Soundings | Fire Lessons

Those gorgeous bright red sunsets of recent autumn evenings make for an attractive Instagram post, but for most of us, they mean one thing: fire season is here. In October 2017, the Tubbs fire destroyed 5643 structures, two of them were the homes of Framestudio clients. The recent Kinkaide fire evacuations were all the way to the Sonoma County coast, and I went so far as to phone our guests at the Mini-Mod, asking them to bring back a few irreplaceable items. Fire seems to be on everyone’s mind these days.   

After the ashes settled from the Tubbs fire, Framestudio was tasked with rebuilding our clients’ homes. The rebuild process could not have been more different for these clients. For one, rebuilding has been a relatively smooth process, all things considered. For our other clients, two years on and they are still struggling to rebuild. There are many differences between them,  but what stands out most notably: their insurance coverage.

Construction costs vary year to year, and are affected by the cost of labor, cost of materials, design complexity, and locality. They’re also affected by local and international events like our fires or tariffs on imports. Post Tubbs Fire, the demand for construction services surged, and we saw construction prices increase as much as 20%. While most homeowners insurance policies have a feature that guards against general inflation, this predetermined percentage isn’t enough to keep up with the typical rising costs of construction, much less a fire event. 

For our clients, their policy dictated the replacement home be built to the same size as the former. In reality, the settlement dollars simply weren’t stretching far enough. We used as many affordable elements as possible in our design, but after significant cost cutting and design compromises, it ultimately it took negotiating a reduction in square footage before the insurance settlement would cover the rebuild cost. For a visual, their former home was two story, terracotta tile roof, limestone floors, custom stair railings, and a chef’s kitchen. The new home is now single story, asphalt shingle roof, concrete floors, and 200 square feet smaller. The chef’s kitchen was off limits to cut, but it admittedly lacks the bells and whistles of the former.  

Avoiding the predicament that our clients find themselves in takes a bit of foresight and legwork, but it’s worth it. Your first step would be to contact your insurance agent and review your coverage. Keep in mind, insurance agents are not members of the construction industry, so review the rebuild values with an air of skepticism. We’re unaware of any home that can be built for $350/sf, yet agents I spoke to suggest this is a commonly used value, especially when writing competitively priced policies. We advise to contact a local contractor or architect like Framestudio who is familiar with your home, and review the rebuild numbers with them.  Having a digital set of architectural plans along with any remodeling receipts will also come in handy when negotiating with the insurance company.

In conversations with clients after the fire, they suggest to document your home with photos. In each room, take photos of all four walls, the floor, and the ceiling. These aren’t to be pretty pictures.  Rather they document your belongings and the finish level and condition of your home. Do this in closets, storage areas, garages, and around the exterior. While you’re outside, photograph any cars, trailers, or other equipment, and don’t forget the landscaping. Did you know your trees are covered by insurance? 

Another suggestion is to document in photos after you’ve cleared your defensible space each year. Upload these images to a safe place, like storage in the cloud or on a thumb drive in a bank safe deposit box. 

Sonoma County is famous for seasons: grape harvest, abalone and dungeness crab seasons come to mind. Being prepared for the realities of our fire season is well worth the trouble, should you be in the unenviable position where you need to rebuild your home. 


Chad DeWitt is the Creative Director at Oakland based architects Framestudio. With his partner James, they restored a Joseph Esherick designed Mini-Mod.  He confesses he was slow to develop adulting skills, but admits opening an umbrella insurance policy gave him an odd sense of achievement. 

Photo credit: Getty Images 2019