Sonoma County fire rebuilds offer some a chance to re-envision their homes
For many of the people whose homes tragically burned during the October firestorms, there is one small bright spot amid the crushing loss of family treasures and memories. The difficult process of starting over is offering some a chance to create a new home that better fits their current lifestyle and tastes.
This is particularly evident in Coffey Park, where many of the 1,347 houses lost were built more than 30 years ago. Back in the 1980s, homes still featured distinctively separate spaces - formal living rooms, separate dining rooms and small, closed-off kitchens. A lot of the Coffey Park homes were, by today's standards, dark and closed in.
But many of the new homes that will replace them will blow out the old walls in favor of the bright, open floor plans that have emerged as the preferred design standard for the 21st century.
“This is an opportunity for them to upgrade, to have new interiors and maybe have an open floor plan that wasn't there before...People want something similar to what they had, but with upgrades,” said Elaine Lucia, marketing director for Leff Construction Design/Build, a Sebastopol-based company with a number of fire rebuilds in various stages of the design and planning process. “The majority of remodels are removing walls and making kitchens and dining rooms and living rooms into a great room for entertaining and making a much more expanded space.”
Brenda Christopherson of Christopherson Builders of Santa Rosa, said she's also seeing that people coming to her company for a rebuild want something different.
“There are very, very few people coming to us and saying, ‘I want to take my same plans, and just make some changes,'” she said.
Another theme among many people seeking to rebuild after the fire is that they adamantly do not want fireplaces, even though nowadays they are essentially just gas appliances.
“These people were so traumatized. We want to be careful,” Christopherson said. “We just try to be real sensitive to their needs. We were putting fireplaces as a standard feature in all our homes. Now we're making them an option because so many people said ‘I don't want a fireplace' ... in their mind, it's too close to fire.”
Embracing new trends
Taking a look at the flurry of fire rebuild designs offers a snapshot of trends in home design and remodeling.
One thing that's evident is a desire to orient new homes more toward the outdoors.
“Especially in Fountaingrove with its beautiful vistas. People want to bring the outside inside and erase the line between the interior and exterior,” Lucia said. That means more outdoor kitchens and more glass, sometimes even in the form of glass walls that can be lifted like a garage or folded to one side, for a free flow between indoors and outdoors.
Another trend Lucia noted is that many people doing rebuilds are choosing to incorporate features of “universal design” aimed at making homes safe and navigable to people of all ages as well as those with mobility problems. Lucia said universal design is quickly becoming as “ubiquitous as green building.”
For some that means ramps instead of stairs, wider hallways and doors, curbless showers with built-in benches and maybe even lower counters. Some also are opting to add second master suites or small separate living units onto their homes downstairs in the event they should be unable to negotiate the stairs or might one day need an in-home caregiver.
Jeff Rexford, a designer for Leff, said he's looking at six to eight rebuilds in Fountaingrove where the original homes had multiple levels, like a step down into a family room.
“We're suggesting it's far safer and more convenient to have everything on a single level,” he said, noting that steps can be problematic for everyone, from small children to adults who have a disability or even a short-term injury.
Rexford said another new concept in universal design is entryways with a gradual incline that gently ramp toward the door rather than steps. Carpet, he said, “is a thing of the past.” It's harder to effectively clean and harder to walk through.
Other changes that make homes safer and more accessible include placing ovens higher so you don't have to bend over. Levers are replacing doorknobs and showing up on plumbing fixtures because they're easier to use and don't require a big grip.
A new house presents an opportunity to make even small upgrades, Rexford said, like making electrical outlets higher up on the wall rather than the old standard of 12 inches.
Counter space-sucking vessel sinks are out, he said, as well as sunken bathtubs that have proven impractical over time.