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Architects build weekend getaway in fire country with safety in mind

It's a 2.5-mile ride up a sinuous Malibu canyon to the 700-square-foot weekend home of architects Cory Buckner and Nick Roberts. There, deer graze on the hillside covered with sumac, scrub and a scattering of oaks; occasionally, a bevy of quail scurries over the dirt yard in front of their dining room window. Come night, coyotes make their plaintive cries under a sky filled with more stars than you can count.

But it's the spectacular view from the couple's aerie -- nestled into the rugged hillside descending into a blur of blue Pacific waters -- that makes you catch your breath. That, and Mother Nature's daily shows of psychedelic, acid-orange sunsets. The retreat is a paradise, really, they say -- except for one frightening factor: the ever-present danger of fire.

"It's always a possibility," Roberts says. "It's more about when the next one will come rather than if."

He and his wife should know. In 1993 the Green Meadow brush fire, which began in Thousand Oaks and burned 44,000 acres, rushed up the north canyon hillside and consumed their 4,000-square-foot home here.

They were able to remove three carloads of possessions -- mostly photographs, small artworks, office files and books, along with their beloved black-and-white cat, Oreo. Buckner drove them all to her parents' home in Las Flores Canyon 30 minutes away for safekeeping.

A week later a Las Flores Canyon fire burned her parents' home to the ground -- along with many of Buckner and Roberts' remaining possessions. Even so, the couple swear that it never occurred to them not to rebuild.

"Our hearts are in this place," Buckner says.

Although their main residence is a restored A. Quincy Jones house in the Crestwood Hills area of Los Angeles, in 1995 the couple rebuilt their Malibu hills house, which they rent out. Three years later they purchased the 1 1/2 -acre lot directly below the Malibu house and constructed the intimate, weekend retreat. They were determined that the homes would be as fire resistant as possible and that the dwellings would sit lightly on the land.

To that end, the couple used every trick in their architectural arsenal. They clad the weekend structure in a hard shell of interlocking, flat and corrugated Rheinzink panels, made of a noncombustible zinc alloy in the same deep-sage color as the hills. Underneath the metal finish lies a fire-resistant gypsum board, as well as eco-friendly cellulose insulation that's made from recycled newsprint yet still nonflammable. A fire-rated composition roof tops the house; windows are double-glazed or half-inch-thick laminated glass that insulates the interior from radiant heat.

"In a fire, single-pane windows can crack and allow the fire in, or the radiant heat from burning foliage nearby can simply get so hot the furnishings inside ignite," Buckner says, adding that inferior glass may have been one of the reasons why their old house burned down. "We didn't have double-pane windows."

To provide extra protection, they added a perforated steel panel to slide in front of the living room's stackable sliding glass door facing the western slope, and they created a thick skin of corrugated metal with deep-inset windows on the north.

"Fires generally race up the hillside," says Roberts, a professor of architecture at Woodbury University in Burbank. "We wanted to protect the western and northern slopes of the house as much as possible."

The anti-fire theme continues in the home's interior, whose floor and walls are noncombustible concrete. On order: a nonflammable felt curtain panel that will be hung on the north-facing window during fire season when they're away. Ceiling sprinklers are overhead, poised to unleash water should the need arise.

There's even more water at the ready on the lot above. A hydrant enables fire truck hoses to access a 5,000 gallon tank located on the property. A submersible pool pump can draw up to 9,000 gallons more.

But probably one of the most effective and obvious things people can do to protect their property against fire is simply to remove the brush from around their property. Kevin Johnson, the assistant Forestry Division chief who runs the Los Angeles County Fire Department's brush clearance section, suggests removing all native flammable brush up to 100 feet around the house and to remove all dead wood up to 200 feet in severe fire hazard areas "so as not to create a continuous fire ladder."

Buckner and Roberts cleared the property as required, then sparsely planted a selection of cactuses, succulents and toyon trees that don't easily burn.

So do they feel completely confident and ready for the next time a wall of flames sweeps down the canyon?

"I feel we've done as much as we can with the physical structures, but there are so many variables," Roberts says. "Sometimes you pay a price for living in paradise."

barbara.thornburg@latimes .com

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