The Santa Barbara Tea Fire broke out at approximately 5:50 p.m. on November 13, 2008, ravaging 1,940 acres and destroying 230 homes. On November 14, one house in the tony Riviera neighborhood, designed by Culver City–based Shubin + Donaldson, remained standing among the charred remains of its neighbors.
“We were lucky,” explained Robin Shubin, the principal architect on the house now known simply as the Riviera residence. “Fire obviously has a capricious nature, but you also can build in a way to put the odds in your favor.”
Shubin didn’t set out to become a fire resistance expert. In 1990, the firm rebuilt four homes that were destroyed in Santa Barbara’s Painted Cave Fire. Then in 1993, they rebuilt a house that didn’t survive that year’s Laguna Beach fire. “In every case, the client didn’t want the house to burn down again and we learned it takes a combination of factors to achieve a house that will survive. There’s no magic bullet.”
However, there are basic fire prevention guidelines, many of them inherent to the tenets of modern architecture. These include flat roofs; fire-resistant materials like plaster, stone, and metal; and triple-laminated glazed windows with metal frames protected by eaves that are lined and edged in copper. All were part of the Riviera Residence design. Such elements are certainly less flammable than, say, a Tudor mansion with wood siding, or the Spanish Colonial residences that once surrounded the Riviera Residence.
Marked by a glass canopy entrance and floor-to-ceiling windows that give panoramic views of the ocean to the south, the 3,200-square-foot house also has a sprinkler system installed on the roof that the owners made use of when the fire broke out. The landscape design also repelled the fire, following Santa Barbara Fire Department’s (SBFD) recommendations to keep flammable vegetation at least 30 feet from the home and use fire-resistant plants.
Even with these precautions, Eli Iskow, a captain at the SBFD, questions whether a fireproof house really exists: “People try to make claims that their construction protected their home, but that’s a tough claim to make.” Iskow isn’t familiar with the Riviera Residence.
“It’s not uncommon to have one house standing with everything around it burned,” he added. “You can have a 99-percent-fire-resistant structure, but it’s no guarantee it’s not going to burn. It just takes one tiny weakness and one spark to ignite a house into a pile of debris.”