Building in Incline Village, Fire Resistant Construction
The Lake Tahoe basin has been fortunate to come through this historic wildfire season with only a small number of incidents in the Basin and a few in or surrounding communities. We have been spared the devastation and destruction that has been inflicted on numerous communities throughout the western United States. This year’s fire season was a strong reminder that Lake Tahoe as a community can be proactive in how we choose to build and maintain our homes to better protect against wildfires. A look back at history shows us that the city of Amsterdam was virtually destroyed on two separate occasions in 1429 and 1452.
After the great fire in 1452 it was decreed that all new construction should be made with stone. While there was a mixture of construction techniques employed until the early 1500s, from that point forward virtually all new construction in Amsterdam has been done with fire resistant materials. There has been an evolution from brick and stone to taller modern-day structures made of concrete and steel. But the goal remains the same. Prevent fires from spreading to nearby structures so they can be contained and extinguished as quickly as possible with minimal loss of life and property.
As students of history we are continually perplexed why almost all new residential construction in the western United States still involves wood frame homes. With people continuing to encroach deeper into the forest every year the potential for catastrophic wildfires continues to increase. However, there are several types of fire-resistant construction methods. While some methods are ancient and others relatively new, they offer tremendous benefits especially when used for new construction.
While brick houses are great in a place like Amsterdam, they tend not to fare so well in areas prone to earthquakes. Stone or brick construction can be reinforced in most circumstances to withstand moderate earthquakes. But over time having mortar between bricks or stones in an environment like Lake Tahoe will lead to a significant amount of maintenance down the road. So, brick or stone houses are a great idea in fire prone areas where earthquakes are uncommon.
Rammed earth construction has a number of positive benefits including a tremendous reduction in heating and cooling costs. But with the rocky soils we have in the Lake Tahoe basin this is not a practical method to use in our area. Concrete block and steel rebar construction is used throughout the Caribbean and is actually required by the building codes on many islands. It has a second benefit in that it cannot only withstand most hurricane force winds but it’s also fire-resistant. Put a metal roof on top of a concrete block house and you have something that is unlikely to burn down. However, this is not the most attractive method of construction which is why many concrete block houses in nice neighborhoods have tile roofs. There are also other types of reinforced concrete construction and the exterior finishes can be customized to suit any taste.
Steel frame construction is another alternative to wood frame building methods. Steel is also much stronger and a steel beam can run a far longer span and carry a much greater load than one made of wood. Steel is also not as likely to be subject to twisting and cracking over a long period of time as wood. Doing this type of construction is a very specialized trade, but we have seen a number of new homes built this way at Lake Tahoe.
However, just having a steel frame home is no guarantee that it will be fire resistant as there will still be an extensive use of wood and other potentially combustible materials. We recommend having a sprinkler system as an extra layer of protection if it fits within your budget.
Even if you have a wood frame home you can put new fiber cement siding on the exterior. Replacing a wooden deck with Trex or some other synthetic material is a good idea if it fits within your budget. It’s remarkable how many houses burned down in wildfires the past few years because the deck posts caught on fire and acted like a wick accelerating the combustion of the rest of the property.