Shop Talk

The Way Forward


he effects of the Thomas Fire will be felt for months and years to come, particularly for those who lost their homes. As the long, slow process of rebuilding gets underway, Ventana Monthly hosted a roundtable discussion among architects, builders and designers about the challenges and opportunities ahead. Here we present the highlights of that discussion, which has been edited and condensed for space and clarity.


Edward deVicente, Principal Architect, AIA CPHC, at DMHA Architecture and Interior Design, Santa Barbara

Laura Kay Dunbar, architect, general contractor, owner and CEO, The Akeena Group, Oxnard

Jack Kiesel, landscape architect, Kiesel Design, Ventura

Martha Picciotti, architect, Picciotti Design, Ventura

In some ways, this is an opportunity to sort of reimagine Ventura a little bit — in terms of aesthetics, energy efficiency, smarter design. What changes would you like to see in architecture as we rebuild?

LAURA DUNBAR: I think that one of the hidden gems in this whole tragedy is that we have a lot of hillside homes that were burned. And a lot of those homes were tract-type homes that were not site-specific. They did not take advantage of the site, they did not take advantage of the view, they were in some ways poorly designed. So this is an opportunity for people to build back better.

What aesthetic changes do you picture?

MARTHA PICCIOTTI: Open floor plans. You know, windows and doors today are so different from what they were before, so there’s so much more opportunity for more indoor/outdoor — especially, I think, if we take into consideration sitting the buildings on the site differently. 

What about the landscaping?

JACK KIESEL: There are tons of new opportunities here. I think a lot of those hillside landscapes are covered in ivy and ice plants, things of that nature, and I think this is an opportunity to bring in more native plant materials and obviously making the landscapes more fire-resistant. Natives also are a great habitat for the small animals we have in the area and the water requirements are a lot less than a lot of stuff that you’re seeing out there.

How will design strategy change?

ED deVICENTE: What was there before was 1960s and 1970s architecture. Design philosophy really shifted in the 1950s, when the air conditioner came into being. We could plug this thing into our house and essentially turn our back on nature, and our buildings started to respond to less control or less response to indoor/outdoor. … As people have kind of explored the new architecture related to energy efficiency, we’ve actually gone back to the past of using passive design strategies. … The siting that Laura talked about, proper passive heating [and] cooling of homes. Ventura is a wonderful place to do that.

PICCIOTTI: People live very differently from how they lived before. … They had a formal living room and then they had a kitchen so each room was closed off, and I think we all know that we live very differently with open floor plans and more flexible places, some of which are just a place to put your laptop. So the Internet and computer have also changed how we live in our houses and interact with devices. … It’s also brought an opportunity for people to age in their homes — we have walk-in showers, we have wider hallways, just a lot of things that we didn’t have before. 

DUNBAR: And I’d like to add to that … if you do that from the beginning, it’s not that expensive. It’s retrofitting that’s more expensive. But … putting light switches at different heights, building wider hallways in the beginning — they don’t add a lot more cost, but they add value to the home and they add the ability to age there if you’d like. And the other thing that I think is huge is, when these houses were built, you weren’t allowed to have a separate living quarters. … Our zoning codes [were] so restrictive that we could not have our mother or our child come and live independently in our own home. … Now we are able to have accessible dwelling units (ADUs) in every single house.

What design changes may take place to improve fire safety?

DUNBAR: Many of those houses … used to have wood shingles. We now have the [better] fire code, and we also have much stricter soils and foundation requirements, which really is probably a game-changer for these people. 

deVICENTE: There are so many available materials … and very cost-effective to treat fire-resistant details. The biggest part, though, is really landscaping — keeping combustible material away from your home. 

KIESEL: Where plants are situated is important, too. Typically you want your house to be 15 feet away from the [tree] canopy. …  You have different fire zones, but 30 feet is kind of your defensible zone, and that’s where you want to have stuff around 12 inches high, roughly. … You want to irrigate semiregularly so the moisture of the plants when the fire does come acts as a buffer. Getting rid of any dead growth, that’s huge. It’s important to incorporate as many natives as possible. You don’t want to use eucalyptus trees or palm trees. Palm trees can be candles.

Are house layouts different now? What trends do you see emerging?

DUNBAR: We’ll see a huge transition period as the millennials start buying homes — because they’re not into so many things. They don’t watch big TV — they watch TV on their little laptops. I really think they are the buyers of the tiny homes.

I think that’s an interesting point — there are notions of how much space we need and what we want that to look like.

PICCIOTTI: It’s sort of multigenerational, too, because sometimes the other people cannot afford to dwell on their own, so they are living at home longer or coming home after traveling or whatever, and there’s these older people staying with you, too. So I think flexibility is probably the key word.

DUNBAR: I’ve designed a multitude of places where we’ve turned an ADU garage into a living space. ... You can actually make it as private or as combined a space as you want and still give your family member their own private space. They can still be independent. I do think that will be a really big trend as our parents age and we age. 

deVICENTE: But everything we’re talking about ... all comes down to a shift of priority. We used to prioritize highly formal dining rooms and living rooms and all those things, and now the priority has gone to shared social spaces and openness. … It’s not about building back the size of the home you had before, it’s about building to our new lifestyles. … And having a home that responds to that.

DUNBAR: If you have a good designer you can build a better space in less square footage. That’s the key element. … Sometimes a smaller space is a better space. 

What about trends in landscaping?

KIESEL: Roof gardens. We are working on a little project right now utilizing that roof, planning it as outdoor space. If you go smaller in your square footage but still have a roof, you can recapture that [outdoor area] — especially in these hillside homes. They have incredible view potentials and then sometimes the slopes are so extreme that it’s kind of cost-prohibitive to do a lot of landscape terracing. … The waterproofing is a little more intensive obviously and … the engineering is a little bit more robust, but I think if you’re building from scratch I don’t know if it’s that much more.

DUNBAR: It’s a newer sort of thought process, outdoor spaces. … Now what we’re looking at is creating different spaces — some shaded, some open, some enclosed by garden, some really creative spaces outside — and it adds to your square footage. … Especially when you do not have the biggest house, you can, you know, create different outdoor rooms.

What about financial issues? How can you rebuild within your budget?

deVICENTE: It really starts with design and understanding that it’s different for each family. … That’s why we suggest folks work with design professionals, because whatever strategy is best for them, you can help them maximize every dollar, getting the most out of what they have.

What are some challenges architects, designers and homeowners will face as rebuilding begins?

DUNBAR: I never realized how much I gathered from going to my clients’ house, the information I got just from when I walk in. Oh, they’re clean, they have grandchildren, they have lots of family pictures, they use a microwave, they have a messy kitchen, they have a really cluttered bathroom. … The information gathered in that walk-through is unbelievable, but I never knew I had it until I wasn’t able to walk through.

PICCIOTTI: I kinda like the challenge of being forced to build smaller and more thoughtfully in a different way. … Really thinking about using [homeowners’] money really smart to get what [they] want. So it’s kind of fun being challenged. 

deVICENTE: We [also need to think about the] family and their situation for the next 10, 20, 50 years…how long they want to be in the home. So that intentionality, I think, is the most critical. And the good news is that I would say all of these good design practices we’ve been talking about, they’re pretty mainstream now. People just need to know where to find them.

Edward deVicente.

Martha Picciotti.

Laura Kay Dunbar.

Jack Kiesel.


Be realistic about your budget, as well as your funding process, and expect the architect and general contractor to work as a team to help stay within your budget.

Be open to new ideas (view, open plan, Airbnb opportunities, etc.) and rethink your new home with different parameters (aging in place, accessory dwelling units, maintainence, efficiency).

Specifying finish materials before breaking ground takes a lot of potential problems and delays out of the construction process.

Include a landscape architect as part of your design team.

Helpful websites for education: 

Passive house published examples: 

Ecological building network:

Green building resources: 

Design ideas, local architects and


Edward deVicente
DMHA Architecture and Interior Design
1 North Calle Cesar Chavez, Suite 102, Santa Barbara

Laura Kay Dunbar
The Akeena Group

Jack Kiesel
Kiesel Design
422 East Main Street, Ventura

Martha Picciotti
Picciotti Design
404 North Catalina Street, Ventura


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