Wildfire-worried? Fire-resilient homes may be a thing

Prefab builder Dvele says its steel homes are quicker to rebuild, harder to burn than traditional wood-frame construction

Dvele CEO Kurt Goodjohn and a Dvele home in Ventura (Dvele)
Dvele CEO Kurt Goodjohn and a Dvele home in Ventura (Dvele)

Worried about wildfires? There may be a house for that.

While some California homeowners facing year after year of wildfires have decided that they have had enough, others are staying put and turning to fire-resistant homes.

Dvele, which began marketing steel prefabricated homes in 2017, says sales picked up after wildfires tore through Los Angeles and Ventura Counties in 2018. Capitalizing on homeowners who wanted to rebuild quickly with the resilience of lightweight-steel construction instead of wood frames, Dvele stoked sales by waiving design fees and discounting prices for fire victims.

The wildfires “inspired the company to help victims rebuild as quickly and as stress-free as possible with a discounted rate when demand to rebuild in these severely affected areas was at an all-time high,” CEO and co-founder Kurt Goodjohn said via email.

Since then, buyers from as far as New Mexico and Colorado have signed on with the La Jolla-based company, which builds the prefab homes in its Loma Linda factory and also installs them. The start-to-finish formula, combined with a proprietary in-factory steel production system, lets Dvele build homes without many of the supply chain issues that have hit others, Goodjohn said.

A Dvele home in Santa Rosa, built after the 2017 Tubbs fire (Dvele)

A Dvele home in Santa Rosa, built after the 2017 Tubbs fire (Dvele)

One client in Malibu lost her newly built home after the 2018 Woolsey Fires erupted just 25 miles away — on the very day she moved in, Goodjohn said. By the next morning, the fire was at her door. Having just gone through the traditional home-building process, she decided to go prefab on the rebuild. She’s already living in her Dvele beach house, while most of her neighbors haven’t even been able to get started on their rebuilds, Goodjohn said.

The homes do come with a big caveat: Dvele hasn’t yet completed enough testing “to be able to make specific claims” about just how fire-safe the buildings are, Goodjohn said, even though steel is noncombustible.

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Prefab homes also come with compromises. Dvele has just 13 models to choose from, ranging from a one-bedroom, one-bath “mini home” that costs about $150,000 to a 2,600-square-foot single-family home that can run around $1.2 million, depending on the location. The models can be totally customized, with the exception of adding a gas stove because “we are fully electrified, which is the future,” according to Goodjohn.

Insurance providers don’t always cover the entire cost of a rebuild, in part because many people were underinsured, he said. The company is working with a lawyer who specializes in negotiating with insurance companies, on behalf of clients, to get them more money than they may have otherwise received.

The company has completed about 30 builds so far, including some multi-unit projects with more than 100 homes, and is part of a trend towards resilient building that ranges from earthquake-proof homes to investing in green building technology.

A Dvele home in Santa Rosa, built after the 2017 Tubbs fire (Dvele)

A Dvele home in Santa Rosa, built after the 2017 Tubbs fire (Dvele)

Each Dvele home comes with rooftop solar panels and a battery backup system, and is insulated on all six sides with a thick mineral wool because steel homes do not retain heat as well as wood-framed homes.

The biggest concentration of Dvele projects is in Northern California, where communities from Santa Cruz to St. Helena have been rocked by a now-annual fire season. Goodjohn said the company has had “a couple” of fire rebuilds in Santa Rosa alone, including in the ritzy Fountaingrove area decimated by the Tubbs fire in 2017. A four-bedroom Dvele home in the neighborhood sold for $1.2 million, $50,000 over its asking price, in December 2020.

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