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.

Thinking longer term

Christopherson has observed that people are no longer looking at their homes as a short-term investment.

They're not thinking, ‘I'm only going to live in this home seven years.' They're thinking 20 or 30 years,” she said. “So these newer designs give them extra options. The days of one use for a home or a room are gone. People want flexibility to accommodate how they want to live down the road.”

It all represents a current consumer demand for living spaces that can be used in a variety of ways, including multigenerational living. Lucia noted that the high cost of caregiving for elders, housing for young adults and even the need for child care, is drawing families together, sometimes with multiple generations under one roof.

Some preparing to rebuild also are asking for attached or detached second living units - what used to be called “granny units” - to accommodate aging parents or adult children who increasingly are living at home longer or who are coming back home for economic and other reasons. Sometimes those adult children have young kids of their own to add to the mix.

Others are opting for accessory units as a potential income stream to rent out short- or long-term. Incorporating a small apartment or studio into an existing house is more cost effective than building a whole separate building on your property, builders say. And with 5,283 homes, apartments and granny units burned in Sonoma County in the fires, the city of Santa Rosa and the county have loosened fees and some restrictions to make it easier to build them.

Granny units are officially defined as attached or detached residential dwellings under 1,200 square feet, located on the same parcel as an existing single-family dwelling. They must provide complete, independent living facilities, including sleeping, cooking, bathing and sanitation.

More bedrooms

Christopherson said fire victims, reflecting current trends, are also asking for more bedrooms, and they're willing to have smaller bedrooms to do it.

“So many people are thinking they need their own office and not a shared office,” she said of couples each wanting a room of their own.

In some cases, they're finding the space for a downstairs bedroom by doing away with the popular “flex room,” an area off the great room - that essentially takes the same space as a dining room - that could be used for a variety of uses, like an office, den or TV room.

Since the fire, Christopherson Builders has come up with a number of home designs that people can choose off the shelf, so to speak.

One of the popular options, she said, contains a second-floor loft room. This is an open area at the top of the stairs that, like the flex room, can be used for a variety of purposes. Some people are using them as TV/media rooms, playrooms, offices or a place to exercise.

“It's a perfect place for the kids to go and get away from their parents and yet still be in the house,” she said.

Also in high demand are walk-in closets and walk-in pantries.

Among the exterior architectural design options, many are going for a look reminiscent of the Arts and Crafts bungalows of early 20th century, she said. Christopherson offers a Spanish, Farmhouse and Ranch style options but the Craftsman style is by far the most popular, she added.

“It's timeless and it's safe,” she said. “It just feels good.”

You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at 707-521-5204 or

Meg McConahey

Features, The Press Democrat

Like most everyone, I love a good feature story that takes me somewhere I’ve never been or tells me something I don’t know. Where can I take you? Who in Sonoma County would you like to know better? I cover the people, places and ideas that make up Sonoma County, with general features, people profiles and home and garden, interior design and architecture stories. Hit me up with your tips, ideas and burning questions.


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