Fire-Resistant Homes in Any Style
Pioneers in the science of fire-resistant construction, Arri/LeCron Architects, Inc. has an unparalleled reputation for delivering dream houses large and small, on-budget, that don’t burn.
While the constant threat of wildfire has always been a somber reality of living in California, the historic devastation inflicted across the state over the last two years has, for some residents, finally led to a reckoning. From 2017’s Tubbs Fire in Sonoma County to last year’s devastating Camp and Woolsey fires, which left scores dead and thousands without homes, residents of hard-hit communities like Malibu are increasingly beginning to ask a heartbreaking but seemingly necessary question: if you live in a high-burn area like Malibu, how much sense does it make to rebuild a home you know will eventually burn again?
For clients of Santa Barbara based architecture firm Arri/LeCron Architects, however, having to choose between leaving your community or living with the constant fear of losing your home, is a thing of the past. Among the foremost experts in fire-resistant design and construction, husband-and-wife duo Karen Arri-LeCron and James LeCron, both licensed architects, have been designing fire-resistant homes for 30 years, building everything from small bungalows to large estates that can withstand direct fire contact with nary a scratch.
For Karen and James, being able to build fire-resistant homes is the culmination of a fascination with, and passion for, fire-resistant techniques developed early in their career. Just a few years after graduating architecture school with a BA & Master’s Degree from UC Berkeley, Karen was designing a home in Oakland when 1991’s Tunnel Fire roared through the Oakland Hills.
“People died trying to get out and so many homes were lost,” Karen said. “So we started thinking, there has got to be a better way of building that can prevent this.”
They began researching the then-fledgling science of fire-resistant home design, testing out materials, attending conferences and researching all the ways a home’s design could help blunt the impact of fire. “It’s all about using the proper materials and design techniques,” said James. “We use several construction systems that are very good for fire-prone areas.”
Their fire-resistant expertise is just one of the reasons people facing a rebuilding project have turned to Arri / LeCron Architects over the years. Having worked with families from Malibu to Northern California to their hometown of Santa Barbara since founding their firm some three decades ago, Karen and James offer a wealth of knowledge and experience navigating all of the unique challenges intrinsic to the rebuilding process, from permitting to dealing with insurance claims. With home designs that have survived the Tea Fire, Jesusita Fire, and the Thomas Fire, Arri/LeCron Architects’ reputation for building in a vast array of styles and sizes is another reason they have become one of the top design firms in L.A. While luxury residences are what Karen and James are known for, with a portfolio of some of the most jaw-droppingly beautiful 10-15,000 square foot estates in California and Hawaii, they remain firmly committed to delivering whatever kind of dream home a client might have in mind.
“We had a client in Malibu recently ask, ‘would you do something at 1,500 sq. ft.?” Karen said. “That’s what we do. We don’t just do big homes. It’s really about creating dreams for people.”
The firm’s adherence to budgets is also a major selling-point for re-builders. If it’s annoying for anyone building a home when a project ultimately goes over-budget, a common occurrence during the construction phase, late added costs can be ruinous for families rebuilding, who are often relying on a fixed amount from insurance for most if not all of their construction costs.
One way Arri/LeCron Architect is able to consistently deliver quality projects within budget is by upending the standard design/construction process. While most design firms begin working with contractors only once plans are nearly or completely finalized, Karen and James have streamlined the process, enlisting their long term relationship with Bob Niesner, a 40-year industry veteran and president of Malibu/Westlake-based Legacy Construction & Development, Inc., from the onset of design. This enables James and Karen to truly design within a budget, discussing with Bob how much certain elements will cost in real-time, and ultimately ensuring they design the best house they can build within that budget.
“We’re getting his input of what things we can change, what things we can do to keep the cost down for construction,” Karen said. “If an owner says look, we have to stay within this price range, I’ll be the bad guy that says [to Karen and James] let’s simplify this, let’s use a different product here, so we are staying within their budget,” added Niesner.
Ultimately, whether a client is building their first home or rebuilding after tragedy, every project is about delivering a family’s dream. “We try to take it as an opportunity [when families lose their homes],” said Karen. “It’s a tragedy to lose your house, but a lot of people are looking at it as, ‘it’s time to build my dream house.’ And we strive to make that dream come true.”
For many of their clients, especially ones who lost their homes, this dream involves the peace of mind of knowing your home won’t burn again. Indeed, Karen and James say they are working with clients in Malibu who are now looking at fire-resistant techniques after loosing their home or witnessing the damage to their community during Woolsey. To achieve this, Karen, James and Bob rely on years worth of work researching and implementing fire-resistant design techniques as well as a deep grasp of many cutting edge fire-resistant materials and how to use them.
This is still rare in Southern California, where the majority of designers and architects work exclusively with wood, instead of the new cutting-edge framing and siding materials which have shown to be fire-resistant.
“It doesn’t make sense,” said Bob. “It’s a no-brainer. Everyone should be doing this. But I do think that, surprisingly, Southern California is a little slow on jumping on this new technology.”
He pointed to a recent high-cost residential project he worked on in Pacific Palisades. While discussing materials, his client fell in love with the idea of using GigaCrete, an incredibly durable building system that relies on steel frames, a proprietary plaster and EPS foam (a system often utilized by Arri/LeCron Architects).
Eventually, however, the client’s architecture firm convinced the owner to move forward with wood instead, as the architect was uncomfortable working with a material he’d never used before.
“A lot of contractors say, ‘This is what I do, I know how to work with wood,’ and they get sort of entrenched,” said James.
Not Arri/LeCron Architects, who have been utilizing, researching and building, fire-resistant homes for 30 years, making them among the preeminent experts and builders of fire-resistant homes. They have worked with Legacy Construction to build a 10,000 sq. ft. home in L.A. using the GigaCrete system, and have used it all over California, Hawaii, and worldwide. They have found the benefits to building this way are tremendous. GigaCrete, for example, is made of completely non-toxic materials custom-fabricated, per design plans, in a factory in Las Vegas, allowing them to produce homes in any style and size and which look completely identical to their wood-framed counterparts, but are extremely fire resistant. Another major advantage is the price. For experts in fire-resistant materials, like Karen, James and Bob, building a home with GigaCrete almost always costs exactly the same as building with wood.
There are many ways a fire- resistant home from Arri/LeCron Architects will immediately feel different from your standard wood home, however. Energy efficiency, sound suppressing characteristics, as well as the strength and durability of materials makes them not only fire-resistant, but able to stand up to almost any range of natural disasters. In recent lab tests conduced on a GigaCrete wall, in which a machine exerted weight on the side, top and bottom of a wall in conditions meant to mimic an earthquake, the wall consistently did not break. Instead, as testers ramped up the weight and pressure the equipment was exerting, their $300,000 testing machine ultimately broke, while the wall remained intact. For James and Karen, this doesn’t come as a surprise. Having built homes in natural emergency-prone areas across the world utilizing the GigaCrete system, and Arri/LeCron’’s tried and true techniques, they have seen just how strong these homes are. “We have a project in Haiti that we did that has survived three hurricanes and an earthquake,” James said. “It was the only building left standing.”
Arri/LeCron Architects fire-resistant homes have also shown to be more energy-efficient and insulated than traditional wood-frame homes. One client said his new 10,000 sq. ft. home uses less energy than his previous 3,000 sq. ft. wood-frame one did. Doing away with traditional wood-frame construction also eradicates many of the problems that invariably arise when working with wood, including termites, mold, and wood-eating fungi.
“The United States is one of the few countries in the world that still builds with wood framing,” said James.
Arri / LeCron Architects, Inc. Legacy Construction
109 Oliver Rd., Santa Barbara 31364 Via Colinas, Ste. 105, Westlake Village
(805) 966-4034 (818) 874-0049