Building for better fire resilience in WUI zones

Photo courtesy ROCKWOOL North America Photo courtesy

By Rick Roos

Wildfires continue to make headlines and the long-term prognosis is concerning, as experts forecast more of the same in coming years. Yet, building in wildland urban interface (WUI) zones continues at a fast pace. WUI zones are areas of transition between unoccupied land and human development, where structures and other human development meet or intermingle with undeveloped wildland or vegetative fuels. Communities adjacent to and surrounded by wildland are at varying degrees of risk from wildfires. WUI zones are not limited to densely forested areas; they can just as easily be inhabited areas close to brush or grassland. Dry, hot, and windy conditions—together with an ignition source—increase the risk of fire quickly spreading in any WUI zone.1

Why are people still building, and rebuilding in WUI zones? Primarily for affordability. These zones continue to expand because of ongoing population growth and urban sprawl, driving significant housing development into environments in which fire can move readily from forests and grasslands into neighborhoods. It is important to note new builds in WUI zones are primarily residential, but commercial builds in these regions are not uncommon. The principles for building for optimal fire resilience are the same in both scenarios.

The Good Haus

The Good Haus, a zero net energy (ZNE), near passive, high-performance house in California’s Sierra Nevada foothills (see the section on page 4 titled “Could This Be the Perfect House for Rural California?”) exemplifies good design inclusive of consideration to fire resilience. Atmosphere Design Build principals Mela Breen and David Good (the home’s designer and builder) were drawn to rural northern California for different reasons: the natural beauty of the area and a desire for an active outdoor lifestyle that made the region ideal for their business and home. Their goal was to build a high-performance NZE home, which meant designing an exceptionally high performing building envelope. Central to its objective and in keeping with Passive House ideals, the plans called for a super-insulated home to ensure efficiency, occupant comfort, and building durability. An airtight and efficient thermal envelope would also dramatically reduce heating and cooling demands and permit a modest photovoltaic (PV) solar array to meet those demands. In keeping with the values of their practice, Breen and Good sought to incorporate sustainable, environmentally conscious building materials to support a healthy home with a smaller impact on the planet.

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