On a hilltop overlooking the town of Ojai, California, the 1960s-era Upper Campus of the Ojai Valley School had an idyllic setting. About 15 miles from the Ventura County coastline, the school had both cool ocean breezes and 360 degree views of the Topatopa Mountains. But during California’s increasingly fierce wildfire season, those two features can become existential threats.
On December 5, 2017, a day-old wildfire caused by a downed power line reached the campus. The Thomas Fire, as it was soon named, went on to burn more than 281,000 acres in the area, making it one of the most destructive wildfires in the state’s history. Within one night, the fire destroyed much of the school’s 195-acre Upper Campus, including a science building, a library, the dining hall, and the girls’ dormitory.
A newly opened $16.5 million campus rebuild was designed to prevent this type of destruction from happening again. With simple forms that eliminate places for burning embers to catch, no combustible materials on the building exteriors, and a fire-resistant landscape, the new campus is designed to be as fireproof as possible.
The project was designed by Frederick Fisher and Partners, a Los Angeles-based architecture firm. Fisher lives in the town of Ojai, and his family was watching from the window as the flames edged closer to the campus. “We could see the Thomas Fire coming over the end of the valley and we had to leave,” he says. Most of the town was spared, “but the Upper School campus is on the periphery overlooking the valley, and it really was on the forefront of where the fire came in from the east.”
Fisher’s connections to the school were deeper than his view. He’s a parent of students there, and his firm had been working on a new masterplan for the Upper Campus, which is distinct from a separate campus several miles away housing elementary and middle-school classrooms. “The fire changed all that,” he says.
In the aftermath of the fire, Fisher’s firm and the school shifted from future planning to disaster recovery. They got some temporary buildings and sited them on the flat land of the school’s athletic fields. For a sense of privacy amid the cluster of makeshift classrooms, the temporary replacement of the girls’ dormitory was laid out in a rectangle, creating an inner courtyard.
“That became part of the design DNA of the Upper Campus,” Fisher says. “We then started with a blank slate. As much as it was a tragedy to lose the core of the campus, it was an opportunity for the campus to really reinvent itself.”
The new design features a series of courtyards and plazas, drawing on the form’s deep history in California, dating back to the missions built by the Spanish beginning in the late 1700s. They’re also intended to provide an architectural sanctuary after the trauma of the fire. “The courtyard gives you a sense of intimacy and protection,” Fisher says.
Full protection from wildfire is hard, if not impossible, to achieve in this part of the country. Though some homes have dodged destruction through unique designs—one home recently survived a fire because it was wrapped in aluminum foil—any building built in an increasingly fire-prone area is ultimately at risk.
“You could say that about almost everything in California,” says Fisher. “This is our landscape, so we have to learn to live with it in a sustainable way.” He argues that the fireproofing elements used in the rebuilt school’s flat and geometrical design represent best practices in terms of eliminating the main combustion sources in older buildings.
“There are no nooks and crannies to catch the embers, which is what happened with some of the buildings that burned,” says Fisher. Crawlspaces and eaves in the old buildings proved to be devilish hiding places for embers, offering hidden areas where fire could catch and grow without being easily seen by school officials or firefighters. The new buildings eliminate that risk with what Fisher calls “simple forms” like flat roofs and fire-resistant exterior materials like stucco and metal-framed windows. “Everything’s visible. There’s no place for the fire to hide.”
Landscape architect Pamela Burton designed the grounds of the school, creating large buffers between the campus and the surrounding natural hillsides, and using large boulders and wide patios to break up the space.
When the school reopened its doors for classes in late August, Fisher was there to drop off his sons. He’s confident that the design will help the school survive future wildfires, but knows they will come. Part of the rebuilding process involved improving the fire access road to the school, and one of its large courtyards is big enough to serve as a staging ground for fire fighters the next time a fire gets near.