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Wildfire Aftermath: Navigating the Construction Process

Columnist: Joss Hudson
September, 2018 Issue
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Joss Hudson
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Navigating the current construction marketplace will take patience and planning. Contractors are experiencing price increases in almost every building-related product in the industry, due to market forces and new tariffs. The California real estate and construction market was very busy before we lost more than 10,000 structures to the destructive wildfires of 2017. Now is an optimal time to build, and people need a new way to erect more durable structures for our communities.

The design/build experience should be an enjoyable and creative process, as clients are literally manifesting their vision into a physical reality. To do this successfully requires a team of people who are provided with clear instructions and expectations, including a detailed building plan and a total construction budget to start with. If local construction costs are averaging around $400 per square foot, then common sense would suggest that to reduce costs, the building should be smaller in size. However, square footage costs alone are not a construction budget, nor a factor to solely make decisions from; devising an actual, realistic budget number is the only way to be clear about expectations. To complete a successful building project in California, there are many additional soft cost items that contribute to the total budget, including engineering calcs, site plans, mechanical plans, interior finish plans, lighting plans, landscape plans and more. This is not a market that is favorable to an owner-builder since the sub-contractors are all very busy, so clients will need a general contractor with a good team in place to successfully finish a project.

Meeting code requirements
The first step in building any structure is to finalize a set of schematic plans so that everyone involved in the project has a clear vision of what is going to be constructed. Sonoma and Napa Counties require that all new structures meet current building code and fire code requirements. Before engaging in a design/build project, a clear understanding of construction budgets and schedules should be discussed. In many cases, people will begin to design a structure with no relationship to cost constraints, only to discover what the real costs are after the design is completed or, in some cases, after the design has already been permitted. In addition to having a well thought-out design, it’s important to consult with local builders to confirm average construction costs in the area.

The local Building Department will require that all code compliant items are addressed prior to receiving a certificate of occupancy on a structure. In addition to recent Title 24 California Energy Code changes and fire code updates, the guidance of an experienced and licensed architect and general contractor will help reduce the confusion as well. The reality is that the majority of structures that were lost in last year’s fires will have to be redesigned to comply with the current 2018 building code requirements. 

Construction technology
The loss of life and property during the 2017 wildfires has created an awareness in the private and public sectors about the need for improvements in construction technology. Wildland Urban Interface Fire Area Zones have been established and new building code requirements are in place for these areas. There is a requirement for all roof and wall surfaces to maintain a minimum ASTM (American Society for Testing and Materials) Fire Rating, and for eave and soffit vents to either be eliminated or incorporate specialized fire-resistant features to keep burning embers from entering the structure. ASTM is an international standards organization that develops and publishes voluntary consensus technical standards for a wide range of materials, products, systems and services.

It is possible to build traditional or modern designs with new construction products that are more energy efficient and fire resistant than before. For example, there are steel and cement panels that look like wood-grain planks that can now be used instead of highly flammable cedar shake or shiplap lumber siding. Asphalt shingles are also highly flammable and should be a roofing product of the past; newer composite materials or metal roofing options are available that have a satisfactory ASTM Fire Rating. Every future structure should have solar panels integrated into the design, in alignment with California’s recently initiated Zero Net Energy mandate for residential construction by 2020, which is right around the corner. All new commercial construction must be Zero Net Energy by 2030.

The future of construction

To substantiate the need for better and safer structures for residential and commercial buildings, we can refer to the success of steel and glass buildings of the last century. The future of construction is clearly headed toward steel systems, as the modern world is building bridges, skyscrapers, automobiles, airplanes, trains, and machinery, all with metal alloy construction.

There is no doubt that wooden bridges will not be built as government infrastructure projects, nor will lumber-framed transportation methods be explored in the years to come. The Colonial Era of America is well behind us. It is time to start embracing the future of modern construction.

Joss Hudson is the CEO and founder of EcoSteel, a supplier of modern, prefabricated and preinsulated steel building materials that are eco-friendly, durable and economical. EcoSteel works with architects, builders and property owners to create a value-driven approach to steel construction. For more information, visit
www.ecosteel.com. You can reach Joss at (800) 587-6604 or email info@ecosteel.com.



 

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