New Beginnings

A BONE Structure Net Zero Energy home rises from the ashes
in Santa Rosa, CA.

by Molly Miller
with photographs by Howard Booster

On October 10, 2018, I am standing on a hill in Santa Rosa, California, beside Howard Booster on the place where his multi-generational family home of 35 years once stood. Exactly one year ago to the day, he climbed over the ridge in the distance and came in on foot to see what was left of his home.

The roads were closed, and hiking was the only way in after a fast moving wildfire sparked by a downed PG&E power line swept through in the middle of the night on October 9. Howard evacuated at about 4am. A neighbor who did not evacuate took video and Howard could see that his house was still standing at 6am after the fire had passed through.

An aerial view showing the Booster’s home as it stood in 1991, and following the October 2017 fire.

But when he walked into his place later that morning, he found nothing left. It was not even smoldering. It was just gone. The home survived the wildfire itself but the embers had blown up into the soffit vents. Two or three hours later, it burned from the inside out. When he walked over to his garage, it looked like the ground was covered in Italian tiles. The charred asphalt shingles, the only thing left of the building, littered the ground. (This is one of the ways he confirmed the buildings burned from the inside, and according to fire officials, hot embers entering through vents was a common cause of homes burning in this disaster that destroyed thousands of homes in a single night.)

The great room, often used as concert venue.

The night of the fire Howard, a retired engineer, had been preparing for a year to climb to Mount Everest Base Camp on an adventure with a group of musician friends, one of whom made one of Howard’s fiddles. Howard plays fiddle in two bands and for local contra dances and he and his wife Merritt have hosted countless house concerts in their now destroyed home over the past 35 years.

Howard would not be going to the Himalayas. He got a call about the fire around midnight. From his window, he could see an orange glow on the ridgeline. Then, between 1 and 2am, he saw flames. Merritt and her 97-year-old father Ray, who lived in a second residence on the property, headed off to Ray’s church in Santa Rosa. Ray volunteers there at the Presbyterian Church of the Roses and has a key. The church runs a food kitchen, where they offer meals to kids every day. It soon became a rescue center.

“I didn’t believe it. Even then when I saw the fire coming, I didn’t quite believe it.”

– Howard Booster

Howard stayed behind, taking photos and watching the fire. He shows me a photo of the house across the way exploding, a wild blaze of orange and yellow. “Do you see this white light here in front?” he asks. It was his neighbor’s headlights as she was speeding away from the exploding barn, getting the last of her horses out.

The fire, spread by 95-mile-an-hour winds, was so hot homes in its path were completely gone, literally in minutes. When Howard finally got into his truck and evacuated himself, the fire was coming across the field faster than he could run. “The fire seemed frantic,” he said.

I wanted to know, why had he stayed so long?

“I didn’t believe it would take our home. Even then when I saw the fire coming, I didn’t quite believe it,” he explained. “I am by nature a positive person. It truly did not occur to me. The positive attitude carries on because unlike many people who went through this, I do not have PTSD. My wife still sees flames when she closes her eyes. Yesterday was the anniversary of the fire and not an easy day for her.”

“We left with what we carried,” he said. “I had 3 fiddles and what I was wearing. My wife got 3 or 4 family photos.” Along with 3 generations worth of stuff, they lost two grand pianos often played by visiting musicians. One of them was a 1913 Concert Mason & Hamlin.

Howard is tall and fit, wearing round glasses, a gray warm hat, a funky blue green scarf that gives him a bit of an arty look and a Carhart jacket. It’s a cool, foggy morning and he’s been out on his tractor grading the hillside. The destruction lingers like a ghost and I feel grateful for the weather…keeping fire at bay.

As we stand there, Howard can point to where six neighboring houses burned. We can see Fountain Grove Ridge, where, along with an entire neighborhood, ironically, the fire station burned to the ground. Many of the surrounding homeowners were so devastated they will never rebuild here. Perhaps somewhere else, but not here.

After much thought, Howard and Merritt have decided to rebuild in the place where they have so much family history. They raised three daughters in the house that burned that night. Their daughters played every day in a grove of trees by a creek that runs through the 8-acre property in what they call, to this day, the Faerie Glen. Howard built a treehouse for them there. “My wife rang the cowbell when it was time for dinner,” he says wistfully as we peer down the hill at the trees, which escaped the fire. Two of his daughters, now in their 30s, were married in the Faerie Glen.

After much thought, Howard and Merritt have decided to rebuild
in the place where they have so much family history.

  • Returning to the site

There are thousands of family stories of loss like this in the North Bay, each one epic. Sonoma County alone lost 5,100 homes to this October wildfire, part of a firestorm of multiple fires that ravaged wine country and burned with unparalleled ferocity across Northern California.

What’s different about this one story is the way the family is rebuilding. They are not trying in any way to re-create what they lost. They told their architect, “We don’t want anything from the old home in the new design.”

Their new place, a collaboration between husband and wife architects Brendan Kelly and Kerry Morgan and Canadian custom home builder BONE Structure, is well under way. The Boosters expect to live again on this charred hillside where we now stand with recently excavated dirt underfoot, starting next summer.

“Who gets to start from scratch? Howard asks me, with characteristic optimism. “We know where the wind comes from, the sun, the rain, from 35 years of living here.”

The new home will be a super-energy-efficient, 100% solar, net zero energy home thanks to the collaboration with BONE Structure, which makes a net-zero-energy ready framing system to fit the design. The architects have designed the new home to accommodate a 360-degree view. The land is beautifully rolling and each day the sun rises in a gap in the ridge to the east. The rise we stand on is in the middle of a small valley that slopes away into high ridges once covered in grapevines and surrounded by trees. The Booster property alone lost 45 trees including a dozen redwoods and several oaks. “The loss of trees cleared the way for the views,” Howard says, looking for a bright side yet again.

The Design Challenge

“They [Boosters] have a massive support network because of the kind of people they are,” says Brendan, who is Merritt’s cousin. He has spent a lot of his career designing and developing athletic clubs but has recently returned to residential architecture, joining his wife Kerry’s practice. “I kept putting my offer to help out. Finally, when I met Howard on site, I said I would just sketch and draw until they wanted to do something else. In February, they decided to rebuild.”

The Boosters have an unusual setup. Merritt’s father Ray will have his own living quarters as part of the space. The living room in the house has to have the capacity for large groups of people who will attend Merritt’s and Howard’s house concerts and many family gatherings. They also have four rambunctious grandchildren who will be spending time there. “The design challenge was a real challenge worthy of one of those problems they give you in architecture school,” says Brendan.

“They were talking about something really traditional and comfy and cozy, but we kept drawing something else that resolved their needs for the space. We kept reflecting on, what are the uses?”

Meanwhile Howard heard BONE Structure was presenting at the Napa Country Club from a friend he worked with at HP who texted it to him. The friend’s house in Fountain Grove also burned to the ground. Howard couldn’t make it to the presentation, but Brendan went.

BONE Structure®

“I went in as a doubter,” Brendan said. Lots of people came through after the North Bay fires, many from out of state, suddenly wanting to help people rebuild. According to Howard, people were driving up and down the road soliciting business for cleanup, excavation, construction, and not all of them were perfectly trustworthy. Brendan said developers might have been wanting to acquire cheap lots for development, taking advantage of the situation and grief -ridden homeowners wanting to move on.

“I was hard on BONE,” Brendan said. “This was not a genteel Canadian conversation,” he says joking about BONE’s roots in Quebec. But the more he listened to Charles Bovet, BONE’s VP of business development, talk about BONE Structure’s net-zero-energy-ready approach, using pre-cut panels in a grid, the more it seemed a good fit. “I’m kind of a prefab geek. I have flirted many times with prefab,” says Brendan.

BONE, which launched a California office in 2016, uses an approach that is a variation on pre-fab. The BONE team measures and cuts all materials in its steel construction system in advance of building and delivers them to the site. This minimizes waste and cuts way down on the amount of time it takes to build. All BONE Structure homes are set up to become net zero energy—with the collaboration of the designers, qualified builders and subs —if the owner is interested in pursuing net zero, and the Boosters were interested.

Merritt, Brendan, Howard and Ray, all Stanford grads, were also intrigued by BONE’s connection to Stanford engineering. Many of BONE’s team are also grads of Stanford and when the Boosters went to visit the zero energy BONE Structure home of Stanford professor Mark Z. Jacobson in Palo Alto, BONE seemed more and more like the right fit for their new home.

Howard spent his career as an engineer in the Test and Measurement Group (T&M) of HP. High frequency microwave technology was used in telecommunications and the department evolved into the fiber optics/light wave division, a small group of very technical engineers. HP eventually spun T&M as a new company: Agilent. Howard left Agilent in 2008. From there he went to a solar startup that tested instruments for the solar industry for four years. “I’ve always been non-mainstream,” Howard says.

Ray, who at 97 years old drove away from the Santa Rosa fire in his Tesla, is also an early adopter. “Ray’s had an electric car for 25 years,” says Brendan.

Brendan says the Booster house was always going to be a zero-energy house with a charging station even before they met up with BONE. “They [The Boosters] had solar all over their old house,” he says. “When we went to visit Mark’s place and he told us that after a year and two Teslas plugged in, it was still producing more energy than consumed with only 300 square feet of solar, these early solar adopters almost didn’t believe it could be done with so little solar. It was another reason BONE was a good fit.”

BONE Structure® BIM model, showing the patented steel structure and structural insulated roof panels.

The reason it takes less solar than in the past to run a net zero energy, solar-powered-home— which produces at least as much energy as it consumes—has to do with the increases in the efficiency of solar panels. But it’s also because the BONE structure is wrapped in high-performance insulation. BONE Structure shells reduce heating and cooling energy needs by 90% compared to the average new home in North America, which means they require fewer solar panels than a home that isn’t as energy efficient.

From my conversations with Howard and Brendan about climate change, I learned climate change is not the principal motivator for their choice. They are simply in love with the technology and flexibility of the BONE structure house and BONE’s integrated design system, taken from the aerospace industry. But in a place that has been devastated by a combination of mismanaged lands and unprecedented conditions undeniably fueled by climate change, it also seems fitting that working with BONE structure will help them create a zero energy home here that will be fully-solar powered and that can be a model for anyone wanting to move away from fossil fuel.

“The BONE Structure house is like an erector set,” says Brendan. He had done a first pass in wood. So, he had to redesign the structure because BONE structure works on a grid, but it worked fine. The ability for architects to think in grids can be challenging, he says. Fortunately he’s also an engineer. “One of the reasons I love this house is that the design elements include exposed bones—exposed columns, turnbuckles, bolts. The design is a nod to a typical Sonoma County agricultural building.”

“Since I had already designed the 3000 square-foot building, I asked BONE if they could work with the overhangs and a covered outdoor space,” Brendan says. “They were all in. We shifted the orientation of the home for an eastern view but keep the view of sunsets. That the home faces east-west is symbolic of their life: up at sunrise and enjoying the sunset at the end of the day.”

Fire and the New Design

Recall that the fire that destroyed the Booster home actually lit from the inside because of embers that went through the vents. “Eliminating things like vents in a BONE house is easy because of the way it goes together with steel and spray insulation,” Brendan explained.

At first, Brendan and Kerry tried to put nonflammable cement panels on the design, but they couldn’t imagine Merritt and Howard with steel and minimalist architecture.

“I remember being in Palo Alto at their wedding. It was a classic hippie wedding. Merritt was the poster child for the hippy bride with flowers in her hair,” Brendan says. So he found an FSC-certified machiche wood from Asia that will go over the top of spray insulation, which he feels is more suiting.

“When BONE understood why cladding the structure in wood fit better with the character of the Boosters, they went with it. It’s a very collaborative process. They were right in there with us,” he says.

Choosing wood over cement panels doesn’t feel like a safety compromise to Brendan. “There’s no such thing as a fire proof building. It’s a false choice,” he says. “So many Class A materials still burn at 800 degrees Fahrenheit. When you have a super-hot fire [like the Sonoma fire], even concrete melts.”

What’s more, he says, “Coming back home should not be a reminder that you are ready for the thing that happened to you to happen again the next day. It should be about what they are looking forward to and not what they fear.”

The Tower and the Breezeway

Brendan and Kerry, who met in their first year of architecture school at University of Washington, lived in Italy for a year during school. They called on this experience for this design. The home resembles an Italian (or Sonoma) agricultural building. They aligned the entire building around the best view and the wood screens on the windows can close.

The home features a prominent tower on one end, which Brendan says was a folly. “Follies usually get whacked out because of budget. Howard wouldn’t let us take it off. Kerry redrew the tower many times.”

The tower will be a lantern for the neighborhood; a fire lookout; a place to play fiddle; and a place for grandkids to camp out. Every other slat is missing to let light in and a window faces east.

A covered California-style breezeway runs through the middle of the building, in part to let the traffic through for family gatherings and public functions—the house concerts Howard and Merritt will resume there. Visitors will enter on the west and come out looking at the crest of a beautiful hill on the east side.

“I kept expecting BONE to try to do things with this design and they never did,” Brendan says. “They all love the design and wanted BONE to work with the design. I got everything into a five-foot grid to work with their system.”

A few things are different for this home than the usual process. In working with the BONE system, structural engineer fabrication team decisions happen earlier. They usually happen in the field, Brendan says.

Howard’s most frustrating part of the process was the time it took at the beginning. “We got the permit in July but because the concrete pad is so important, we had to wait to find a qualified team to pour it due to the high demand for contractors in the area,” Brendan explains.

A massive advantage, however, is how fast a BONE house goes together. BONE will deliver the pre-fabricated framing. Then, BONE field expert Alex Tureck will help Mikara Construction, headed up by Mike Dethlefsen, to build out the roof, windows, HVAC, plumbing, electrical, interior finishes, cabinetry and so on. Mike’s team will do the heavy lifting once the design is complete and delivered by BONE. The exterior of the building will go up in a few weeks and Mike’s team will outfit the interior through Northern California’s rainy season this winter. The Boosters plan to move in the summer of 2019.

Foundations being prepared for the BONE Structure® home.

Ray, Merritt and Howard standing by the outline of their new home.

New Beginnings

Ironically the loss of the home made it possible for Howard and Merritt to stay in a place they had planned on leaving. “We were looking to downsize. We were going to sell and move to Sebastopol, where we are now renting,” says Howard.

Their old home was not energy efficient and one of the reasons they wanted to move is that Santa Rosa has become much hotter in recent years as a result of climate change. The new home will not only be thermally comfortable because of the high-performance building envelope, but they will be able to put in air conditioning, which will run on solar. This comfort issue was a key factor in their decision to rebuild here rather than move.

The other deciding factor was Howard and Merritt’s daughters, all in their 30s now. “They didn’t want to come here for a month after the fire,” Howard said.

When the girls finally came, they wandered around…but there were no tears. Howard followed the middle daughter Alden to her car and asked her why there were no tears.

She said something like this: “You were going to leave our home. Now, if you stay, we can still bring our kids here to play in the treehouse by the creek that you built us when we were kids. Maybe some of them will even get married in the same Faerie Glen.”

“We lost all their wedding dresses, my grandmother’s dress,” Howard says. “I have nothing my parents ever touched. As painful as those things can be, it’s the place that matters.”

“Because of this unique collaboration, we were able for this site to reinvent itself,” Brendan remarks. “It will be the place where Howard and Merritt can host a beautiful violin concert. When they open the PG&E bill, that will be a nice bonus. And, having it be an event space and a showcase will show other people how to prepare for California’s 2020 building code requiring all new homes to be net zero energy homes.”

One of the three fiddles Howard Booster saved on the night of the fire, soon to play in their new home.