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After the Fires: Help for Starting Over

I began working with survivors of the Tubbs Fire in Sonoma County last spring; the experience has been nothing short of inspirational. I cannot fathom the depth of shock, sadness and the other dozens of emotions that these strong people have been cycling through on a daily basis since their homes were destroyed.

I have been designing custom homes for over 15 years, but working with folks who need to rebuild their home presents new challenges that not a lot of architects have experience with. Just about every client who has hired me over the years to design a new home for them is happy and excited to embark upon the journey. It is something they have been dreaming of, planning for, and they are ready to commit many hours for two or three years to the project.

On the other hand, fire rebuild clients who have lost everything aren't exactly happy or excited to design their new home. Sure, they are happy to be seeing progress and they look forward to their new home, but given a choice they would much rather have their old home back.

It took me time to recalibrate to this new type of client, and I have learned that there aren't a lot of services out there that are tailored to their special needs. From a market and constructibility perspective, achieving economies of scale are difficult; new development in the vast majority of cases needs to happen on a lot-by-lot basis. Everything from providing design services, to plan check and permitting, to securing materials and labor is all being pushed to the limits of availability.

From a client relations standpoint, I saw that I needed to adjust my own approach to the design process. Time is critical, and there just isn't enough of it to provide the typical full, custom design services that I am used to. We need to move fast while balancing smart decisions and good design. Sometimes a client begins with the intention of simply rebuilding their old home per plan, but once we get started they remember that they didn't like the way the entry opened into the space, or maybe the stairs were awkward, or they'd just like an updated master bath, and before you know it we're designing a new home.

It occurred to me that these folks are still traumatized. I happen to be certified by the State of California in Crisis Intervention Training; I have been a volunteer sexual assault emergency responder for the last five years, and the certification is mandatory. We are trained in Trauma Informed Care, among many other protocols and procedures, that enable us to communicate with victims of trauma.

What has been most apparent is that my clients, in many cases, are overwhelmed and they are not able to process as much data as they could under normal circumstances. Due to various autonomic physical processes, when we experience trauma our brains tend to short-circuit; our normal voluntary systems stand down and the whole body's sole focus is on keeping us safe. We all process trauma differently, but what is important, across the board, is recognizing that survivors of trauma may not be fully understanding everything you are telling them. Giving them too much information when they aren't ready for it can induce stress and panic.

It's horrifying enough to lose everything, but the stories I have heard about the night of the Tubb's fire are terrifying. Leaving your home at 2:00 am - you were sound asleep 20 minutes earlier - and you literally barely escape with your life, your home is burning as you grab what you can and leave. Getting into the car and driving isn't enough - you're not safe yet. Fire is everywhere, fire tornadoes. You see animals running, panicked, on fire. You see your daughter's home across the valley burning, and her phone is dead; you have no way of knowing if she and her family are safe.

Not to get too dramatic, but my point is that we cannot underestimate the trauma factor in survivors' decision-making processes. We in the design and construction industry need to provide services that are sensitive to their unique circumstances. They are not only under the gun on time and money; we cannot take for granted that they are absorbing all the critical data necessary to make the right decisions.

Their experience with trauma can also leave them vulnerable, exposing them to "cheap and easy" schemes selling services by people who have no business offering them. The desire to just get it over with sometimes outweighs patience for due diligence, and rebuild clients can find themselves at the mercy of someone with little or no experience in the design and construction industry.

I will be working with survivors, contractors, local and state officials in the coming months, developing solutions for what is certainly on track to be a semi-permanent service sector for at least the next three to five years. I can retool my own services to better address the needs of fire survivors, but there are opportunities to rethink our construction and permitting processes as well.

The solutions we find for fire rebuilds may also be useful in resolving our housing crisis; a parallel problem that is only exacerbated by the tragedy of wild fires.

Unfortunately, it seems that we now have to brace ourselves every fire season for what may be a new crop of fire survivors looking to rebuild their homes. I am working to find solutions that will make the process a little easier, so that survivors can focus on putting their lives back together and be in their new home as soon as possible - while providing them with competent, professional architectural services that they can trust.

Feel free to contact me with any questions, or if you would like to join me as I find solutions to help fire survivors rebuild BETTER!

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