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Advice to Californians Building New Homes After The Fires

I'd like to get this out to as many people as possible. Please send it to anyone you think might appreciate it.
Poster from 1885, designed to encourage people to move westward

I would like to offer some suggestions to people whose homes were destroyed by the California fires of 2017. I have built three homes of my own and, as well, been publishing books on building for some 45 years now. From this experience I’ve come to some conclusions about practical, sensible building.

Much of the emphasis in our books has been on owner-building, and if you will be doing design and construction yourself, these are things for you to consider. If not, these are ideas you can discuss with architects and/or builders you may be working with — the principles are the same. 

Much has been learned about building homes in the last two or three decades. You may be able to take advantage of building materials and techniques that weren’t available when these homes were built. Here is a chance to do things better, to learn from experience, to create a home built from sustainable materials that will save energy, that will be better for you and the planet.

Please note: These are just random ideas for your consideration. This isn't a check list, where you try to incorporate each suggestion in your plans. The purpose here is to stimulate thinking. Maybe you’ll find two or three ideas that will work for you.

• Consider putting a tiny home on the site for a temporary place to live. You can get one ready-made, and I recommend the ones built by Ward Hensill in Bodega: http://www.bodegaportablebuildings.com/
OR get a Tuff Shed: you prepare the foundation/floor, and they erect the building in one day. You then finish the interior: https://www.tuffshed.com/
OR for a local (Petaluma) manufacturer of small (not tiny) homes: Stephen Marshall at 

• If you build a tiny (or small) house first, it can later be a guest house, studio, or “granny flat.”

• Consider some sort of pre-fab starting point to get the house framed up quickly and ready for services and finishing. 
For example, some friends in Carpentaria had the shell of their house steel framed by local barn builders. They carried on and completed the finishing themselves, but the fire resistant shell went up in a few days.

• Consider the orientation of your property. Windows facing south will allow for solar heating. Deciduous trees can be planted so there is shade in the summer, sun in the winter (when trees are bare.) What direction do the winds/storms come from? Where does the sun rise and set at various times of the year?

• Consider having a large enough section of the roof sloping and facing direct south for maximization of solar panels (which can be added years later).

• Have the home built in two stages. Get the kitchen/bathroom/living/sleeping areas done first, with plans to add on later, so you can live there ASAP.

• Even if you hire a builder, do some of the work yourself. I built most of a house in the ‘60s by working on weekends, after work, and holidays. You can save a lot of money by doing some of the simple stuff.

• Stud frame construction. Straw bale, cob, timber frame, and other natural materials each have their benefits, but the stud wall system, with insulation, wiring, and plumbing within the walls is by far the quickest way to build.

• Rectangular design. Stick with rectangles. If you get into building curves, or polygons (e.g. hexagonal, octagonal) you’ll end up spending a lot more time and money.

• Use Class A roofing materials, which are “…effective against severe fire test exposures."

• Consider Hardie board fiber cement siding for exterior walls. It’s a cement fiber product that looks like wood, but will not rot, and is fire resistant, insect resistant, impact resistant, and moisture resistant.

• Use some kind of non-toxic insulation (not available when I built). Wool, denim, cellulose made from recycled paper products. Research it. “Roxul” is a very good non-toxic, non-water absorbing, non-rodent and non-insect supporting type of batt insulation.

• Have a central core, including kitchen/ bathroom back-to-back (for plumbing simplicity).

• Locate the hot water heater in a central core area, including a wood (or gas) stove for space heating, with a coil for heating water in winter, plus a solar-heated water panel on the roof for summer hot water.

• Consider a small 5-gallon hot water heater under the kitchen sink. We have one, and it provides almost instant hot water, with no waiting, and doesn’t use much electricity.

• Consider facing your kitchen south. I’d get the kitchen floor as low as possible (concrete slab with stringers, plywood, then linoleum). (Don’t have wooden floor in kitchen if you really cook — linoleum is easy to clean.) The reason for the low floor is so that you easily step out to:

 a) An outdoor cooking/eating area with a roof (maybe double wall polycarbonate), right outside the kitchen. Webber barbecue, table, sink. This is cheap square footage, and you can do a lot of cooking, eating, and socializing outdoors in warmer weather.

 b) A vegetable garden easily accessible to the kitchen

• Don’t install a kitchen sink garbage disposal unit. It’s a bad practice to grind up food, especially if it’s going to a septic tank. Rather, compost kitchen scraps using a composting tumbler (which is varmint-proof).

• Consider washing dishes by hand; don’t install a dishwasher. Here’s a video of my technique: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1G0LjVIh7_Y

• Have a window at the kitchen sink, so you can look outside while doing dishes.

• Install a Blue Star range (made in America) if you are serious about cooking. The one we have has no digital controls. It cost $3100 and is one of the best things we’ve ever bought.

• Consider getting a tank to collect rain water off the roof.

• Set up valves to divert greywater for wash basin, bath, and shower.

• If you are interested in gardening, in providing some of your own food, consider where a vegetable garden might best be located.

• Plant some fruit and/or shade trees. (If I was starting over again, I’d plant half a dozen olive trees.)

• Avoid architectural cleverness. Watch out for architects trying to make a statement. Quite often, tried and true designs produce economical, practical homes. The wheel needn’t be reinvented.

• Wire your house for internet access.

• Set up The Cloud to automatically back up your computer, smartphone, iPad or other digital devices. Also, back up all photos on The Cloud; you can set up your smartphone to automatically back up all photos you shoot. This way, all your data will be saved even if the devices are destroyed in a fire (or stolen or lost)

Note: Attached are reprinted pages with a lot of design recommendations from our book Shelter II: http://www.dropbox.com/s/kqcdahcl85gyoyx/Design%20Considerations%20for%20Building%20a%20New%20Home.pdf?dl=0


Anonymous said...

Another obstacle is the building inspector. Some can be helpful, but I've heard many unreasonable stories. When going custom the inspector may nitpick about issues minutia.
So using the above advice, and using an established house plan with engineer stamps or other proven approval. Manufactured homes have a lot of thought and optimizations built into them.

I find it very upsetting when someone builds a dream home only to sell it after they realized that it is not to their liking. Weird roofs, funky windows, bad layout. The house you build needs to house multiple generations, please be considerate.

Luddene Perry said...

Good advice!

Anonymous said...


Your link for Stephen Marshall opens an email address, not the website.

Anonymous said...

Merry Christmas to you Lloyd and Family ....

Thank you for your work in this blog. It is much enjoyed and appreciated.

Holly said...

Thank you!
Holly in Ventura

Mark said...

Hey Lloyd – Good advice as usual. When I built my last house in 2003, I used many of your common-sense tip (included above) that I learned from you and others in the Whole Earth Catalogue/Co-Evolution Quarterly/ days. Things like: simple is best; rectangles only; do as much yourself as possible; etc etc. So I'm now still happily in a well-functioning house that cost $42 sq ft instead of the $200 sq ft then. Thanks aplenty… SalishSeaSam

Michelle said...

Very helpful article, I feel for all the people who have lost everything. I hope everyone can rebuild as fast as possible. God Bless You All

Rania S. said...

I would just add, have quality windows and doors, and have them properly installed.

Finger-jointed door frames exposed to the elements will come apart within 5 years or less.

With that said, re insulation ,


Lloyd Kahn said...

Raina -- no first hand experience with cork, but from a Google search, looks pretty good.

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