Building with Fire Season in Mind

Smoke from BC wildfires blotting out our typical view of Vancouver from Point Roberts.

Smoke from BC wildfires blotting out our typical view of Vancouver from Point Roberts.

Today is a sad day around the Pacific Northwest, and there have been quite a few of them this summer. So much smoke is in the air here in town that the air is brownish grayish and we have the windows sealed up. This is a day that I'm appreciating having air sealed our house so thoroughly though I'd much prefer clear skies, fresh air and the windows open for these last days of summer.

Undeniably, I am gloomy about the smoke filled days we've had lately. I have family living in areas that can be threatened by wildfires, so I worry about them, and the Pacific Northwest has been my home, almost exclusively, for the vast majority of my life. Smoky summers are new these last few years and aside from depressing me, they do rally me to consider my options for our future build, which we intend to be the last for some time. 

Most of us who live in the west or in heavily wooded areas have given at least some thought to what it means to build with a wildfire season in mind. Metal roofing, adequate clearing of trees and brush around building sites, non combustible siding materials where relevant...even sprinkler systems should be given some thought for wildfire season, as dousing the house and landscape immediately surrounding your home is standard protocol when fires are nearing.  In the past, I've mostly thought of these building features as being more appropriate for people living and building in what have always been or are becoming more fire prone. But after three summers in the maritime northwest featuring smoke and blazes nearby, I am thinking about these issues more and more. And today, with unhealthy air (for all groups) throughout my locale, Shawn and I have been giving some thought to proactive ways we can make our home more comfortable for future fire seasons.

One of the things we incorporate into our builds, on account of building envelope tightness, are HRV systems that mechanically exchange air inside with fresh air outside, maintaining clean and healthful indoor air. Occasionally in the winter time our current system, a Life Breath model, brings in people's woodsmoke from fires as we did not opt for a model with a built in HEPA filter. Now that we have summer smoke, far more pervasive and serious, we are going to be sure and incorporate a HEPA filter equipped HRV system in the next house. This will allow us to seal up the house against smoky outdoor conditions if needed while still being able to use the air exchange system for its intended purpose and maintain a more comfortable interior space. 

In the past I've been, frankly, somewhat scornful of people in the Northwest using air conditioners, which have never been something I've needed (to be fair, I live in a very cool part of the Northwest...we are lucky to make it to 80 degrees in a given summer). And while an air conditioning unit is not something I particularly have a use for, there are pretty amazing, energy efficient heat pump models now that perform both heating and cooling duties in a home. This sort of system may or may not be ideal for our next build, in which we are aiming to achieve Passive House certification or an approximation thereof, but I am now convinced of times when even Pacific Northwest homes might truly benefit from an energy efficient form of home cooling. Those living in older, less well insulated homes might find these installs worth the comfort that they offer, in particular on hot summer days when it would be best for your breathing comfort to have the windows closed. 

Other lower tech or lower installation heavy responses to these smoky summer days could at least include a portable HEPA filter for the home. I am not sure how remarkably they would function in terms of forest fire particulate matter overall, but it's possible that some comfort might be derived from having one on hand for the worst of wildfire season. 

Things to keep in mind, though, if you are considering a new build anywhere in the western United States or Canada...