Between 2014 and 2020, the running five-year average annual number of structures destroyed by wildfires rose from 2,873 to 12,255—a fourfold increase in just six years.
This sobering statistic appears in a January report from the federal government, produced by the US Agriculture Department and Forest Service. “Confronting the Wildfire Crisis: A Strategy for Protecting Communities and Improving Resilience in America’s Forests” details some of the devastating impacts from recent wildfires to both human life and structures. Those stats include the fall-out from the 2021 Dixie Fire in California, which burned nearly one million acres, killed one person and destroyed 1,329 structures. Colorado’s Marshall Fire wasn’t included in the report, but Boulder County estimates in January said that fire had consumed more than 1,000 structures.
The threat to homes is only likely to increase, according to a report released this week by the nonprofit First Street Foundation, which forecasts close to 80 million structures—residential and commercial—could experience some level of destruction from wildfire in the next 30 years. New Mexico ranks among the top states (California is the top) with the highest proportion of properties at such risk.
B.PUBLIC Prefab co-founder and CEO Edie Dillman wasn’t necessarily envisioning a roster of clients whose homes had been lost to wildfire when she launched her company in January, 2020 after a year of business planning with partners Jonah Stanford—to whom Dillman is married—and Charlotte Lagarde, who serve as the company’s CTO and COO, respectively.
Dillman was, however, thinking about climate change.
B.PUBLIC provides panelized construction systems: standardized and prefabricated walls, floors and roofs, designed for low-energy use and high performance. The company describes the product as being “LEGO-like”—a tool architects and designers can use and customize—with 80% energy savings, 90% less construction waste, 30% faster construction and 90% carbon positive materials.
Dillman says the company initially identified New Mexico, as well as Northern California, Colorado, Utah and Arizona, as “big growth markets with really challenging…climate conditions to achieve a low energy, very comfortable house.”
Building for victims of wildfire wasn’t part of the company’s business plan, but those clients found them.
“A lot of our clients are climate-change refugees,” lead architect JD Scott says (others, he adds, are just “wanting to build a new house and wanting to do something really innovative”). Prior to joining B.PUBLIC, Scott had worked as an architect for AOS Architects in Santa Fe, as well as in the nonprofit affordable housing sphere. But he says he reached the point where “I wanted to focus exclusively on sustainability. I wanted to work for a company that really doesn’t compromise when it comes to high performance and sustainability.”
Several of B.PUBLIC’s first projects were for clients in Santa Cruz, California who lost their homes to the 2020 CZU Lightning Complex in Santa Cruz and San Mateo counties, which ultimately burned more than 86,000 acres and demolished close to 1,500 structures. The company also has been talking with homeowners impacted by the Marshall Fire.
Dillman reflects that people who have lost homes in which they’ve lived for generations often will “find it hard to face” rebuilding, while those in more recently purchased or remodeled homes jump into doing so more readily. As for B.PUBLIC’s clients who have lost homes, she says, they “have a different measure, or value judgment on how they want to rebuild. Once you’ve lost in such devastation, you’re aware of the investment of homes and wanting to do better…I think a lot of that is people wanting to be fire hardened…they have also seen the impact and felt the impact of” fire on materials B.PUBLIC doesn’t use, such as foam.
What the company describes as “resilient building science” grew out of Stanford’s work over the last decade. He also founded the design firm NEEDBASED and was one of the first generation of Passive House consultants trained in North America in 2009. Passive House, or Passive House, is a certified building system with stringent global efficiency standards. Stanford’s focus over the last five years was in developing the panelized system to be built off-site and delivered to a building site and assembled quickly—days versus months.
Stanford says his work prior to co-founding B.PUBLIC contained “a lot of lessons learned,” chiefly related to “the natural durability that products have when they’re used in appropriate settings… a lot of that knowledge and experience definitely comes over into understanding of building science.”
I visited B.PUBLIC during an open studio event April 22, aka Earth Day, aka the day New Mexico had an unprecedented wind event that sparked numerous fires, including the complex Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire, which recently became the largest fire in New Mexico’s history and has traced thousands of evacuations. Full structure assessment remains in the offing, but already hundreds of homes have been lost, officials say.
The howling wind in the courtyard as B.PUBLIC’s co-founders and employees showed visitors models of their panelized system made it slightly difficult to hear and at one point I put on my ubiquitous COVID mask just to keep dirt from flying into my mouth. On my way home, my phone pinged with an alert warning residents to avoid driving. The climate change future, it seems, has arrived.
When I caught up with Dillman post-event, by phone, the realities of climate change and wildfire remained front and center with high winds, multiple days of red flag warnings and pyrocumulus fire clouds that had begun to appear each day in the sky.
I wondered about the accessibility of B.PUBLIC’s services. Specifically, according to the interview transcript, I said: “I’m envisioning this future where rich people are in passive houses and the rest of us are in sweat boxes.”
Dillman replied that avoiding that outcome is why B.PUBLIC is a public benefit corporation—companies created for social purpose. In the case of B.PUBLIC, that purpose is “providing communities with building systems that prioritize sustainability, reduced carbon footprint, and resilience for equitable development.”
To that end, Dillman says, B.PUBLIC doesn’t take money from venture capitalists, only impact investors.
“There is potentially…this Us and Them philosophy,” she says, in part because of the limited number of people who are trained to do passive house “and how many people know about it and can achieve it. It has been stuck in that way. And we’re really trying to break that down. We’re not talking only to Passive House clients. We’re talking to people who really just want to build better. And this is one way to get there.”