After She Lost Her Home in a Fire, an Opportunity Rose From the Ashes

Marian Berg lost nearly everything in the Atlas fire of 2017 — not just the Napa, Calif., house she had built with her husband, who died in 2014, but all of its contents.

“I was downstairs reading a book, and I had a friend who called and said, ‘Your hill is on fire,’” said Ms. Berg, 69, an accountant. “I grabbed my dog and ripped the cables out of the back of my computer, threw that in the car, and then ran back for my passport. Then I was out of there.”

She had been through a fire scare before, so she didn’t immediately assume the worst. “I actually thought I was going to come back,” she said.

But a few days later, she heard from a friend that the house had burned down. There was nothing to go back to.

Fortunately, it was well insured, so she rented a place nearby while figuring out what to do next. She contemplated moving to Florida, but after a year of mulling it over decided to stay put because many of her friends and clients — and the horses she enjoyed riding — were in and around Napa.

Eventually, Ms. Berg decided to use the insurance money to rebuild on the same sloped lot. But she had no intention of reconstructing what she had built with her husband in the 1990s. This was an opportunity to start over, to build something completely different that reflected her current stage of life.

After canvassing friends for names of architects, she paid three firms to develop proposals for her. One came back with a design reminiscent of her old two-story house. “It hit me like a kick in the chest,” she said.

Another presented a design she didn’t much like. But Fischer Architecture, a Berkeley firm, proposed a modernist compound that she immediately loved: a single-story structure dug into the hillside, with a private courtyard near the street and a living space with glass sliders that would offer an expansive view.

“When we first went to visit, the site was a wasteland,” said Andrew Fischer, who runs the firm with his wife, Kerstin Fischer. “Half of it looked like a moonscape.”

“Our thinking,” Ms. Fischer said, “was to utilize that downslope of the lot to press the house into the hillside, follow the topography and create an oasis for her that would be shielded from the rebuilding that was going on, and that is still going on.”

The design had other advantages, as well. It created privacy, offered more usable outdoor space than Ms. Berg had before, and enabled single-story living to help her age in place.

She liked all of those ideas. And although she describes herself as “a numbers person, not an art person,” she got swept up in the thought of building something that would be entirely new for the neighborhood. “It was so different,” she said. “And I like different.”

Aiming to make the 4,660-square-foot structure as fire resistant as possible, the architects used concrete block, a utilitarian material more commonly associated with warehouses and commercial buildings. But rather than use typical blocks, they found longer ones made with an aggregate resembling terrazzo and stacked them with staggered joints, spacing some out in front of windows to create screens. Finally, they applied a thick limewash paint to the exterior surfaces, so “it doesn’t look like your traditional Costco warehouse,” Mr. Fischer said.

Topped by a standing-seam metal roof, the house is equipped with a sprinkler system that uses captured rainwater stored in tanks below the pool deck.

Inside, they added oak floors, door and window frames for a warm, natural touch, specifying charcoal-colored Fenix laminate for kitchen cabinets and wall paneling. As for furniture and accessories, Ms. Berg didn’t need much.

“The interesting thing is that when everything burns, you don’t want anything,” she said. “You realize that all that junk you had, as beautiful as it might have been, you didn’t really need it. It was just something that needed to be dusted or taken care of.”

With guidance from John Stewart, an interior designer friend, she bought the minimum number of pieces needed to live comfortably. “There are no valances, no sconces, no fancy stuff hanging off walls, no drapery puddling at the bottoms of windows — none of that stuff,” she said.

It took about two years for the builder, Olson Bros., to complete the house, and Ms. Berg moved in almost exactly four years after the fire, in October 2021. The total cost was about $6.4 million, approximately 90 percent of which was covered by her insurance company. (She paid the rest to cover features she didn’t have in her old house, including floors with radiant heat, automated window coverings and the pool.)

“You’ve just got to be thankful for what you’ve got,” she said. “And if you’re really lucky like me, you end up with a really beautiful house to live in.”

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