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Sonoma County family rebuilds home lost in Tubbs fire with sleek, modern design

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When they sit down to Thanksgiving dinner on Thursday, Jill Richardson and Tim Landerville and their son Blair will have much to be grateful for.

There is the new double oven — a first-time luxury — that will enable Jill to roast a turkey and bake a pie at the same time. There is also the giant true-cook’s island in the kitchen that has made food preparation so much easier. There are the big new windows that have opened up views of the hills surrounding their “Hidden Valley” in the midst of Santa Rosa.

But more than appreciating the creature comforts that come with a new house, they will be thankful simply to be home after two years as nomads. Their home of more than 20 years was incinerated in the Tubbs fire of 2017. There was little question they would rebuild.

“This is my little piece of the planet. This is my spot on this earth. This is where I just belong. It’s where I need to be,” Richardson explained. “Between that and needing to get our son back home — I gave birth to him at Memorial and we brought him home to this house — there was very little discussion about not rebuilding.”

This modest subdivision, built in the 1970s, has been their home since 1991. They celebrated their wedding reception in the backyard, dancing their first dance on a brick patio they created for the occasion.

During their nearly two years of displacement, Jill would come by almost every day. Knowing so much habitat had been lost to the fire, she wanted to make sure the bird feeders were full and the birdbath — one of the only things they owned that survived the heat and flames — had water.

“I would bring gallons of water up every day,” Richardson said. “I reinstalled my bird feeder. I did everything I could to maintain the small bird population.”

Their new house sits on essentially the same footprint as their old house, a typical, 1,800-square foot, three-bedroom, two-bath house built in 1973. But the architecture/design team of Ken Berman and Clare Monteschio, of Red Maple Workshop in Sebastopol, created a fresh new interpretation that reflects post-millennial living, from a courtyard in the front yard to high ceilings, an open living area inside and elements of universal design to buy the couple more years in their home as they age.

“The thing we were always anticipating is that once they moved into their home, it was to be their forever home, the home they wanted to have but didn’t have a chance to have,” said Berman, a licensed architect.

The fire, added Monteschio, who like her husband has a master’s degree in architecture from The New Jersey Institute of Technology, was a terrible event that, nonetheless, presented an opportunity for those who lost their homes to come away with something positive — a house that may better meet their current needs.

Richardson and Landerville both enjoy outdoor living.

He’s king of the grill and smoker. Along with the birdbath, his grill is one of the few things that withstood the inferno that blowtorched through Hidden Valley and nearby Fountaingrove that night in October 2017.

The designers made a point of adding to their outdoor living space. In back, they extended the roof of the new home out into the backyard with metal beams, creating a comfortable covered patio. The area is set off by a fence made of redwood salvaged from trees felled in the fire.

In the front they carved out a compact, 300-square foot courtyard behind a low wall.

“It takes the space of the old- fashioned front porch, where Jill can sit out and converse with the neighbors. Every time somebody goes by, she’s waving,” Monteschio said.

Inside, Monteschio and Berman blew out the wall separating the living room from the kitchen and did away with the low, cottage cheese ceilings Landerville and Richardson had loathed but felt consigned to living with before the fire.

The new high-pitched ceilings, which start at 9 feet and go all the way up to 20 feet, add a new feeling of spaciousness.

Berman and Monteschio found other ways to add spaciousness and cost savingsto the design.

In the master bedroom they included built-in storage cabinets of dark stained maple in lieu of a walk-in closet.

“It’s a way for a homeowner to customize that is a lot better than a closet with a rod and hook,” Berman said.

“Basically, it’s the same amount of storage and in some cases, more storage.”

But the built-in clothes cabinets, popular with the early 20th Century bungalows, are a smart idea.

“It’s a way to consolidate space and get more storage,” Berman said. “We’ve done a lot of old houses, and some of the ideas have percolated into our bloodstream. So we feel confident it’s a cost-effective strategy.”

Virtually everything represented an upgrade, much of it in compliance with building codes that have changed over the decades. The house is more energy efficient, with thicker walls and more insulation, this time with blown foam.

“The structure that we designed and built is very lightweight,” Monteschio said. That includes doing away with the heavy trusses of old.

“A lot of houses you see in the area were built with trusses. It’s just a lot of wood that comprises the structure,” Berman explained.

Instead, they opted for steel beams and cathedral ceilings. It not only saved on lumber costs but allowed them to move forward more quickly since there was a large backlog of orders for trusses after the fire.

“Instead of putting money into the lumber, we were able to put it into finishes,” he added.

The new house also is more fire resistant, with Hardie siding — a fiber cement material that is not so flammable. There are no vents in the eaves, and the outdoor living areas feature more hardscaping.

Landerville and Richardson say they are both grateful for the new house and the ability to return to their old neighborhood.

“It’s fabulous,” Richardson said. “The views are beautiful. This truly is a Hidden Valley. Very few people even know it exists.”

Monteschio and Berman said the post-fire rebuild is demanding for fire victims, with so many hurdles from the planning process to the actual construction. As home designers, they said their goal is to provide a happy ending to a horrible situation.

“If they can sit back in a house they’re proud of, and we gave them a chance to heal and move on, that’s great,” Berman said. “We did our jobs.”

Staff Writer Meg McConahey can be reached at meg.mcconahey@pressdemocrat.com or 707-521-5204.

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