When Burning Down Your Home Is a Win-Win for Everyone

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By Richard Taylor

It was late in the day when it finally happened. A puff of smoke appeared just over the rooftop at the far right side of the house, then another appeared, near the chimney.

Within moments smoke was pouring from the entire roof and flickers of orange flame began appearing in the windows.

A cheer went up from the assembled crowd as the flames grew; soon the roof weakened and began to collapse. A dozen firefighters stood by, cheering along with the crowd.

Huh?

Usually, a home burning to the ground is a tragedy, a disaster, a crime -- or all three. This, however, was a welcomed event that would benefit the homeowners, the fire department, and dozens of families we'd never meet.

What?

OK, maybe a little background is needed here.

Why burn a house down?

The derelict home my clients had purchased wasn't worth much; in fact the only real value was in the property, a sloping lot with several large trees, located in a quiet Midwestern college town.

This was the site they'd chosen for their dream home. Problem was, there was already a house there.

Whenever possible, existing homes should be remodeled, renovated, reused. After all, reusing an existing home is the height of sustainability. But this little home was too far gone from years of neglect -- it wasn't worth saving.

But that didn't mean it couldn't serve a higher purpose (or two).

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Controlled Home-Burnings
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The owners first contacted the local Habitat For Humanity "ReStore," a discount home improvement store that re-sells new and reusable home improvement building materials. Habitat's volunteers came to the house and picked up cabinets, appliances, doors, windows, hardware, and anything else they could salvage and resell.

Habitat uses the funds from reselling these salvaged items to advance their mission of eliminating substandard housing and creating homeownership.

That's a great way to make use of perfectly good building materials that otherwise might have ended up in a landfill -- and that the owners would have had to pay to haul away and that would have been a benefit to no one.

The next call was to the local fire department, to let them know they were planning on burning the house down. Obviously, they were thrilled! No really, they were -- because the owners offered the house for a training burn. A training burn is a controlled burn, giving the firemen a chance to practice firefighting techniques in a real world scenario.

The fire department arrived after Habitat had taken away everything useful. They put wood pallets and hay bales in each room and burned them one at a time. The exercise lasted all day; they'd burn, put out the fire, and burn again.

They'd invited all the neighbors, who came with lawn chairs and blankets. It was almost like a Fourth of July picnic, only with bigger, hotter fireworks.

It was fascinating to watch the burn – and a sobering reminder of the dangers that firefighters face in service to the community. We were all kept about a hundred feet from the house but even at that distance, the heat from the fire was incredible.


After a full day of training, it was time to burn the house for real. The fire department set one more strategically located fire and let it runs its course. A backhoe stood by and used its bucket to push the house in on itself as it burned, keeping the burning debris within the home's foundation walls.

When the fire ended, little was left but the foundation walls and ashes, saving the owners the cost of demolishing the house and hauling the debris to a landfill.

Before long, a new home rose where the old one had stood, and a new family moved into the neighborhood.

Somewhere, miles away, someone bought some building materials from Habitat For Humanity and helped put many more families into homes they thought they'd never have.

Not every house is a good candidate for a training burn; fire departments are picky about the ones they choose. And of course a house that can be renovated should be. But when it makes sense to burn a house down, the benefits spread throughout your community in ways you might not imagine and may never know about.

And it's a great way to get to know your neighbors:

"Honey, these are the Smiths. They just moved in and they've invited us to their "house-warming" next week!"


VIDEO: Below, watch a controlled burn in Hudson, Wis., during fire department training exercise. About 35 firefighters and rescue personnel took part in the interior fire suppression, and search and rescue training. Video credit: AOL PATCH





Read more on Zillow:
Tips for Fire Safety in Your Home
How to Figure the Value of Empty Building Lots
Beware of Value-Killing Renovations

Richard Taylor is a residential architect based in Dublin, Ohio and is a contributor to Zillow Blog. Connect with him at http://www.rtastudio.com/index.htm.

Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of Zillow.

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Quirky Home Conversions
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For all the house porn addicts, mind-blowing price tags, tens of thousands of square feet and double staircases are enough to satisfy their cravings for residential eye candy. At some point, however, those staples of grandeur might lose their luster. And if that sad day does arrive, they'll be left wondering what went wrong. 

But house oglers shouldn't despair: As it turns out, there's a whole other world of rich, eye-pleasing properties that can rekindle the magic: conversions. And we're not just referring to your regular old office-to-co-op conversions -- we're talking much bigger stuff -- missile silos, nuclear plants, churches, to name a few.

Click through our gallery to see some of the most offbeat, quirky conversions around. 

Location: Saranac, N.Y.
Price: $750,000
Beds/Baths: 4/4
Sq. Ft.: 3,100

Don't be fooled by the conventional exterior, this mountain retreat is actually a converted missile launching pad. The main lodge sits atop a 2,300-square-foot silo that's been transformed into a cavernous, luxury living space. 

See a full slideshow of the home, or see the listing

Formerly a Cold War launchpad, the home features a 125-foot stairwell that leads down to two master suites encased in concrete. 

See a full slideshow of the home, or see the listing

Amenities include a state-of-the-art kitchen, spacious dining room and Jacuzzis. The home's entertainment center is in a funnel-shaped pillar that used to serve as the missile pad's control center. 

See a full slideshow of the home, or see the listing

This conversion may not be a home, but we're making an exception because, come on -- how can you give the short shrift to an amusement park that's been constructed out of a nuclear plant? Giving a 1 million pound reactor quite the makeover, Wunderland theme park is in Kalkar, Germany, and features hotel rooms, bars, amusement park rides and restaurants. 

Learn more about this totally rad conversion

One highlight of the reactor's Disney-like offerings is its wing ride. The ride whirls passengers around the inside of the retired power plant's cooling tower. 

Learn more about this totally rad conversion

Touted as the world's most sophisticated nuclear plant, construction on the reactor began in 1972. But Chernobyl was a huge buzz, and prompted public outcry noisy enough to halt its construction. It sat dormant until a Dutch businessman snatched it up and transformed it into an entertainment complex that sees 600,000 visitors a year. 

Learn more about this totally rad conversion

Location: Chicago, Ill. 
Price: $600,000
Beds/Baths: 3/N/A
Sq. Ft.: 4,000

Do you heap hymns onto the karaoke queue? Are you a sucker for Sunday double-headers?
Do you use the words "gosh" and "heck" a lot? 

If you answered yes to all those questions, then this could be your ticket to paradise. Formerly a Lutheran cathedral, this church is now a sprawling home. 

See HuffPost's full slideshow on the place

From the outside, the home still looks like a church. But inside is a different story. Among other touches, the interior boasts double-oak staircases and ceilings that stretch 40 feet high. 

See HuffPost's full slideshow on the place

The home's first floor has three bedrooms and a "bamboo-appointed" bathroom, HuffPost writes. The second floor, overlooking the space's sweeping hardwood floors, has the property's leftover pulpit. 

See HuffPost's full slideshow on the place

The home has also held onto its two-story bell tower. Just be careful not to get trigger happy with the ding-donging. 

See HuffPost's full slideshow on the place

Location: Savannah, Ga. 
Price: $3.35 million
Beds/Baths: 3/4
Sq. Ft.: 4,504

Built in 1892, this home was the "Ships of the Sea Museum" until it underwent a full-blown makeover that transformed it into a luxury home. The home offers stunning views through floor-to-ceiling glass windows. 

See the listing for more details

The home has an elevator that lifts you up through three stories brimming with "custom finishes and fine craftsmanship," according to the listing. You can also use the home's winding glass staircase if you want a little exercise. 

See the listing for more details

The home features an iron balcony, where you can see some jaw-dropping views.

See the listing for more details

The home's third-floor terrace has a circular glass dome and two levels with a gas grill and potting shed.

See the listing for more details

How about that! Apparently, a residence in Soest, Utrecht, Netherlands rests inside the sturdy shell of a what used to be a water tower. By the looks of a blueprint of the tower we found on TreeHugger.com, the structure has 7 floors. 

Get more details from TreeHugger.com.

A winding staircase leads visitors up the stark, cylindrical interior. 

Get more details from TreeHugger.com
.

You don't to have travel to the water tower's top to slake your thirst: There's a tap in the kitchen. 

Get more details from TreeHugger.com
.

Location: Tampa, Fla. 
Price: $1.35 million
Beds/Baths: 1/1
Sq. Ft.: 5,200

Stop, drop and roll! This home is a former firehouse built in 1911. Behind its staid, brick exterior awaits a glamorous interior with fine finishes and exquisite detail. 

See the listing for more details

The home has an elevator, the listing says, but there's no mention of a fire pole. The second floor is basically just one sprawling penthouse. There's a "secluded" courtyard outside.

See the listing for more details

The alternative dwelling is perfect for your well-heeled car buff: Its garage can, of course, house a few firetrucks -- or 12 cars.  

See the listing for more details

Location: Carmel Valley, Calif. 
Price: $2.95 million
Beds/Baths: 3/1
Sq. Ft.: 21,718

With Armageddon just around the corner (according to the Mayans), house hunters may want to start thinking about how to ride out all that impending fire and brimstone. This converted 10-story satellite dish built to withstand a five-megaton nuclear hit is one option

See a full slideshow of the home

NASA constructed the Jamesburg Earth Station in 1968 to receive transmissions from the Apollo moon landings, the Los Angeles Times reports. The property offers 160 acres along with a 20,000-square-foot residential carapace with three bedrooms and a helipad. 

See a full slideshow of the home

Sheltered from the winds and equipped with its own self-contained air system, the Jamesburg Earth Station is "a great place for Armegeddon," owner Jeffrey Bullis told the L.A. Times

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