Residents of town of Paradise, destroyed in last year’s Camp Fire, are preparing to make some decisions on plans to rebuild. To assist in the process, students from California Polytechnic State University—Cal Poly—in San Luis Obispo have been working on envisioning a re-design of the town, part of a design studio course for third-year architecture students. This week they traveled to Northern California to unveil their finished, contemporary proposals and ideas for a new downtown Paradise. The students were excited to show off their hard work, but some in the community weren’t ready for such a forward-thinking approach to rebuilding a town with a rustic past.
Sirina Law and her work partner Reiinelle Del Campo stood in front of a 3D model of a sleek, multi-story building, the plans for it pinned up on the wall behind them.
“We’ve designed a coworking center, which is essentially a flexible office space, in hopes to help grow the entrepreneurialism within the town,” Law said.
The coworking building design is open, spacious, and contemporary. It’s similar in style to other models and plans on display: a town hall, a health center, multi-family living spaces, and a firehouse that’s also a climbing gym. The themes in almost all the designs revolve around community, net-zero energy output, and using materials that could withstand another fire.
“Terracotta was used because it’s fire resistant,” Del Campo said. “We wanted to use a fire-resistant material for the exterior, while acknowledging Paradise has a lot of nature. We wanted to use heavy timber for the interior.”
Many of the students also opted for terracotta in their designs. The students visited Paradise in January, February and April, noting that brick fireplaces were some of the only structures still standing in the town.
Currently, work crews spend their days cleaning up debris in Paradise, but thousands of burned houses and torched vehicles remain just as devastated as when the Camp Fire tore through the town in November. Signs for former fast food drive-ins, restaurants and businesses stand next to the frames of former buildings and piles of rubble and ash.
Like her classmates, architecture student Miranda Hassler focused on fire-resiliency with her design for a single-family home, but used different materials.
“It’s really shocking to see certain buildings burned completely to the ground, but one right across the street is still standing,” Hassler said. “I used a metal roof. The siding on my house is fiber cement board rather than wood siding.”
Some students, like Emma Petersen, thought outside-the-box when it came to being more prepared for the next wildfire. She designed a modern, single-family home that would be able to sink underground on a hydraulic system in the event of a wildfire.
“Imagine an elevator,” Petersen said. “Essentially there are pistons under the ground, like cylinders, and the cylinders will sink into one another and take the house with it, and it would be remote controlled."
Petersen said she hasn’t seen much precedent for this type of house, which would likely carry a hefty price tag.
“Although it would be more costly, I think the benefits of saving your house and all your possessions outweigh the cost of the hydraulics system,” Petersen said.
Standing nearby were Harry Poschman and his wife Nancy from Magalia, a town just up the road that also suffered in the Camp Fire. Their house was fortunately saved.
“[These designs are] probably going to cost more than the median income people can afford in this community,” Poschman said. “This is not a high-income community. A lot of people are on fixed incomes like myself.”
Wearing a green “Cal Poly Dad” shirt, Poschman said his son had earned his undergraduate and graduate degrees from the Central Coast university .
“I wanted to see what these bright students have come up with,” Poschman said. “And see how in tune they are with what this community actually is.”
Poschman said the Paradise community is proud of its heritage.
“That heritage is a bunch of miners coming up here, and they needed a place to live,” Poschman said. “And they say, ‘Oh that looks like nice piece of property, I’ll chop that tree down and build a house out of it and I’ll live in that house.”
As a result, Poschman said Paradise became a rustic mining town, but lacked much city planning as it grew over the years.
“Consequently the roads go off to nowhere and they dead end all over the place,” Poschman said. “The town likes it, except when you've got an emergency evacuation.”
Over the past several months, the Cal Poly architecture students have effectively been city planning for Paradise. In addition to their designs, they also focused on creating a proposal for a walkable, community-oriented downtown. This includes senior-living facilities, a library, and gathering spaces that are all congregated downtown, so the community can better interact and not be so spread out or isolated should a wildfire return. The students also visited New Orleans to take a look at projects designed in the years after Hurricane Katrina, to see what was successful and what has not worked as well.
City officials and residents were invited to see the students' final designs on Monday. For those that came out, it sparked discussions on what the future of a town—almost completely wiped off the map by wildfire—was going to look like. And no one is sure yet of the best way to move forward.
“It certainly isn't the vision I had, we’ve had, for Paradise,” Klyda Flanders said. “This is way metropolitan and way corporate. It seems foreign to me. That’s my opinion, but it’s beautiful."
Flanders, like thousands of other Paradise residents, lost everything in the fire. She’s been living between shelters and motels for the past five months. She called her former house, “the miner's cabin.”
“It was like living in a little piece of history,” Flanders said.
Flanders started crying.
“It’s changed. It’s never going to be the same and people’s visions are for the super rich,” Flanders said. “This is super rich stuff. My fear is I’m going to rebuild and then I’m never going to be able to live here.”
One design Flanders and other community members were excited about was titled a 'Water Education and Technology (WET) Center.' Paradise is the largest incorporated city west of the Mississippi River without a public sewer system. The Paradise community relied on on septic systems, which would back up and cause problems. The town is currently thinking about finally building a connected santitary sewer system, and with the WET Center, they would be able to efficiently filter and recycle water if they chose to invest in such an operation.
“If we do get a wastewater treatment or a sewage treatment plant, and that’s what we are looking forward to doing, then we’ll be able to have restaurants and things we haven’t been able to have downtown,” Kelly Conner said.
Conner also lost her home and business in the Camp Fire. Standing before a model of the proposed, rebuilt downtown Paradise, she talks with Paradise councilmember and realtor Mike Zuccolillo and points out that many are living out of tents on their properties, and many haven’t returned.
“How do we protect the people that do come back? And how do we help them to be safer?” Conner asked. "[The student designs] are what forward-thinkers are looking at. I think we can adopt a lot of it. We have to put a little touch on it to make it feel a little more like our town, but only we can do that.”
“Coming out to see, it’s helping me at least reimagine what things could be,” Zuccolillo said. “I think emotionally we want everything back the way it was. But no matter what we [do].. it’s going to be different.”
“We have an opportunity to set a standard, a playbook.” Zuccolillo said. “Unfortunately we’re not going to be the last fire. I hope this is the last time we hear about a town burning to the ground. It probably won’t be, but they can look to Paradise and say, ‘What did you do? What did you learn? What can help us?’”
City officials say they are meeting next week to start drafting a plan for rebuilding Paradise, something not many cities have had to do before. Zuccolillo said the biggest priority for the city is getting people—more than 8,000 families—back in their homes.
“We need to figure out the things we need, buy them, and then worry about paying for them later,” Zuccolillo said.
The town may or may not use the Cal Poly students’ designs, but they will be free and available to the Paradise community online at a later date.
Cal Poly student Zoey Fox helped create the concept of a library that is also a downtown gathering space and gallery for art and performance. Standing before her project, she said she understands if the plans she and her classmates envisioned don’t make it past the paper and glue and 3d printed model stage.
“Even if our library is never touched again, even if our downtown is never looked upon, what we are trying to do is propose a building that is in fact net-zero, that will fit the building codes of 2030,” Fox said. “Creating a space for the community emanates the spirit of Paradise...we’re just trying to give them hope.”