Green building codes are back in the news again in Colorado.
The Denver Post has a new report updating readers on how the rebuilding process is going for Marshall fire victims in Louisville and Superior. Evidently, many homeowners are choosing to rebuild under the latest and most stringent building energy code standards that featured heavily in the public conversation after the fire.
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.
Readers may recall that those green building codes were a source of great consternation in the aftermath of the Marshall fire. The blaze destroyed more than 1000 homes in Boulder County, and homeowners already faced with inflation, supply chain woes, and the threat of underinsurance were suddenly also faced with having to rebuild under far stricter building standards than were required initially when their homes were built—which was in many cases decades ago.
The outrage was palpable and entirely warranted. The National Association of Homebuilders estimated that rebuilding under the updated codes amid inflation and supply chain problems could add more than $57,000 in cost toward the endeavor. Even the City of Louisville’s own projections estimated the added expense to fall somewhere between $20,000 and $55,000.
The city government and outside climate experts attempted to paint those eye-watering cost estimates as “misinformation,” of course. They instead offered their own study, performed by the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, which claimed that the costs would only be $4,800 for the average home new home in Colorado.
But affected residents weren’t buying it.
In response, many Marshall Fire victims mobilized against the city councils of Louisville and Superior to such an extent that both governments caved into making the codes voluntary for fire victims.
Now that the rebuilding process is officially underway, the Denver Post is perplexed that some fire victims are choosing to hew to the new green standards despite that earlier backlash.
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.
Nothing changed, of course. That line of inquiry misses the entire point of the earlier battle over the codes.
The issue was never the option of building green per se. The rub was always with the principle of individual choice being preferable to government mandates, and Louisville and Superior’s green building code ordinances fell squarely in the latter camp.
Adherence to stringent energy codes may very well be a boon to some homeowners, including for some of those looking to rebuild after the Marshall fire. But for others, it could mean being priced out of homeownership altogether.
Decisions on homebuilding should be left to rational individuals who can best evaluate tradeoffs and make the most efficient choices for their specific circumstances. This is especially true when the individuals under consideration are already facing a unique financial hardship at a time of great economic uncertainty.
As a side note, it’s worth pointing out that many of the same green code supporters in local government are still maintaining that estimates pointing to a high-cost burden for complying with the codes are misinformation. The Post piece quotes Zac Swank, the deputy director of the Boulder County Office of Sustainability, Climate Action, and Resilience, who said:
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 yet, the experience of several rebuilders profiled in the piece who are choosing to go with the heightened energy efficiency standards indicates that those early cost concerns were indeed well founded.
Take, for instance, the DeBarros family cited in the lede:
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.”
In other words, despite nearly $30,000 in both taxpayer-funded and ratepayer-funded subsidies (Xcel and the Energy Office don’t exactly offer that money from their personal coffers), and despite making sacrifices on the square footage of their original home, the DeBarros family will still have to pay extra money out of pocket to comply with the codes.
Another family cited in the piece stated that building to extra-efficient “passive home” standards will cost them 30 percent more than a similar-sized home without the extra energy-saving features.
That strikes me as a far cry from the original $4,800 estimate offered by supporters of the green building code mandates. Misinformation indeed.
The cost discrepancies provide all the more reason to allow individual choice to be the guiding principle in how homebuilders and buyers choose to design their homes. It’s fantastic that some rebuilders considered their financial means and environmental principles to decide that building green was best for them. It’s also great that other homeowners did the same and came to the opposite conclusion.
Human flourishing is maximized when the primary decision maker in these cases is a freely choosing individual rather than a distant government official.
Other Colorado homeowners should be afforded that same freedom to choose.