On Nov. 13, 2008, our home of 30 years was reduced to ash. The Tea Fire—so-called because it began in an abandoned tea garden high in the hills above Santa Barbara, Calif.—swept through canyons and hillsides, driven by hot, dry, 70 mph Santa Ana winds. In a few hours, some 220 homes ceased to exist. My wife Karen and I, perhaps mercifully, were out of town, and therefore spared the memory of fleeing a wall of flames. On the other hand, we also learned that there is at least one major downside to traveling with only carry-on luggage: we returned to a home site that was still smoldering, in which nothing remained of our former lives, except two suitcases full of dirty clothes.
We were fortunate in that we had good insurance coverage, recently increased because of extensive (and award-winning) remodeling done on our now lost home. Our architect, Richard Warner, was known for his innovative design; our contractor, Allen Associates, was a green builder with an excellent reputation. Dennis Allen and his staff went to bat for us. Hundreds of photographs of their previous work bolstered our claim, and by the time we settled with our insurance company, we found ourselves in a position to make a choice: rebuild, or buy? For many reasons we chose the latter, but two reasons were paramount: the utter devastation of our old neighborhood, and declining housing costs resulting from the economic downturn.
Karen and I ultimately bought a home that boasted privacy and excellent landscaping, but was itself a standard wood-sided 1950s-era California ranch house, in excellent condition, but with a small kitchen and dining room walled off from an equally small living room, and lacking the large windows and views we had lost. Richard Warner went to work, Allen Associates went to work, and result was the award-winning remodel profiled in the January 2012 issue of Qualified Remodeler. The remodel, which took nearly a year to complete, involved gutting the living room, dining room and kitchen to open it up into a single larger space; replacing all windows with large, fire-resistant panes; introducing a glass wall that could be opened to the outside; replacing all the flooring throughout the house with wide white oak planks; rebuilding the stairway to the second floor; and re-siding the house with stucco in the belief (well, perhaps hope) that this would make it more fire-resistant.
Remodels are usually associated with horror stories: cost over-runs, deadlines missed, shoddy workmanship. We had no such problems. Yes, it cost more than we had expected, but I can’t blame this one on Allen Associates. Anyone who has done an extensive remodel knows what happens: in an older house, deferred maintenance problems appear with predictable frequency. When you are already writing big checks, adding a window here, a fancier stairway there, seems entirely logical (“having spent this much already, why skimp on a small change that will make our remodel even better?”). Change orders multiplied, meticulously documented by Allen Associates. Change orders meant changed deadlines; a nine-month remodel grew into nearly a year.
The remodel did have its more challenging moments, such as when the stairway to the second floor was under construction, compelling us to access our second floor bedroom via the second floor deck—itself accessible only by ladder. (One memorable high point: carrying our reluctant cat, Pablo, up the ladder with one hand, kitty litter in another, during a rainstorm.) And a day before Christmas, with our house full of scaffolding, paint, and subcontractors, we knew that a family holiday celebration scheduled for the following day was doomed. But it turns out we were wrong: when we returned from spending Christmas eve with our daughter’s family in Los Angeles, Allen Associates had come through again: the house was spotless, the scaffolding gone, the painting completed.