Marshall fire survivors say Louisvilles net-zero building codes will make recovery too expensive

The conflict between lofty environmental goals and economic reality is at a boiling point in Louisville, where Marshall fire survivors will be required to rebuild their homes with solar panels, electric vehicle charging stations and other green amenities as part of the city’s plan to be one of the most progressive, eco-friendly municipalities in Colorado.

Louisville’s goal is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, which cause global warming and increase the risk of destructive wildfires such as the Marshall fire, which destroyed more than 1,000 homes and killed two people in Boulder County on Dec. 30; 550 of those homes were lost in Louisville.

But residents looking to rebuild during a time of unprecedented new construction costs say the recently adopted green building codes — while a noble ideal — will price them out of the city. And they want the City Council to roll back the requirements for wildfire survivors.

“We’re looking for relief from our elected officials,” Louisville homeowner Rex Hickman said. “Not for them to be the shining city on the hill in terms of progress, but to help us rebuild. Sticking with the codes is not helpful.”

The Louisville City Council is now trying to find a way to keep the city’s progressive green building codes in place as homeowners work to start rebuilding, even as more than 300 people attended a Sunday protest and continue to blast council members’ voicemails and inboxes with their concerns.

On Tuesday night, the council will present a range of options that city leaders hope will allow residents to rebuild under the new codes without suffering more financial damage. Those options include a discounted subscription to a solar farm along with rebates from Xcel Energy to increase the energy efficiency in new homes.

The city has been working with the Colorado Energy Office as well as the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project and the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory to figure out realistic cost estimates and find solutions for residents who lost everything in the wildfire.

“Louisville was the first in the state to pass these energy codes and we feel like it’s a really great opportunity to build back the best and most affordable homes,” said Christine Berg, senior policy adviser for local government at the Colorado Energy Office. “We want folks who’ve been through this very traumatic event to be supported. We don’t want this to feel like a burden. We want it to feel like an opportunity.”

“Piling on cost to make it unaffordable”

For now, though, residents like Hickman remain opposed even after reading through a 662-page report on the new building codes that Louisville released Friday evening.

The Hickmans moved into their home on West Mulberry Street in 1999, and it represented a lifetime of hard work, family and hobbies. When the Marshall fire burned it to the ground, the Hickmans lost all the photos they had of their parents and children, along with a baby grand piano and 400 bottles of wine that they’d spent years collecting.

The 3,200-square-foot home featured an addition that looked like a Colorado ski lodge with wood trim, huge windows and a wood-burning stove.

“We loved to invite the neighbors over for a glass of wine and we loved to sit in that room with the fire,” Barba Hickman said. “But we won’t be able to afford that if we follow those codes.”

The green building codes, adopted in late October, attempt to make new homes constructed in Louisville have a net-zero carbon footprint, meaning the elimination of as much greenhouse gas emissions as the house produces.

Homebuilders could achieve that with high-efficiency appliances, windows, insulation and siding, which cost a premium. The codes also required Louisville residents to install solar panels or buy into a solar farm to negate their carbon footprint when building a new home.

Additionally, Louisville has a requirement for all newly built homes to include a sprinkler system — another costly amenity.

Already, hundreds of homeowners say they are underinsured and will be hundreds of thousands of dollars short to rebuild their homes. The expense of solar energy and building to such high standards will add to that burden, Rex Hickman said.

“We were hooked into the idea that climate change was real and we needed to do what we could to combat it,” he said. “A high ideal meets reality and to take it to that degree is piling on cost to make it unaffordable.”

The Hickmans want Louisville to allow Marshall fire survivors to rebuild at 2018 energy efficiency standards, which would be an upgrade for hundreds of homes built in the 1980s and 1990s. The city would then keep the 2021 standards for any new construction not associated with fire recovery.

They point to the neighboring town of Superior, where that town council already said it was going to be as flexible as possible with its building codes. Superior, though, has not adopted the stringent green building codes.

Support system for homeowners

So far, estimating how much the new energy efficiency requirements will cost Louisville residents is up for debate.

The Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, which is managed by the U.S. Department of Energy, performed a cost analysis on the city’s 2021 green building standards, Berg said. That analysis found that the financial difference between building to the 2021 codes versus the 2018 codes was $4,789, even when adjusting for 19% inflation, she said.

But the Hickmans said estimates they are receiving from builders are much higher.

Audrey DeBarros, who also lives on West Mulberry Street, said she attended a homebuilders expo over the weekend and saw estimates as high as $98,000 to cover what will need to be added to the cost of construction to meet the new regulations.

“We are hearing different numbers from builders,” DeBarros said. “These codes are extremely innovative so no one agrees on what it would actually cost.”

Louisville Mayor Ashley Stolzmann said the council heard residents’ concerns and asked city staffers to research preliminary costs. She also asked for help in finding grants, rebates, discounts and private donations to help residents. All of that information will be presented during Tuesday night’s council meeting.

The City Council could maintain the new codes, modify them or repeal them. It’s unclear whether the council will make a decision on Tuesday, but residents are pushing for urgency so they know what to expect when making rebuilding plans.

“We need to have that information to be able to have a good debate,” Stolzmann said.

Berg believes Louisville residents will be able to afford the new building codes after piecing together insurance coverage with the other programs that are in the works. Insurance policies include coverage for building code upgrades, but those policies may not cover the full cost.

“We are creating a whole support system for homeowners to work through,” she said.

On Monday, SunShare, a Denver-based solar company, announced plans to build a solar farm that Louisville residents can subscribe to instead of putting solar panels on their roofs. Subscribers would receive credits from Xcel and then would pay that amount toward their SunShare subscription, CEO David Amster-Olszewski said.

The company will contribute $100,000 toward Marshall fire survivors’ bills, and a Superior resident who lost his home in the fire, Marcel Arsenault, will donate up to $100,000 toward the project, Amster-Olszewski said. The company is also working with the Boulder Community Foundation to find donors to help residents pay for solar energy.

“We are trying to show them that this is one piece of the puzzle to help reduce green building costs,” he said. “Hopefully, this gives people some certainty and some consolation.”

“This is the time to be bold”

Susan Nedell still thinks about the 12 bags of peaches she had frozen after the tree in the front yard of her Louisville home produced a bumper crop in 2021. Those bags would have made one peach pie per month for the year, but the peaches, the freezer and everything else were lost when her home in the Enclave neighborhood burned to the ground.

A tile specialist was coming to their home on Dec. 30 to finish the backsplash in a bathroom — the last piece of a remodeling project that they had hoped would carry them through their final years of working life and into retirement.

“We told them, ‘We’re all evacuating, but hey, come back tomorrow,’” she said.

Nedell said she is as heartbroken as everyone else when she thinks about her losses. She also worries that she doesn’t have enough insurance to build back what the family once had.

Still, she hopes the Louisville City Council sticks to its 2021 green building codes.

“This is not the time to be scared and shrink,” Nedell said. “This is the time to be bold and look at how we can build back more energy-efficient. It’s time to be an example.”

Nedell said there is a lot of misinformation floating around the community about the costs associated with the green building codes. She believes the rebates, solar support, equipment discounts and private donations will favor the fire survivors.

Building to such high environmental standards will protect homes from future fires as Louisville does its part to reduce global warming, she said. The fire happened after the Front Range went months without measurable rain or snow. The dry grasses in the surrounding open space were prime fuel for a fire and the intensity was fueled by powerful winds.

“These extremes in temperature, these swings, this is all due to our changing climate,” Nedell said. “We need to stop pouring greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Our homes are a huge contributor to it. “This is what our neighborhood, Louisville, can do to solve this problem that is threatening our families, our children, our children’s children.”

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