The first surprise I encountered as a very green carpenter coming to Santa Fe 35 years ago was that all the cubical brown buildings were not made of adobe.
Some were, and I was thoroughly enchanted when asked to help build or remodel one. It is such an ancient and intuitive way to build and so unlike the rest of North America. But everything else not built with adobe, the vast majority, was built like every other structure in the country.
Many who wash up onto our foothills from other lands encounter the same shocking reality. It’s faux adobe! It’s a “Fanta Se” adobe Disneyland! It’s architecturally redundant and boring!
It is also what might keep us from becoming the next Boulder County, Colo., as the drying West continues to burn.
Recent videos from Boulder were unlike any wildland fire ever witnessed. It wasn’t cabins in the mountains and tall forests. It wasn’t steep California grassland canyons. It was just 6,000 acres of flatland prairie surrounding single-family detached suburban neighborhoods.
The landscape looked like Eldorado or Las Campanas but built with the density of Tierra Contenta. News reports noted miles of grassland runways and sweeping walls of flames — inexorably pushed by 110 mph winds onto the hapless homes.
Grassland fires don’t throw embers the size of marbles for miles, as is common when timber fires leap from tree crown to tree crown. The roaring inferno simply bursts wood siding, wood decks and asphalt roof shingles into flames. The intense heat breaks windows, and flames swoosh in to light up homes like Roman candles.
Because the houses appeared built to code-minimum setbacks, like virtually every other subdivision in America, they likely were 10 feet apart. With that density, homes themselves act like crown fires leaping from one to another. The neighbor’s flaming home breaks the windows of the home next door and on and on until they are all gone.
Defensible space is a meaningless concept in tight subdivisions with paved roads, concrete sidewalks and driveways, and small yards with little landscaping.
It’s doubtful any building type could withstand that recent conflagration, but some types are more resilient, like what we build in Santa Fe.
Cement-based stucco is as fire-resistant as anything. Resistance is critical, which is why asbestos siding originally was considered the perfect material for the labs and houses of Los Alamos. Our flat roofs are not as resistant as pitched metal roofs, but it is no accident Northern New Mexicans adopted corrugated steel as soon as railroads made it cheap and available.
Ironically, that was about the same time Santa Fe’s first general plan of 1912 formalized Pueblo-style architecture as a means to promote tourism to America’s newest state. Apparently, once we proved our modernity and statehood was finally achieved, embracing our history was again considered legitimate.
Other modern building science principles and local building codes help make Santa Fe homes fire-resistant. Minimizing unnecessary penetrations in walls and foregoing plastic-domed skylights make a difference. Well-sealed draft-stops in framing, verified by thermal bypass inspections, while intended to maximize energy efficiency, are superb at retarding flame spread.
Unventilated roof assemblies mean no exterior vents to suck in heat, embers or flames. Composite deck materials, while not fireproof, are harder to ignite.
In the aftermath of the Cerro Grande Fire more than 20 years ago, new Los Alamos County building codes taught us how to build in forests. Boulder County shows it’s appropriate everywhere. Indoor sprinklers do nothing against flames outside our doors, but fake adobe walls may hold up very well indeed.