Ben Kasdan – Maintaining The California Dream with Resilient Homes
California Real Estate
September 12, 2022
CALIFORNIA IS THE LAND of opportunity, famous for its warm, sunny climate, glorious landscapes and growing job markets. But as climate-fueled natural disasters such as wildfires, droughts and storms become more frequent and intense across the state, homeowners and communities need to rethink and develop new approaches to defending their piece of paradise. Urban planners, wildfire experts, developers and insurers alike are developing new concepts and practices to keep properties sustainable and resilient to changing conditions. Innovations in architecture, technology and building and stewardship techniques to address the impacts of climate change are putting California at the forefront of protecting people and property.
“California serves as the demonstration state for proof of concept of disruptions in the building industry from 3D printing to panelized building to new building materials,” says CR Herro, executive vice president of operations for bettr homes, a Tampa-based builder of sustainable communities. “The first zero-energy community was built in California, which also has the first solar requirement for new homes, allows for non-potable grey water to be used for landscaping and has requirements for homes to be built with non-combustible materials.”
The challenges of devastating droughts, wildfires, rising sea levels and extreme heat require collaboration between nonprofit organizations, builders, architects, government agencies, insurance companies and real estate experts, including agents.
“The biggest thing to understand is that there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to address resilience and sustainability, both of which are important for the future,” says Benjamin Kasdan, a principal with KTGY “Sustainability is about conserving resources, while resilience is about designing stronger properties.”
Designing resilient single-family homes, multifamily buildings and mixed-use developments requires an analysis of the different needs in their location, says Kasdan.
“The key is for architects and builders to go beyond the existing building code,” Kasdan says. “The code is just in place to protect life, but not property. In other words, a property built to code will stand up long enough to get people out of danger but can still sustain damage and destruction from things like wildfires and floods.”
BUILDING BETTER HOMES FOR THE FUTURE
Many builders, particularly in California, voluntarily adopt higher standards for green building such as LEED for Homes, and Zero Energy homes, says Herro. For example, KB Home was the first national homebuilder to join the EPA’s WaterSense® program, a voluntary partnership that identifies water-efficient homes and products.
“According to the EPA, WaterSense® labeled products use at least 20 percent less water compared to products that are not labeled,” says Dan Bridleman, senior vice president of sustainability for KB Home. “Building water conservation into our homes reduces the use of a precious natural resource, saves our homeowners on utility costs and helps to mitigate drought conditions and the load on aging infrastructure amid climate issues.”
The latest version of WaterSense® labeled homes implemented by KB Home requires homes to be at least 30 percent more water efficient than a typical new home. KB Home recently partnered with SunPower; the Advanced Power and Energy Program (APEP) at the University of California, Irvine; Schneider Electric; and Southern California Edison to develop two new communities of 219 all-electric homes designed to meet the DOE Zero Energy Ready Homes criteria. The homes, which will be connected with a microgrid, will have solar systems with battery storage and smart energy management systems, says Bridleman.
“The project partners will conduct research to measure the energy efficiency of each energy-smart connected community,” says Bridleman. “They’ll explore how to build all-electric homes that will more effectively meet the requirements of future energy codes and how an energy-smart connected community and energy storage batteries can be more resilient, work together to maximize efficiency and comfort — and keep the power on at a community level.”
Technology is advancing rapidly, says Bridleman, including energy management systems, heat pump technology for water heating and HVAC systems, solar arrays and solar energy battery storage.
“Buyers are becoming more sophisticated about sustainability and resilience and are selecting better builders and better building materials, which provides a market force for greener homes,” says Herro.
In the Bay Area, KTGY designed a mixed-use building to be flood-resistant by lifting the garage one foot above the flood plain and creating a ramp that leads up as a natural flood dampening mechanism before winding down to lower levels. These adjustments make most of the residences at least three feet higher than the original design for the building, says Kasdan.
“We’ve also designed multifamily buildings with noncombustible roof materials and made the buildings more robust with one- to two-hour fire-rated exterior walls, so embers won’t ignite them,” says Kasdan. “We use fire-rated materials for the floors, so a fire won’t spread as easily to adjacent units.”
KTGY is working on a prototype to collect rainwater from multifamily and mixed-use buildings to use for irrigation, but Kasdan says there are some regulatory challenges to overcome before it can be implemented.
ADAPTING HOMES FOR GREATER RESILIENCE
Homeowners, buyers and sellers can take numerous steps to protect their homes from climate-related issues that can also add value to the property. The nonprofit Federal Alliance for Safe Homes (FLASH) developed The Buyers Guide to Resilient Homes (buyersguidetoresilienthomes.org/), which provides checklists by location and risk with features to look for that can protect a home from incidents such as wildfires and coastal flooding.
“If you live in an area prone to wildfires, for example, there are things you can do as a neighborhood and some affordable ways to mitigate risk for your home,” says Leslie Chapman-Henderson, president and CEO of FLASH. “Vegetation around your house provides a natural fuel for fires that you can eliminate. You can reduce your risk by eliminating wood decks and fences and choosing noncombustible, fire-resistant materials for your siding and roof.”
FLASH includes a printable wildfire checklist for real estate agents and homebuyers, including items such as mesh screens for roof vents and eliminating openings underneath decks where debris can collect.
“We have a video on our site of a cul-de-sac where every home but one burned,” says Chapman-Henderson. “The owner of that home had replaced her deck and roof with fire-resistant materials, so we know this works.” Chapman-Henderson recommends working with a local landscape expert to choose appropriate plants with higher water content, which are not necessarily always native plants. FLASH’s guide includes advice about water-saving features and flood-resistant design elements that can also help California homeowners adapt to climate change.
GOVERNMENT AND INSURANCE COMPANIES DRIVING CHANGE
California’s Energy Efficiency Code, one of the strongest in the country, encourages innovation in home designs, says Herro.
“Many municipalities in California are adopting even more stringent standards, such as banning natural gas in newly constructed homes or requiring homes to be built to higher standards of durability than the current code,” says Herro.
While California has a strong statewide building code, regulations are not always firmly enforced, says Chapman-Henderson.
“Hopefully that’s changing as the risks grow,” says Chapman-Henderson. “For example, cedar shake shingle roofs were banned but some people started bringing them back because they like the look. Now there’s more enforcement to stop them from being used on homes.”
Earlier this year, insurance companies in California introduced “Safer from Wildfires,” a program that offers incentives to homeowners and communities to take steps to protect their homes from wildfires. More than a dozen insurance companies already offer discounts on insurance premiums for homeowners who have a fire-resistant roof, five feet of “defensible” space around the home or have taken other steps to reduce the danger of wildfire damage.
Matthew Kahn, a provost professor of economics and spatial sciences with the University of Southern California and author of Adapting to Climate Change: Markets and the Management of an Uncertain Future, worries about the unintended consequences of some government and insurance company actions.
“If you subsidize insurance premiums for homeowners in a fire zone, more people may decide to move there because it’s affordable,” says Kahn. “But we don’t necessarily want to encourage people to live in a fire zone.” Several California insurance companies partner with the Wildfire Defense System to reduce property damage during fires.
“The insurance company pays the Wildfire Defense System to come into an area when an evacuation order is given to treat the roof with a fire-resistant gel, cut down trees and cover the windows to mitigate damage on the spot,” says Chapman-Henderson.
IDENTIFYING RESILIENT FEATURES FOR BUYERS AND SELLERS
Twenty years ago, sustainable features and wellness were almost fringe ideas, but now they’re part of marketing for homes, says Kasdan.
“Resilience is the next generation of home design, especially in neighborhoods at risk of wildfire or coastal flooding,” says Kasdan. “REALTORS® will do well if they can point to design factors that mitigate risk and add value to a home. Buildings that are built beyond the code are more likely to have long-term intrinsic value.”
Several companies generate ratings for climate risk, such as Climate Check, Flood Factor, CoreLogic’s RiskMeter and ATTOM Data Solutions Home Disclosure Report, indicating the likelihood of climate-related events for a property or neighborhood. The Firewise USA program provides advice for homeowners and communities to address the dangers of wildfires.
“Communities in California can access grants to help them determine where to put in a fire break and to analyze their resilience to fires to earn a ‘fire wise’ neighborhood status,” says Chapman-Henderson.
Bridleman suggests that agents and buyers look for Energy Star-certified homes with WaterSense® labeled products, drought-tolerant landscaping, highly efficient sprinkler heads and weather-based irrigation systems.
“REALTORS® need good emotional intelligence to understand their buyers and what matters to them,” says Kahn. “Agents will want to educate buyers about the risks of certain homes or locations and how to mitigate those risks. That process will result in fewer instances of buyer regrets.”
While progress must be made to adapt to a changing future, the combined dedication of researchers, government agencies, nonprofit organizations, insurance companies, real estate agents and consumers can keep California at the forefront of innovation.