Rebuilding a Wine Country home after fire may cost way more than insurance provides, architects say

Julia Donoho, interim chairwoman of the American Institute of Architects Redwood Empire chapter, leads a discussion of designers, engineers and city building officials Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2017, on how to respond to the North Bay wildfire damage to homes and businesses. .The meeting was held in Axia Architectss offices in Santa Rosa. (JEFF QUACKENBUSH / NORTH BAY BUSINESS JOURNAL)


Architects and city building officials who have been helping owners of the several thousand homes destroyed in the North Bay fires plan their next steps hear that many want their former homes back. But like with the ongoing recovery from the Lake County fires, what insurance may provide to rebuild could be far less than what it typically costs to do so.

Jessie Whitesides, a principal architect for Asquared Studios, has been volunteering at the American Institute of Architects booth in the Santa Rosa local assistance center, and common questions she has been hearing are ow much it will cost to rebuild, why an architect is needed and what steps are required.

“When they share the amount the insurance company is giving them for the house, and I calculate that for them with the square footage (of the house), most insurance companies are offering about $160 a square foot,” she told architects, engineers and a couple of homeowners gathered in Santa Rosa on Wednesday for the inaugural meeting of the Firestorm Recovery Committee, just formed by the institutes’s Redwood Empire chapter. “So, I think we need to be prepared to tell them what the minimum is here.”

Architects among the 60 who attended the meeting noted that, based on what it currently costs to build homes in the Santa Rosa area, the per-square-foot minimums could be roughly $300 in the ravaged Coffey Park subdivision of northwest Santa Rosa, $400 for the Mark West and Larkfield neighborhoods north of the city and $500–$800 for northeast hillside custom homes in the Fountaingrove area of Santa Rosa.

“That’s the bare minimum — drywall, paint, baseboard,” Whitesides said. “My tactic was to explain to them hard costs versus soft costs, explain to your insurance company that there’s no way you are going to get your house back without spending money on soft costs.”

“Hard costs” include what it takes to physically build the structure. “Soft costs” cover what it takes at the architecture, engineering, utilities and permitting levels to make that happen.

Homeowners wanting to have the same design rebuilt through local governments’ expedited review process still will need to get a architect and a structural engineer to update the plans for code changes, such as California’s energy-efficiency, green-building and life-and-safety requirements. Homeowners also will need to get certified that below-slab underground utilities are OK. And that’s after cleanup of the former home sites is completed.

Among fire-recovery efforts the architects group wants to move quickly on include providing the public a range of real examples of what it costs to build homes like those burned, as a starting point for negotiations with insurance companies.

Depending on the policy, there can be percentage caps for actual replacement costs, noted Julia Donoho, interim chairwoman of the local architect group chapter as well as an architect and attorney. Last year, she helped homeowners in Lake County negotiate with carriers for funds to rebuild after the Valley fire.

“It is very possible may not be able to build the same house for that amount of money,” Donoho said.

Doug Hilberman, principal of Axia Architects and among those who lost home to the fire, cautioned his colleagues at the recovery committee meeting about putting out figures on construction costs. He had been in meetings with building industry professionals, local business leaders, and Santa Rosa and county of Sonoma officials and found they each have a perspective how they will participate in rebuilding.

“The insurance company starts with an expert coming in with a formula, but we as designers like to say, ‘Yes, you had an apple, but let’s talk about what your real needs are, and maybe, it’s an orange when we look at it from a community standpoint what would be good in that location,’” Hilberman said. “Having talked to my own insurance agent, they say that if it is going to cost more, they are open to that dialogue. We have to recognize that it’s a challenge for the homeowner if the insurance company is cost-estimating an apple and you’re handing them a set of plans for an orange. That’s where the dialogue gets long, and we’re going to add time to this discussion.”

And the clock on common policy provisions for living expenses is ticking, he noted. When the typical 24-month living expenses period includes a few months for cleanup and permitting, many homeowners need to start getting updated plans submitted back to local building departments in the next few months, Hilberman emphasized. Trade groups plan to lobby Sacramento for a two-year extension.

Jesse Oswald, Santa Rosa permit intake manager, told the recovery committee that the city plans to evaluate rebuild plans and do inspections initially but eventually turn that over to a larger authority, such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Also part of a forthcoming urgency ordinance would be a planning process for all the burned areas of the city.

“If you’re rebuilding what was there before, you will not need much review,” Oswald said. “My intent that if it is stamped by a design professional, we will issue the permit.”

Licensing by the California Architects Board isn’t required under state law for designs of certain single-family homes. Because of the magnitude of the fires and the expected flood of plans submissions, city staff plan to issue building permits the next day after plans come in with the stamps of a state-licensed architect and structural engineer.

If updated and stamped plans are submitted to the city with changes in the height or footprint of the home, that will require more involved review, Oswald said. And if it’s a totally different house, it’s essentially redevelopment and will call for even more scrutiny, albeit in priority to submissions from outside the burn area, Oswald said.

“All submittals will require a plan review,” Oswald said Oct. 24. “Those submitted by licensed design professionals will obtain the fastest turnaround, providing the submittal is complete.”

Jeff Quackenbush (, 707-521-4256) covers the wine business and commercial construction and real estate.

UPDATE, Oct. 24, 2017: Closing comment from Jesse Oswald of the city of Santa Rosa, clarifying review of plans from licensed and unlicensed designers.

CORRECTION, Oct. 23, 2017: Designs of certain single-family homes and rural properties don't have to be done by a licensed architect under state law. However, city of Santa Rosa Building Division staff plans to issue permits the next day for plans with the stamps of licensed architects and engineers. Others will have to go through more extended plan check.

UPDATE, Oct. 23, 2017: Starting points for per-square-foot costs of replacement for homes were added for Mark West/Larkfield and clarified for Fountaingrove, per Julia Donoho of AIA of the Redwood Empire.