05 Oct Placer County contractor build its first concrete home in Santa Rosa-area fire zone
In 2012, as the economy improved, McDonagh returned to homebuilding, taking what he learned from pool and aquatic projects and applying it to home design.
One of his first projects was a home in Webb City, Missouri, near Joplin, where a powerful tornado in May 2011 killed 158 people, destroyed thousands of buildings and homes and caused billions of dollars in damage.
After the Valley Fire in 2015, McDonagh, who is originally from California, turned his attention to the North Coast. The Tubbs fire two years later convinced him he needed to open an office in Santa Rosa.
The Willow Green Place concrete home for Fredrickson and Russo is his first fire rebuilding project here, but he’s designing another house on Boulder Point Place, off Fountaingrove Parkway. That home has a flat roof allowing for the addition of a usable rooftop patio space similar to what’s included on some commercial and residential buildings in urban cities.
Though concrete is more fire-resistant than wooden frame buildings, it isn’t totally “fireproof,” said Mike Renner, director of development recovery services for 4Leaf, a municipal engineering firm contracted by Wick’s county department to do fire reconstruction permitting and inspection services.
Renner said the primary concern when reviewing a concrete home is ensuring its structural safety. Even concrete structures begin to fail when exposed to intense heat for long periods, he said.
One effect caused by extreme temperatures is called “spalling,” in which the surface of concrete, masonry or brick is weakened to the point of chipping or pitting. Concrete structures exposed for a lengthy time to extreme heat can appear to retain their structural integrity but actually become brittle, Renner said.
In areas of Sonoma County that are at higher risk of wildfire, a number of steps can be taken to reduce fire risks in traditional construction, he said.
“What will help, along with stronger building codes, is complying with the state’s longstanding defensible space requirements,” Renner said, adding that homes surrounded by at least 100 feet of clear space have a better chance of surviving a blaze.
That said, concrete homes are inherently more fire-resistant than a traditional wooden frame home, he said.
“I just don’t like the word fireproof,” Renner said. “Just like when they built the Titanic and said it was unsinkable — the only thing that’s fireproof is water.”
McDonagh said his price for building a concrete home starts at about $400 a square foot, comparable to what other builders are charging for traditional wooden frame homes. The cost of home construction has sharply increased since the 2017 wildfires, because of increased demand for homes and labor plus materials shortages.
“Contractors are making an exorbitant amount of money,” McDonagh said. “In some cases they’re charging $530 a square foot up in Fountaingrove.”
Fredrickson and Russo’s concrete home, which has a $890,000 price tag, will be completed by the beginning of November. Russo, whose orchid farm in his backyard of the former house was destroyed by the fire, will move that flowering area to the attic of the new house.
The pitch of the concrete roof was increased to about 30 degrees to add another 1,400 square feet of usable space in the attic, McDonagh said. The space will be heated and cooled with no vents.
In traditional wooden frame homes, attics are vented near the eaves. That feature poses a common fire hazard, he said.
Aside from offering greater fire resistance, the Fredrickson and Russo home will be equipped with solar generation and a storage system that will allow it to go off the PG&E grid during power failures and the utility’s public safety shut-offs to curtail wildfire threats.
McDonagh called the couple’s house his company’s “first foray into Santa Rosa,” but said he’s confident there will be more.
You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 707-521-5213 or [email protected] On Twitter @pressreno.