Building Climate Change Resilient Homes in California

In June 2021, a record-breaking heat wave tore through the Pacific Northwest. This heatwave resulted in hundreds of deaths across Oregon, Washington State and British Columbia. During the last week of June -- when the heat wave was at its most intense -- British Columbia reached a startling high of 121 degrees Fahrenheit. Western Washington reached 118 degrees Fahrenheit and Oregon peaked around 116 degrees Fahrenheit. All three are serious anomalies for the Pacific Northwest, which has rarely reached 100 degrees Fahrenheit over the lastcentury. According to Sergio Olmos, Winston Choi-Schagrin and Shawn Hubler in an article for The New York Times, “hundreds of heat-related deaths have been confirmed in ordinarily cool Oregon, Washington and British Columbia.” The NYT notes that “authorities have attributed at least 90 deaths to the sustained spike in temperatures” in just Oregon and Washington. In British Columbia, “at least 486 sudden deaths were reported… [during this] five-day period in which 165 such deaths are typically reported.” In addition to dozens of human deaths, illnesses and injuries, ​​the PNW heatwave also resulted in the deaths of countless wildlife. In an article for The Washington Post, Sammy Westfall and Amanda Coletta note that “an estimated 1 billion small sea creatures — including mussels, clams and snails — died during the heat wave. ”Though not as disastrous as the Pacific Northwest heat wave, California has also experienced a few days of extreme heat so far this summer. During the second week of July, Palm Springs hit a record 120 degrees Fahrenheit and Death Valley hit a shocking 130 degrees Fahrenheit. Of course, heat waves are not the only deadly consequence of climate change -- particularly in California. With rising sea levels, recurring droughts, record-breaking heat waves and frequent wildfires, California stands to suffer significantly as the climate continues to change. As such, homeowners in the state -- particularly along the coasts -- must harden their homes against these natural disasters. Below, learn more about how climate change could impact the West Coast over the coming decades and how homeowners can build climate change resilient homes in California.

How Climate Change Could Impact California Homeowners

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For years, scientists have cautioned Californians about how climate change will impact the state. According to the EPA brief “What Climate Change Means for California,” over the next few decades, “the changing climate is likely to further decrease the supply of water, increase the risk of wildfires, and threaten coastal development and ecosystems.” In California, climate change will impact snowpack, water availability, industry -- particularly agriculture -- and human health. It will also dramatically change California’s landscape. The EPA notes that “sea level is likely to rise between one and four feet in the next century” along the coast of California, with the most significant erosion in the Bay Area.

Over the last decade, wildfires have become more frequent, more disastrous and more deadly. They have decimated entire communities -- from Paradise to Malibu -- and have poured toxic VOCs and particulate matter into our air. Both repeated heat waves and persistent droughts have placed immense stress on the state’s power grid, resulting in mass shut-offs when citizens need water and A/C most. Rising sea levels have redrawn flood maps in the state, placing hundreds of high-value homes along the coast at risk. Below, we outline the unique ways in which wildfires, rising sea levels, heat waves and drought will impact California homeowners.

Understanding the Growing Impactof Climate Change on California Wildfire Season

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Writing for Stanford Magazine in 2009, Kelly Coplin noted that scientists expected “climate change factors…[would] cause some $300 million to $3.9 billion in California real estate losses annually.” Twelve years later, the actual annual cost to California real estate far exceeds previous estimates. In fact, losses from wildfires alone -- not with standing other disasters -- have outrageously outpaced the 2009 approximation. According to the LA Times, a single wildfire in 2018 -- the Camp Fire in Paradise, California -- cost $16.5 billion in property damage.

Combined with others that occurred in California that year, wildfires cost the state more than $25 billion in property damage. In his June 2021 article for MarketWatch, Jacob Passy explains how California wildfires will continue to affect the state’s infrastructure and real estate market. According to Passy, “current estimates of the economic toll of the 2020 wildfires suggest they may have cost the state $10 billion, but that number could grow.” 2018’s fire season was even more costly. Passy writes that the 2018 season “cost the U.S. economy $148.5 billion, equivalent to 0.7% of the country’s annual GDP.”

Risk of Property Loss Due to Wildfires Expected to Worsen in California

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In an article for The New York Times, climate reporters Kendra Pierre-Louis and John Schwartz explain the connection between climate change and the growing risk of wildfires in California. Pierre-Louis and Schwartz quote bioclimatologist Park Williams of the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. According to Williams, “while California’s climate has always been fire prone, the link between climate change and bigger fires is inextricable.” Williams notes that “‘this climate-change connection is straightforward: warmer temperatures dry out fuels. In areas with abundant and very dry fuels, all you need is a spark.’”

Writing for Scientific American, Rebecca Miller, Katharine Mach and Chris Field support Williams’ claims. According to Miller, Mach and Field, “more than half of the acres burned each year in the western United States can be attributed to climate change. ” Mach, Field and Miller note that “the number of dry, warm, and windy autumn days—perfect wildfire weather—in California has more than doubled since the 1980s.” Unless aggressive action is taken, Miller, Mach and Field predict that “forests in Northern California, Oregon and Washington could experience an increase of more than 78 percent inarea burned by 2050.” Though we have yet to approach the apex of the California wildfire season, many more acres have burned in 2021 than inprevious years.

Reacting to Wildfires as a California Homeowner

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In her June 2021 article “How people are preparing for the 2021 California wildfire season” for Yale Climate Connections, Samantha Harrington notes how destructive the season has been this far. Harrington writes that “spring is not typically a high fire season in California...but January 1 to May 30 in 2021 saw 890 more fires – which burned 13,189 more acres – than during the same time period in 2020.” Diablo winds in the Bay Area and Santa Ana winds in Southern California threaten to carry sparks and embers farther and more aggressively than in prior fire seasons.

With such abominable drought conditions all over the state, homeowners up and down California have begun to panic. Because most fires start from embers, “home hardening, which makes homes and other structures more fire-resistant, is the primary strategy for reducing fire risk.” Homeowners are turning to experienced local design-build firms for help hardening their current and future homes against California’s wildfires.

Sea Level Rise and California Real Estate

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In addition to heat waves and wildfires, sea level rise represents another consequence of climate change. Writing for The Los Angeles Times, Tony Barboza, Bettina Boxall and Rosanna Xia note “California’s coast will face more beach erosion, flooding and storm damage” as the ocean heats up due to climate change. They note that scientists initially thought that “sea level rise by the end of this century could amount to about 5.48 feet in California under the worst case scenario.” By 2018, that projection had changed significantly. Barboza, Boxall and Xia write that “the latest reports and state policies are now accounting for the extreme possibility that sea level rise could exceed 9 feet” due to the fact that the West Antarctic Ice Sheet is melting more rapidly than expected.

If the sea levels rise more modestly -- about six and a half feet --, “more than 250,000 residents, $38 billion in property and 1,400 miles of roads along the coast are at risk of flooding during a severe storm in Southern California. ”Any areas of California’s coast that were built on marshes or wetlands and are unprotected by cliffs are at the highest risk of damage. This means that San Diego, Huntington Beach and Malibu stand to suffer the most in SoCal. Rising sea levels will affect more than property in California, write Boxall, Barboza and Xia. They will also “increase salinity levels in the Sacramento-San JoaquinDelta,” limiting the supply of fresh water for SoCal residents.

Protecting Coastal Homes in California from Sea Level Rise

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All in all, coastal communities in California are vulnerable. In a March 2021 All Things Considered broadcast for NPR, Nathan Rott noted that “within the span of a 30-year mortgage, more than $100 billion worth of American homes is expected to be at risk of chronic flooding.” As climate change contributes to rising sea levels in California, “narrow strips of sand...will be submerged, leaving coastal communities —affluent and not — with the torturous question of how to adjust.”

Thankfully, some American architects are helping West Coast homeowners stay put without risking property damage or human injury due to disaster. For example, the now-famous Tsunami House on Camano Island in Washington State was retrofitted with nine-foot piers through which winds and flood waters can easily pass without disturbing the home. In California, design-build firms like Element Homes work with homeowners to develop disaster resilient properties that can stand up to the state’s ever-changing climate.

Heat Waves and Drought Harm Human Health in California

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In a July 2021 article for The New York Times, Sergio Olmos and Shawn Hubler noted that heat waves impact the daily lives of Californians by placing strain on the electric grid and making home environments more dangerous. Olmos and Hubler wrote that California’s government often asks residents to “cut their water consumption” and raise their thermostats during the summer. Two weeks ago, Governor Newsom did just that. He asked residents to “set their thermostats at 78 degrees or higher to reduce power usage” and to “cut their water consumption by 15%.” The governor also expanded his drought emergency to cover fifty counties in California.

During the same week, Rachel Schnalzer reported on the July heatwave in California for The LA Times. Quoting climatologist William Patzert, Schnalzer wrote that “‘over the past 60 years, every decade has been hotter than the previous decade’” and that we are now at “‘a tipping point or a crisis here with regard to heat waves.’” Californians all across the state stand to suffer serious health effects from these recurrent heat waves, Patzert explained. According to Patzert, “heat poses a serious risk to human health...especially when it surpasses 95 degrees.” Unfortunately, with each consecutive year, Californians are “‘spending more and more time over that [95 degree] threshold at various locations.’”

Scientists Expect Record-Breaking Heat Events and Subsequent Deaths to Continue

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Writing for The LA Times in September 2020, Tony Barboza outlined the deadly effects of California’s recurrent heat waves. Barboza noted that “though extreme heat is a less visible menace than, say, hurricanes or wildfires, it is climate change’s most life-threatening impact.” Contributing to “wildfires, elevated smog levels” and power outages, heat waves “cause more deaths each year in the United States than any other weather-related problem.” They cause more deaths in the US annually than “all floods and storms combined.”

While people do die from “heat stroke and dehydration,” extreme heat events also increase the risk of death from “an array of other chronic illnesses including kidney disease, cardiovascular disease and diabetes.” Heat waves in California will only worsen as climate change ravages the state. Barboza wrote that “as greenhouse gases continue to rise globally, heat spells of this severity are an unfortunate reality that Californians will increasingly have to get used to, they say.

Homeowners Can Protect Their Homes from Power Shut-offs During Heat Waves

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While Governor Newsom -- and local officials -- often ask Californians to lessen their electricity usage in order to alleviate pressure on the grid, such contributions might not be enough. According to Diana Olick in a recent article for CNBC, “major grid failure or “blackout” events in the United States… [have] jumped by more than 60% since 2015.” To avoid losing power during extreme heat events, homeowners have begun pursuing passive house and off-grid property options.

Olick writes that off-grid or semi-off-grid homes with rain water capture, their “own water filters, other sources of electricity generation and a number of other efficient ways to manage their utilities” are growing in popularity. Self-powered homes can fully operate even during shut-downs due to wildfires, extreme heat events and other natural disasters. They can do so while using less energy, costing less money in utilities and reducing the homeowner’s carbon footprint.

How to Climate-Proof Your Home in California with Element

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From choosing the right build site to constructing your home with the right materials, climate-proofing a property can be complex and expensive. However, given the risks posed by climate change across the state, climate-proofing your California home is well worth the expense and expertise of a practiced design-build firm. Follow below to learn how local California design-build firm Element Homes designs and builds climate-proof homes across the Golden State.

#1 Choose the Right Site for Your Climate-Proof Home

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When designing a disaster-resilient home, practiced design-build firms first help the homeowner find the right site for their build. This includes avoiding lots situated in high wildfire, flood, earthquake and coastal erosion risk zones. Design-build firms like Element will consult California Fire Hazard Severity Zone Maps released by the Office of the State Fire Marshal. They will also parse through recent flood map revisions released by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

To this end, design-build firms working in California will understand state and local restrictions -- as well as best practices -- for building on wetlands and other areas prone to flooding. Design-build companies will typically avoid constructing on sites situated in a floodway or high-risk wildfire zone. However, some clients will already have purchased a site in a high-risk disaster zone. In such cases, design-build firms like Element will help homeowners develop aclimate-proof property that can resist damage from disaster. During this period of the process, design-build firms will also determine whether to elevate the home to protect it from floods due to sea level rise -- another consequence of increasing greenhouse gas emissions.

#2 Orient Your Home Properly

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In recent years, passive solar home design has become more popular amongst California homeowners. For those unfamiliar with the term, the US Energy Department explains in their brief “Passive Solar Home Design.” According to the Department of Energy, “passive solar design takes advantage of a building’s site, climate, and materials to minimize energy use.” One of the first steps in designing apassive solar house is choosing the correct orientation on the build site,taking the sun exposure, topography and natural or artificial landscaping into account.

Inher article “​​How to Position a House on a Lot for Maximum Energy Conservation ”for SFGate, Janet Beal explains how passive house architects orient homes. First off, writes Beal, “knowing the sun's seasonal positions in your locale will help you to take best advantage of summer light and winter warmth.” Design-build firms must also consider hills,slopes, air currents, trees and other buildings. The Department of Energy brief notes that when planning a new passive solar home build, “a portion of the south side of your house must have an unobstructed ‘view’ of the sun.”

How a Home’s Orientation Makes it Disaster Resilient

Design-build firms like Element will not only consider the current usage of your site. They will also consider “possible future uses of the land to the south of your site—small trees become tall trees, and a future multi-story building can block your home’s access to the sun.” Firms like Element will also consider zoning, building codes and land use regulations when considering a site in order to protect your home. In some areas, solar access is not well-protected.

In these cases, the Department of Energy suggests looking “for a lot that is deep from north to south and place the house on the north end of the lot.” By orienting the home with energy efficiency in mind, design-build firms help homeowners limit cost while making their property more self-sufficient. Embracing passive house design is particularly helpful for homeowners hoping to bolster themselves against power shut-offs during fires, water restrictions during drought and other consequences of extreme weather events.

#3 Embrace Principles of Passive House Design

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As mentioned above, passive houses harness their surroundings in order to reduce energy consumption, limit cost and improve self-sufficiency. Design-build firms in California often embrace the principles of passive house design because they make homes more self-reliant and less susceptible to power shut-offs and water use restrictions. Passive houses are usually air-tight, with well-insulated walls as well as near-perfect seals on windows and doors. They employ intricate cross-ventilation systems supported by the home’s architecture, including thermal bridges. Thermal bridges help funnel hot and cold air away from areas of the home with too much heat, cold or moisture. This helps maintain an overall comfortable temperature and relative humidity levels within the home while limiting mold, mildew and fungal growth.

Certain types of HVAC systems used in passive houses -- such as those outfitted with heat recovery units -- also help limit pollutants and toxins in the home. These are particularly significant in areas of California prone to smog, smoke and other pollutants that reduce outdoor and indoor air quality during extreme weather events like heat waves and wildfires. Solar panels, rainwater capture system sand geothermal heating and cooling are also common in passive house design. Each element of passive house design embraced by design-build firms in California makes homes more disaster resilient.

#4Opt for Disaster-Resilient Building Materials

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When climate proofing your house in California, design-build firms typically seek out materials that protect against wildfires, floods, wind and other consequences of climate change. When considering risk from wildfires, accounting for floating embers is most important. As with passive house design,the California government recommends against single-paned windows. Instead,smaller, triple-paned windows are recommended because they are less likely to allow embers to enter the home. According to, design-build firms in California typically opt for “ignition resistant* building materials, such as stucco, fiber cement wall siding, fire retardant, treated wood, or other approved materials” when building in high fire risk zones.

In recent years, design-build companies in California have pursued shell exteriors-- e.g. those made from metal or other resistant materials -- in order to prevent embers from starting fires inside homes. As we mentioned in our article “How to Rebuild Your Home After a Wildfire,” Element’s Amanda Leigh has spent the last twelve years of her career helping homeowners harden their properties against wildfires. As for homes in areas prone to flood due to sea level rise, design-build firms source flood damage-resistant materials approved by the The International Building Code and American Society of Civil Engineers. Building a home with materials that protect it from sustaining major damage during a flood not only makes the home more disaster-resilient. It also could mean lower insurance rates from the National Flood Insurance Program.

#5 Optimize Landscaping to Prevent Heat Islands

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Properly landscaping a property can protect against the heat island effect, which occurs in urban areas where buildings are grouped closely together. Heat islands are typically several degrees hotter during the day than surrounding areas. The Environmental Protection Agency explains that modern buildings are well-insulated, meaning that they retain heat easily. According to the EPA, “structures such as buildings, roads, and other infrastructure absorb and re-emit the sun’s heat more than natural landscapes such as forests and water bodies.” This results in the formation of “heat islands” in urban areas “where these structures are highly concentrated and greenery is limited.”

There are a number of ways to optimize landscaping to limit the heat island effect around your home. Increasing the amount of shade surrounding your property isone of the most effective. An EPA brief entitled “What You Can Do to Reduce Heat Islands” notes that “planting trees and other vegetation lowers surface and air temperatures by providing shade and cooling through evapotranspiration.” As such, orienting your home around trees “that directly shade [it] can decrease the need for air conditioning, making your home more comfortable and reducing your energy bill.” This brief also notes that trees can “protect your family’s health by improving air quality, by providing cooling shade for outdoor activities, and reducing exposure to harmful UV radiation.”

Optimizing Your Home’s Landscaping with Green Roofs and Native Plants

Optimizing your property’s landscaping might also include installing a green roof atop your home. For those unfamiliar with the term, the National Park Service defines a green roof as “a layer of vegetation planted over a waterproofing system that is installed on top of a flat or slightly–sloped roof.” According to the US EPA, “green roofs provide shade, remove heat from the air, and reduce temperatures of the roof surface and surrounding air.”

Adding a green roof to your home -- particularly one in an urban environment with little greenery -- can “moderate the heat island effect, particularly during the day.” Not only does proper landscaping protect homeowners from extreme heat events, it also protects against erosion, flooding and wildfires. In manycases, landscaping a property with native -- or indigenous -- plants is most effective for preventing erosion, flooding and wildfires. Choosing native plants is helpful because these plants are more accustomed to the soil, weather patterns, climate and wildlife of that particular site.

Climate Proofing Your Home with Element

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Above, we listed just a few of the many ways California design-build firms like Element can help homeowners harden their homes against wildfires, floods, heat waves and other consequences of climate change. The Element Homes team is uniquely qualified to aid California homeowners concerned about climate change. With years of experience designing homes in high-risk wildfire zones, coastal flood zones and other areas threatened by climate change, Element can help any homeowner with their disaster-resilient home.

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