To Build a Fire (-proof building)

Modern cmu house in California

Those that live in the Sierra foothills of California during the long hot, dry summer know too well the arresting feeling when a whiff of smoke causes immediate panic. Fire?! Where?! One might feel relieved that measures beforehand were taken to mitigate danger to home and property or one might lament why they had not yet acted to avoid catastrophe.

I was approached in 2005 by a couple who wanted to take preemptive measures in designing a home with special attention paid toward fire protection. They were tired of being subjected to the danger of losing it all. We discussed the merits of metal siding which is not uncommon for many buildings here sided with corrugated metal as a way to prohibit combustion via sparks and hot ashes. It also fits the utilitarian, gold rush-era vernacular style too. With modern sensibilities I have always appreciated the honest and simple look of off-the-shelf materials, corrugated metal being one of them. It will resist combustion on the surface but lengthy exposure to extreme heat may well threaten the framing behind it. This is the same with cement board siding, it’s great for protection against ash but it cannot withstand heat to protect the wood framing. These materials are effective when a building is a safe distance from brush and combustible debris. The recommended 100’ radius of brush clearing around a property is as an effective fire control measure. You can contact your local Firesafe Control Board or Resource Conservation District (RCD) for information on fire defense strategies.

More effective than metal or cement board siding, I advocated the use of the concrete masonry unit (cmu) aka concrete block. It will resist burning, no question, and is manufactured in a number of surface textures, colors and sizes. It is available just about everywhere and its installation is straightforward much like stacking bricks. From a design standpoint it is a consistent modular unit similar to Lego. It lends itself well towards contemporary styling with its clean rectilinear lines. It can be left exposed on the interior and exterior because there are insulation products made to be inserted within the block cells while still leaving room for concrete and steel reinforcing bars which are necessary for strengthening the structure. This also saves in overall costs because there are no additional processes added to the walls of the building, not to mention operational costs down the road repairing cracks in stucco or painting and so on. Smart sustainable practices of passive solar heating and shade devices can enhance comfort. This is very important because a lack of interior climate consideration can lead to a very uncomfortable house.

Block structures have usually been assigned to box store construction or benign storage buildings, but there are wonderful examples of block homes that win design awards usually in the modern contemporary style. One of the main stigmas holding people back from considering block is the idea of inhabiting a bunker. Without the facility of a good design any building could run the risk of being an eyesore and block is no exception. Block can and has been proven to inspire appreciation through its proper use and understanding as a viable material. In actuality, it is nothing less than an inexpensive substitute for cut stone.

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