Majority of Marshall fire victims going green with early home rebuilds

A year ago, Audrey DeBarros led a protest outside Louisville City Hall to demand the City Council roll back mandatory green building codes for those who wanted to rebuild the homes they lost to the deadly Marshall fire.

She and the other protesters, who argued the more stringent standards would be too expensive, prevailed. Politicians listened. Building to a higher code became optional for Marshall fire victims.

Now, DeBarros is among the majority who are electing to adopt the most modern codes — a decision that will make her new house more energy efficient and reduce its carbon footprint.

What changed?

Financial incentives, a willingness to compromise and a hope for a healthier planet, she said.

“It starts to get to a point of, ‘Why not do this? It’s good for the planet,’” DeBarros said.

Just as poll watchers look at early election returns to project political races, those pushing for more energy-efficient home construction are looking at the first building permits issued to Marshall fire families and seeing a pleasing trend: The majority of homeowners are choosing to go green.

The town of Superior reported this month that 70% of the 155 building permits issued to people who lost their homes in the fire are for houses designed under the 2021 International Energy Conservation Code. The town lost 389 homes in the Dec. 30, 2021, wildfire.

About 60% of the 192 building permits issued by Louisville are following the same codes, according to a news release from Superior. The fire destroyed 550 properties in Louisville.

So far, Superior has issued four occupancy permits — meaning homes are finished and people can move in — while none have been issued in Louisville.

Both municipalities require all new home construction to be built under the 2021 codes, but waived that requirement for Marshall fire victims after they said it would be too much of a financial burden. Boulder County did not lift its requirement for the 2021 codes for properties burned in unincorporated areas of the county.

Superior town officials are pleasantly surprised by residents’ choices, said Alexis Bullen, the town’s sustainability analyst.

“It’s great for people because they’re going to have a more comfortable and efficient home,” Bullen said. “And it’s building toward the town’s climate goals.”

“Pragmatic” environmental wins

Just months before the Marshall fire swept through southeastern Boulder County and destroyed 1,084 homes valued at $2 billion, the Louisville City Council had approved an ordinance requiring all newly constructed homes to be built to the 2021 International Energy Conservation Code — meaning homes needed to meet certain standards for energy efficiency, including having a higher grade of insulation and tighter windows.

But in the wake of the fire, hundreds of families learned they were severely underinsured, and they feared that those codes would make rebuilding even more expensive, potentially making it impossible to build a new house.

In Superior, residents packed town Board of Trustees meetings, demanding the codes be rolled back. The tension got so high that Trustee Neal Shah infamously dropped an “F-bomb in the meeting because I was really frustrated with where it was going,” he recalled. “People were crying.”

Superior also granted an exemption to Marshall fire families.

At the time, people needed relief from a mandate, Shah said. The town wanted the newer green building codes in place, but people needed to be able to afford to move back.

Many of the homes that burned were built in the 1980s and 1990s, so even if those homeowners don’t choose the most recent energy efficiency codes, their new homes will be an upgrade.

“There were going to be environmental wins that were pragmatic,” Mayor Mark Lacis said. “Getting them to 2021 wasn’t going to make that huge of a change and was going to potentially cost them a lot of money and slow them down because of supply chain issues.”

DeBarros, who lives in the Centennial Heights neighborhood in Louisville, helped organize the February 2022 protest outside Louisville City Hall. The underinsurance problem was raw and the early estimates on energy-efficient home construction were enormous.

“At the time there were so many unknowns about the costs and the supply chain,” she said. “We were all in the middle of trauma and trying to get ourselves into a better place. We wanted flexibility and needed urgency to move quickly. We were very grateful they went along with that.”

But DeBarros found Diverge Homes, a local builder that designed affordable, energy-efficient homes specifically for Marshall fire families. Her family’s new home will be Diverge’s first in the neighborhood.

To afford the new energy-efficient home, the DeBarros family made some compromises.

They once had a two-story house. Their new home will be a one-story ranch home with a basement. That saved a few hundred thousand dollars, she said.

They’re also in line to receive a $17,500 rebate from Xcel Energy and a $10,000 grant from the Colorado Energy Office.

“Our ability to reduce our impact on the climate was important to us,” DeBarros said. “It doesn’t cover the full cost of going to a higher standard, but the long-term benefit is there.”

Leaders in the Marshall fire recovery put in extra work to help families rebuild to higher energy standards. They’ve created websites, hired recovery navigators and held regular meetings to explain programs that are available. They also coordinated with Xcel and the Colorado Energy Office to create those financial incentives.

“That’s a big reason we’re seeing the high-performance home rebuilding,” said Zac Swank, deputy director of the Boulder County Office of Sustainability, Climate Action and Resilience.

In the early days after the fire, the estimates for how much it would cost to build a green home were inaccurate, Swank said. A lot of misinformation was circulating and people were panicking after realizing their insurance policies would not cover the full cost to rebuild what they lost.

Once people started studying their options, they realized it was doable, Swank said.

“And we can’t ignore the homeowners who are making tough choices in a really difficult situation to choose these high-performance homes,” he said.

Swank encourages families to register with Xcel when they apply for their building permits. They can qualify for rebates without registering, but those who do will be kept up to date on building codes and rebate eligibility, he said.

“I stood at that ledge and I jumped”

For Heather Szucs, her family’s new green home in Louisville’s Cornerstone neighborhood is stretching the budget.

Their insurance policy was $400,000 short of covering new home construction, she said. As a single mother of two whose mom also lives with the family, she wasn’t sure she could afford to do it.

Her builder even advised against it, saying the expense was not worth it.

But she always dreamed of owning a home that used minimal electricity and consumed fewer resources.

“In my heart of hearts, what I really wanted to do was go green and I stood at that ledge and I jumped into 2021 going, ‘Well, I’ll figure it out,’” she said.

Her new home will have a geothermal heat pump and all-electric appliances, including an induction oven. Without the rebates and other financial incentives, she would not be able to afford those things, she said.

But Szucs realized the various rebates and grants were once-in-a-lifetime opportunities for her. It was now or never, she said.

“I felt like I couldn’t pass it up. I will figure out how to take care of the finances if I need to,” she said.

Szucs isn’t the only Marshall fire survivor doing her part to slow climate change, which is causing more destructive and expensive fires in the West, Swank said.

It’s unknown how much of a dent hundreds of energy-efficient homes will make when it comes to improving the environment. But Xcel will have data to compare the greenest homes to those built under the basic requirements and could do a study to determine how big of a difference there is between them, Swank said.

The move toward more energy-efficient homes should benefit others in Colorado, said Christine Berg, a senior policy analyst with the Colorado Energy Office.

Builders working with Marshall fire families are adding all-electric models to their portfolios that will be available to people building homes elsewhere.

“It’s changing, at least in Colorado, the knowledge and expertise that builders and contractors have,” Berg said. “They have to understand the process.”

Building passive homes

Peter Ruprecht expects to receive his building permit for what’s known as a passive home this week and workers should begin digging the foundation within days.

A passive home is airtight with thick walls, high-grade insulation and special windows and doors that don’t allow air to seep inside. Ruprecht’s house will use electric appliances and he plans to power the home through solar panels on his roof.

Passive homes are 90% more energy efficient than a typical home. And Ruprecht’s passive house will be the first to be built for Superior’s Marshall fire victims.

Ruprecht wanted to build an energy-efficient home, but in the early days was not sure he could afford it because he, too, was underinsured. The builders who advertised they could build passive homes were marketing to upper-income families who wanted prestige homes.

“That kind of thing was just way out of our budget,” he said.

But the Sagamore neighborhood had several families interested in passive houses, so they formed a consortium to figure it out. Joubert, a Denver homebuilder, is leading the construction.

Still, the $700,000 price tag is about 30% more expensive than a similar-sized home without the extra energy-saving features, Ruprecht said. Even with the incentives, the family’s insurance settlement will be short the full amount.

“But it’s the same as everyone else,” he said. “We’re all grievously underinsured and scrambling to make up the difference.”

Ruprecht believes the extra cost will be well worth it to have a more comfortable house and lower utility bills. Their old house, built in 1998, was drafty when winds blew off the foothills. In the summer, the sun bore down and made it hot.

“I hated the low efficiency of our old house,” he said. “It was so uncomfortable in the winter and then, in the summer, it would bake. I didn’t really understand what we could do about it. If there’s a silver lining to our house no longer being here, what we are going to rebuild is going to be so much more comfortable.”

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