Plan Sheets + Red Lines – December 2019


Before it all Burns Down

It seems like the wildfires in California just keep getting worse. And that they may not ever end. We were reminded of this on a recent visit to San Francisco, when we saw the haze from the Kincade Fire, which burned in Sonoma County for 13 days and scorched over 77,000 acres of land. While the fire was about 80 miles north of San Francisco, its flames could be seen from the city’s Sutro Tower. Pretty scary.

Things aren’t any better in Southern California. The Getty Fire burned for over a week in Los Angeles County and came dangerously close to the Getty Museum and the trove of art it houses. Fire knows no bounds and doesn’t care about whom, or what, it destroys.

While the Kincade and Getty fires have been contained, the long-term news is not good. California wildfires have been on the rise since the 1970s, and scientific models indicate that the trend will continue. Indeed, the rogue’s gallery of California wildfires – Woolsey, Tubbs, Blue Cut, Camp, Maria, Easy, and Mendocino Complex, among many others – looks like it’s only going to grow.

Millions of Californians live in areas known as the Wildlife-urban interface, and this is where a lot of these fires break out. Bottle rockets, cigarettes, electrical utility work, a spark from a muffler – all of it can trigger an inferno in an area where people probably aren’t supposed to live. And on top of that, climate change and the profound, global havoc it is creating.    

So, what happens when all this stuff burns? Houses, appliances, furniture, piping, electronics, cars, office and industrial buildings, and everything else in between. You guessed it. Polluted water sources, toxic air laden with particulates, and land contaminated with heavy metals and chemicals. And that’s not good for anyone. Just ask the folks in Paradise, California, whose town was basically erased in 2018 by the Camp Fire. The cleanup topped $1 billion, and workers were wearing protective suits, hard hats, and respirators to protect themselves from the “Toxic Twins” of hydrogen cyanide and carbon monoxide.   

For Kathleen Hetrick, a senior sustainability engineer with BuroHappold Engineering in Los Angeles, this outbreak of wildfires represents an opportunity to take a hard look at what’s going on in the construction industry. Not just where things are being built, but what they’re made of, and, in general, the entire construction supply chain. A toxic building or household material that ends up in sprawling subdivisions in California, for example, might have been made in a “Cancer Alley” chemical plant in a place like Louisiana.   

Hetrick is well positioned to ask questions, too. She’s part of the BuroHappold team that worked on the Santa Monica City Services Building, which used a restrictive procurement that excluded the “Red List” materials spotlighted by the International Living Future Institute. No polyvinyl chloride and formaldehyde at the Santa Monica City Services Building, which is seeking certification under the rigorous Living Building Challenge.

Not all places have the mindset and resources of Santa Monica. Hetrick knows that just as well as anybody. Still, the questions need to be asked. Are there alternatives to the use of PFAS, a family of more than 5,000 man-made chemicals present in everything from waterproofed clothing to carpet and furniture textiles? Is there a way to build homes that aren’t in mountain lion country, or in a drought-prone area near a national forest, and that don’t contain synthetics harmful to humans and biodiversity?

The brightest minds in the world are in the engineering industry, solving problems large and small. Where there’s a will there’s a way, or at least that’s what they used to say. In an increasingly polarized political environment, science is oftentimes the casualty. It serves one side or the other, they say, so it cannot be trusted by one side or the other. But our money is on people like Hetrick. Maybe it’s time to take a good look at the entire construction supply chain, confront climate change, and figure a few things out before it all burns down.

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