How to Disaster-Proof a Home in L.A.'s Fire and Flood Zones

Courtesy of Corey Buckner (2)
Though it was outfitted with stucco and sprinklers, the house belonging to Cory Buckner (architect to Courteney Cox and 'Tomb Raider' producer Patrick McCormick) burned in the Woolsey Fire, the most destructive fire in Malibu’s history.

Top architects and designers (who work with Julia  Louis-Dreyfus and producer Patrick  McCormick, among others) detail cutting-edge strategies to prevent loss and damage at a time when natural calamities like the Woolsey Fire are at their most unpredictable: "I thought the house would make it."

For architect David Hertz — who designed Julia Louis-Dreyfus' Santa Barbara home — fire preparedness went beyond clearing his Malibu ranch of juniper brush (what local firefighters call "gasoline plants") or outfitting the roof with sprinklers. It also involved spraying fire retardant on the towering pagodas created by legendary set designer Tony Duquette that dot Hertz's fanciful 42-acre property.

The precautions paid off: His home survived this fall's Woolsey Fire, the most destructive to hit Malibu, which killed three people, burned 97,000 acres and caused $1.6 billion in damage. "We were successful," says Hertz, "because we had substantial fire-fighting resources," including a pool used for water and wide roads with turnaround space for access. "A lot needs to happen still," he adds. "Every wood-framed building should be coated with fire retardant," such as Barricade Fire Gel used by the Los Angeles Fire Department. "We saw an entire concrete house completely burn because of an ember on a beam."

Hertz is part of a pioneering group of architects and designers exploring new ways to protect properties from Southern California's ever more frequent fires and floods, a club that also includes Cory Buckner, architect to Courteney Cox, Tomb Raider producer Patrick McCormick and top costume designer Colleen Atwood. Buckner — who built two structures on her Yerba Buena Canyon property, a main house with less-flammable stucco and sprinklers and a 700-square-foot studio with metal siding, double-glazed glass and fire screens — experienced one burning while the other survived. "Something got into the gutter of the main house and [my neighbor and my late husband and co-designer Nick Roberts] saw it go up in flames," she says of the residence that had been fireproofed after the Green Meadows Fire in 1993: "I thought it would make it. Extraordinarily, the studio had 100 percent no damage." For the second-time-around rebuild on the main house, Buckner will do "a very large concrete patio next to it and movable fire shutters" — metal barriers that are manually put in place to block fire entry and to prevent glass windows from exploding.

Wood decking, eaves, trellises and pergolas are big risks because horizontal surfaces become convenient resting places for embers. "You can build a very safe home and then put a trellis with a bougainvillea next to the house" that can essentially act as a wick, says architect Abeer Sweis, whose clients have included now-deceased executive Michael King. Sweis designed a concrete house in Ojai with "Class A fire-rated wood and heavy timber, which takes longer to burn. We were in the line of the fire and it survived."

Interior designer Vanessa Alexander, who is married to ICM partner Steve Alexander and has worked with filmmaker Marc Webb, thinks that Los Angeles residence design is changing as the frequency of natural calamities increases: "We aren't going to be designing based on pure aesthetics anymore — but that doesn't mean everything has to be a cinder block." Alexander, who created the look of Malibu Farm restaurant, adds: "You can still get your Cape Cod home, but it might be completely reimagined from a materials perspective," with metal or concrete siding in place of the traditional wood siding used in Cape Cod and Craftsman residences.

Architect William Hefner, who has designed for Ed Begley Jr., uses stone cladding and metal roofs on Montecito and Malibu homes to retain a stately, estate feel, and artfully integrates emergency water tanks into the landscape. "It's access to wooded views that puts these Bel Air, Pacific Palisades and Malibu homes in harm's way — extremely desirable, but not from a fire perspective," he says. (Note: Not all sturdy-sounding materials perform well in extreme heat. "A hot steel beam can twist," warns Hertz. "Concrete can heat up [so] that it becomes structurally compromised.")

What happens after a fire is just as important to Greg Kochanowski. The architect at Rios Clementi Hale Studios (behind Imagine Entertainment's Beverly Hills offices and Barry Diller's West Hollywood IAC headquarters) works on the Slide Project, which analyzes mudslides during floods. "It's really uncharted territory," says Kochanowski, who with his team devised a system of micro-basins placed throughout slope environments, instead of one large trough at the bottom of mountain terrain. "Communities at the base of the mountains get the full brunt of the material and velocity" of floods, he explains.

"I'm living the research right now," adds the architect, who with his wife lost their Agoura Hills home to the Woolsey Fire. "We are planning to construct our home differently [with] the use of more fire-resistant materials, eliminating eaves and overhangs, and including site walls in line with prevailing winds," to make the structure less vulnerable to flames driven by winds.

Hertz didn't lose his home, but he did lose valuables to Woolsey. Paramount Ranch, the 2,700-acre movie Western town in Agoura Hills designed and owned by his grandfather William Hertz, was completely burned. Amid the destruction were guest books inscribed by people who had worked there, including John Wayne and Will Rogers. "In many homes, I'm designing for clients a safe place where you can quickly put personal belongings," says Hertz. "These are underground basement spaces built out of concrete that have a heat-resistant blanket like the one used on the Space Shuttle. They're very, very safe for storing valuables and, in the worst case, a sanctuary for people as well."

This post was updated on Jan. 14 at 3:21 p.m.

This story first appeared in the Jan. 9 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.