazard Severity Zones.

Above and beyond building code, however, exists another layer of protection every homeowner is bound to follow: maintaining defensible space around their homes.

“We have several programs designed to assist property owners,” says Wildland Fire Specialist Maeve Juerez with Montecito Fire Protection District. “One program allows us to bring in fire crews to remove flammable vegetation around structures and remove dead trees from [a] property that could cause access [and] egress issues if they were to fall.”

Like building a fire-resistant home, creating and maintaining these important buffers isn’t cheap. Fortunately, adds Juerez, her Montecito Fire “works really hard to ensure that everyone is not only educated in fire prevention but also has the ability to accomplish defensible space. Often we encounter property owners who simply do not meet compliance because they cannot physically do the work or afford to pay someone to do it for them. We will always work with property owners to ensure that the work is completed, because even one property [lacking] defensible space can affect the surrounding properties.”

For more information, check out Montecito Fire’s Community Wildfire Protection Plan.

On Topic with Tom Meaney

In California, particularly in Santa Barbara, the rules and regulations of homebuilding can present a tough challenge for those embarking on a major renovation or completely new construction. Fortunately, the town is home to architects and builders especially adept at overcoming the hurdles of planning and permitting. They’re here to help. Architect Tom Meaney, for example, is a proponent of building a team that can focus on the most important question: How do we provide the client with what she or he desires? For Meaney, part of the answer to that questions rests with maximizing communication from the outset. He also enjoys bringing other realms of creativity to the table.

Giffin & Crane: Hi, Tom. Let’s say you have a client new to Santa Barbara and new to hiring an architect. What guidance do you offer right away?

Tom Meaney: We’ll meet on the property and talk about what the issues will be regarding the process of the governmental agencies, their review process, and the timeline involved. And we can bring in a builder to talk about what the cost limitations are regarding the remodel or the new construction, and the timeline that’s associated with that. We try to get a rough idea of the process, from any special designs to construction, both in time and money, from the very outset, to get additional information to see whether or not they’re comfortable with any issues before them.

As you bring in a builder, what sort of characteristics would you anticipate from a successful design/build team?

Tom: I’d say communication is critical. Doing your best without ego. Respecting the input and expertise from your fellow team members. As long as we all have the client’s interest as the most important element of our teamwork, then I think we all work toward a successful project together, for the benefit of the client.

Okay, let’s shift gears for this last question. You’re a classically trained architect; how does that transfer to the Digital Age?

Tom: Well, I think the technology definitely makes some things faster and easier. But also, for me, communicating with hand drawings is still a pretty powerful tool. You know, what I find from clients is that if they know an architect has the ability to draw, to paint [or create fine art with chalk, pictured below], and to increase the level of artistic approach, those are things that can make the project better.


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