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Wood alternatives suggested for fire zone rebuild

Communities where wood-dominant buildings have burned to the ground might want to explore rebuilding with fire-resistant materials such as steel, concrete and stucco, says architect Mike Roddy, a former Ashlander who has built 700 such homes and visited Phoenix and Talent last week to discuss the proposal with city officials.

It might sound expensive, Roddy says, but depending on markets, steel is equal or a bit higher in price than wood. It’s built with screws, not nails, doesn’t produce gases like wood and is more dimensionally stable.

Steel studs are built on two-foot centers, farther apart than wood, and instead of using plywood for external sheeting, he recommends fiber-cement.

Roddy, a building project manager and resident of Alameda, California, said he has built houses in California, Oregon and Japan — and tried, with no success, to get steel structures going in fire-wracked Paradise, California.

The use of steel in home and building construction is well-established in this country and is in building codes, said Derek Volaart of the Talent Planning Commission. He joined Roddy and Dominick DellaSalla, a Talent resident and chief scientist of Wild Heritage of Earth Island Institute, in an inspection tour of fire-blasted downtown Talent.

“We heard great ideas for fire resiliency in homes,” said Volaart. “My concern is keeping fire resiliency affordable. I did not get the idea it would be more expensive — after all, 2-by-4’s are 79 cents a foot in Ashland now. ... Steel sounds reasonable to me.”

The building that housed Snap Fitness in Talent was sheathed in steel and it burned, while a wooden barn nearby didn’t — pointing to the need, Volaart said, for close evaluation of the unique Almeda fire, which happened during a 200-year wind event and fed on structures, not forests.

In the Almeda incident, “fire arrived on embers delivered by 40 tons of burning lumber accelerated by the velocity of the wind,” said Roddy. “Steel doesn’t give that tremendous addition of fuel, so you won’t attain that level of heat. ... In a hard wind, with the climate heating, it’s just suicidal to build with wood.”

Fireproof stucco can be used for outside walls, he said, while fiber-cement planks are available for floors and siding.

Some half-million steel homes or buildings have been built in the U.S., said Roddy, and they average only 20% more in cost — and framing is only 18% of the cost of a house. Economy of scale, instead of one-off construction, brings it down much more, he said.

From the outside, steel-frame houses with cement-board siding look no different than a wood home, he added.

Noting the push to rebuild trailer parks, Roddy said the homes, though more affordable, are “very flammable death traps,” adding that his company would be “very happy to do a project house or multistory” to see what can be done affordably.

John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

Steel-frame structures with fire-resistance sheathing offer several advantages over those constructed primarily out of wood, says former Ashland resident Mike Roddy. Courtesy photo