The Cabin in the Fire Zone
An interview with the architect Olle Lundberg on how he built a house in Sonoma to last.
Where should you live as the planet changes? Is one place more habitable than another? This summer proved the arbitrary nature of our new climate extremes and that there is nowhere to run from extreme weather.
Today, I’m starting a new interview series to explore how architects are designing buildings to be more resilient as the climate changes. Let’s begin with the Lundberg/Breuer cabin.
Lundberg/Breuer cabin from Lundberg Architects
Since 1987, Olle Lundberg has run Lundberg Design Studio out of an old mattress factory in the industrial Dogpatch neighborhood of San Francisco. Lundberg’s USP is architectural salvage, but, to me, his work is about resurrection. He has restored abandoned factories into famously cool and gimmick-free office spaces, including for Twitter, now X, and Google. He has converted dilapidated, even wrecked homes into minimalist environmentally thoughtful structures. He even repurposed an Icelandic passenger ferry into his own home.
Lundberg is inventive about how he repurposes materials, without any resemblance to an earthship! His work is polished modern rectilinear, and , tactile (mostly wood, stone, steel). Not surprising, his brother is the sculptor Peter Lundberg who also works in the language of materials — bronze, concrete.
There is a fabrication shop in the office and most recently Lundberge refurbished Google's former R&D facility into a regenerative office space, winning the living building challenge because of its rigorous sustainability standards. Lundberg has always built with the climate in mind: minimizing resource consumption and carbon emissions, using reclaimed materials, and building structures that are in harmony with nature and will outlive us.
Lundberg’s studio is on many best of lists: best restaurant architecture (for Nari), best office architect (for Google and, Twitter, now X), and even best pool ever (HGTV). This month, Lunderg will collect the 2023 Distinguished Alumni Award from the University of Virginia School of Architecture.
He spoke with me about how he built his personal cabin in a fire zone.
A friend of mine runs the design blog, Plain Magazine and he posted the Lundberg/Breuer cabin on their Instagram. I was drawn in by the materials, especially the giant steel windows and the pool with a view. I had to know more. So I found your studio and went down the rabbit hole! First, where is this cabin?
It’s in Cazadero, California, and sits on a ridge at 1400-feet elevation overlooking the Sonoma Coast. The cabin has a giant view. And where we are stays quite temperate. It can be 100 degrees Fahrenheit a half mile inland but only 80 degrees at the cabin.
Courtesy of Olle Lundberg.
Tell me about your architectural approach.
Generally, my aesthetic is nature-inspired modernism. I really try to build carefully, keeping the notion of craft in my work. I practice legacy architecture. I want it to last for generations and not to be torn down.
Your Habitable score shows extremely high fire risk.
Were you aware of that when you rebuilt the house?
Yes, there is a high fire risk. Yes, I knew this. I bought this property in 1996, and have been building on it ever since. It has been my weekend project. At the time, fire risk was much less apparent than it is now. And we made some decisions that have proven to be good ones.
Tell me about those decisions.
The main one is that I installed a copper roof. Copper roofs are completely fireproof, and the roof is the worst thing in terms of a fire. [Gardner: A roof is a large expanse where burning debris can land]. Also copper lasts forever. It doesn’t rust or deteriorate; it just turns green and looks prettier in time.
The deck is made of Ipe, a tropical sustainably harvested ironwood. It’s so dense that it’s almost fireproof. And Ipe is guaranteed for 50 years, but probably will last 100. Those decisions— made on some level for the idea of it being long lasting and also for aesthetics, ended up being good ones when it became apparent there was more fire danger than we realized.
Courtesy of Olle Lundberg
I noticed you have a giant pool. Is that somewhere you could safely wait out a fire in case you couldn’t evacuate?
That pool is a redwood water tank! It was salvaged from a project I did in Napa. It was a great old 50,000-gallon watertank that was used for livestock. It was free but cost $30,000 to move. We could hang out in it, but that would be a last ditch thing. In reality, evacuation from our property is not difficult. We would head to the coast. A dangerous fire will usually not come from the coast — it will come from the other side.
Courtesy of Olle Lundberg.
The nice thing about the pool is that we have it piped to a fire hydrant. A client was an ex-San Francisco firefighter, and he gave me one of the old SF hydrants. It’s a historic fire hydrant and I powder-coated it red. Also we’re a half mile away from the fire department. They know about the hydrant and could hook up engines to it and fight the fire from my house. Our odds of being protected are pretty good.
Is there anything you would’ve done differently?
One thing I wish I had done differently is the siding. It’s made of wood and I’ll probably redo the siding in the next couple of years. That’s the one flaw in terms of fire danger. While embers are least likely to sit on a vertical surface, if a big fire comes through, I have flammable walls. Still, I do have old industrial steel sash windows which are great in terms of fire — steel is fireproof. The floor inside is slate, which is good in terms of fire danger.
What are your three top takeaways for people living in a fire zone?
Most important is a non-combustible roof. Second, limit bushes and low landscaping around the perimeter — no fuel. And third, if possible have a source of water — a pool is best — that the fire department can tap into.
But above all, make sure you have two exit routes in different directions. Don’t get trapped.