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Atkinses choose to rebuild in different, 'green' way

For Fallbrook residents who lost their homes in the Rice Canyon fire, rebuilding begins with the knowledge that a fire could once again ravage their property and destroy their home.

Many may choose to move to a location less likely to be threatened by fire, while others choose not only to rebuild in the same spot but intend to thrive in the midst of the ruins of their former homes.

Such a couple is Anne Atkins and her husband, Bob, who had just begun the process of building their dream home when the Rice Canyon fire hit Fallbrook.

For the couple, creating a home that would be fire resistant wasn’t a suggestion; it was a necessity even before the fire.

“The concern of fire was heavy on our minds during the design,” said Anne Atkins, who was aware of how close the 2003 Cedar Fire had gotten to her Fallbrook property. “We fully anticipated that at some time in the future, fire would be an aspect again.”

As the Atkinses began to turn in building permit information for the construction of their home, the Rice Canyon fire swept through their neighborhood, destroying the couple’s trailer on the property along with five of their neighbors’ homes.

The Atkinses had been planning to move into the trailer once they had obtained the permits necessary to live on the property. They had been renting a home in Vista at the time, so their loss was minimal in comparison to their neighbors, who lost everything.

Once the Atkinses were allowed to return to their Fallbrook property, they began to clear the remains of charred trees and the mangled mess of metal that was their trailer in order to once again begin building their new home.

The Atkinses had designed a straw bale home, designed to withstand any firestorm that would come through the area again.

The 2,600-square-foot, three-bedroom, two-bath home has now been built with walls constructed from straw bales covered in lathe wiring and two inches of stucco.

Because of the density of the walls, the home lost about 400 square feet of living space, but because the straw bales are so tightly packed together, the oxygen found within the walls is not sufficient enough to maintain a fire.

Trying to burn a straw bale is like “trying to burn a telephone book,” said Atkins, explaining the most flame could possibly do is singe the edges of a bale before being extinguished.

In comparison to a standard home with wood frame construction, which carries a one-hour fire rating, straw bale walls have a four-hour fire rating, protecting the property for a much longer period of time.

The home’s interior walls are typical wood construction, but instead of using the standard insulation inside the walls, the insulation used on the home is soy-based foam.

Soy-based foam, when held over direct flame, only smolders, then extinguishes itself once the flame is removed. This same soy-based insulation was sprayed onto the attic floor, creating an eight-inch barrier between the home and the roof.

Straw bales were also used to create a six-foot wall encasing the front yard and a two-foot sitting wall in the back of the house, which overlooks the canyon the home sits above. These are not merely aesthetics but potential fire breaks to keep flames from getting close to the home in case another fire begins in the canyon below.

Another feature the Atkinses added to protect their home from future fire is an exterior water sprinkler system attached to the house’s eaves.

In the event of a fire, the system’s valves connecting the swimming pool and the sprinkler system would be opened.

Because the 36- to 38-thousand-gallon pool is 40 feet above the home site, the pool water would spray onto the roof and against the base of the house using a low flow that would shower onto the home, keeping it wet for three days during a fire.

On most homes, the eaves are exposed and are one of the first areas to catch fire. In order to prevent roof fires, the Atkinses had their eaves completely encased, adding even more fire protection.

The windows of the home are also protected against fire by aluminum roll-down shutters that can be dropped manually. If the shutters are put into the locked position, they prevent flying embers or debris from breaking the house’s windows and also protect them from any heat buildup which would break the windows and allow fire to enter the house.

The roof itself is secure against flying embers as well.

The roof tiles generally found on standard homes are put over tar paper; in the last fire, a number of homes were lost due to the tar paper catching fire. The straw bale house uses a heavy-duty peel-and-stick tar paper to attach the roof tiles to the roof. That makes it much harder for the paper to ignite.

The straw bale home not only has several advantages over a standard home when it comes to fire protection, it also has several benefits to a homeowner looking to be environmentally friendly.

Because of the thick insulation, the house’s walls protect against fire as well as extreme heat and cold, leaving the inside of the house at a comfortable temperature year-round. The metal shutters have vents to allow air to circulate through the home but keep the sun’s heat out.

The depth of the straw bale walls offers a surprising decorative option to the home by creating beautifully shaped window seats in front of windows and allowing the walls to be cut into to create niches to display art or other treasures.

The floors of the Atkins home are created from a cork laminate which not only offers a quiet, comfortable floor to walk on but also helps keep debris and allergens from accumulating on the floor.

Beautifully arranged Mexican tile, salvaged from architectural sites, and marble made from petrified tree roots are not only are beautiful to look at but also incorporate the idea of serenity and quiet throughout the house.

Solatubes, which are protected with tempered glass to keep fire from dropping in through the holes in the roof, illuminate the home’s interior, cutting back on electricity needed.

The difference in cost of erecting a straw bale home and a standard home are minimal, said Atkins, and the prices vary on the amount of fixtures and work put into the home.

There are special skills needed to be able to stack the bales properly and more preparation on the foundation is needed to allow drainage for moisture that could enter into the walls and rot the straw.

Extra structures are needed to keep the bales off of the concrete and wall framing made out of steel is used on the corners of the home to protect against earthquakes and wind sheer.

This extra work, along with the cost of putting the lathe on the bales and slathering the stucco onto the bales, costs more than a standard house would. However, the difference in price of construction, Atkins said, has already been made up by the energy-efficient appliances used in the home.

Atkins says that homeowners stand to save money on insulation and materials used to construct the walls, as the bales cost $5 each. There is no fiberglass used to create the home and the only wood on the home is used to frame the doors and windows.

Atkins is happy to finally have her new home and is in the process of putting in drought-resistant vegetation throughout her yard and artificial turf in the back patio in order to conserve water.

It is important for homeowners to take a look at the area that they live in, Atkins said, and decide which way is best to protect their homes.

“If someone could just take one thing from what I’ve done, that will be more than enough,” she said. “I have had a lot of fun putting this house together.”

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