'Green' building codes boost costs for Colorado fire victims

Some homeowners recovering from a devastating wildfire near Denver late last year say they could have to pay much more to rebuild because of environmentally sustainable construction standards passed shortly before the blaze

ByTHOMAS PEIPERT Associated Press
March 01, 2022, 2:19 PM
FILE - Rex Hickman sifts through the rubble of his burned home in Louisville, Colo., Sunday, Jan. 2, 2022. Some homeowners recovering from Colorado's most destructive wildfire in history, which decimated entire neighborhoods near Denver late last yea
FILE - Rex Hickman sifts through the rubble of his burned home in Louisville, Colo., Sunday, Jan. 2, 2022. Some homeowners recovering from Colorado's most destructive wildfire in history, which decimated entire neighborhoods near Denver late last year, say they could end up paying tens of thousands of dollars more to rebuild because of environmentally sustainable construction standards passed shortly before the blaze. (AP Photo/Thomas Peipert, File)
The Associated Press

DENVER -- Some homeowners recovering from Colorado's most destructive wildfire in history, which decimated entire neighborhoods near Denver late last year, say they could end up paying tens of thousands of dollars more to rebuild because of environmentally sustainable construction standards passed shortly before the blaze.

Now they want the Louisville City Council to waive the more-stringent codes — adopted in October to reduce carbon emissions and combat climate change — for residents whose homes were destroyed in the Dec. 30 wildfire.

The blaze driven by winds topping 100 mph (161 kph) ripped through the area, destroying 1,084 homes, including 550 in Louisville, and causing more than half a billion dollars in damage.

A group of more than 100 residents opposed to the codes rallied outside Louisville City Hall on Sunday, and the City Council could discuss the situation Tuesday.

Rex and Barba Hickman, whose four-bedroom, three-bathroom home was reduced to ash and rubble, said that while the new building codes are well-intentioned, homeowners affected by the fire should be exempt, and the city should also consider waiving permitting costs.

“It’s a confluence of challenges just exacerbated by the city,” said Rex Hickman, a retired financial adviser who bought the 3,200-square-foot (297-square-meter) home with Barba in 1999 for $298,000.

Louisville Mayor Ashley Stolzmann, who spearheaded the effort to update the building codes, said she thinks the change is “fantastic," but a "whole range of options is on the table," including possible incentives and rebates to reduce the cost of rebuilding.

“I understand that in this circumstance, it’s putting a lot of pressure on families,” she said. “But the biggest sources of carbon emission in our state are from buildings and from transportation, and we are in a climate crisis.”

A consultant hired by the city calculated it would cost a minimum of about $20,000 under the new standards to rebuild a 2,820-square-foot (262-square-meter) home, the average size lost in the blaze.

Yet the Home Builders Association of Metro Denver emailed a letter to several groups Friday — including fire victims, insurers, real estate agents and builders — saying it would cost at least an additional $77,000 to build a 2,200-square-foot (204-square-meter) home under the new codes.

Rex Hickman said he has spoken with several builders who estimated it would cost up to $100,000 more to rebuild his home at a total price tag of just over $1 million, partly because of a severe labor shortage, the increased cost of materials and supply chain shortages brought on by the pandemic. The couple’s insurance, he said, is only expected to cover $700,000.

Stolzmann stood by the consultant’s study, saying it included a detailed breakdown of the cost assumptions from local builders.

“Each other estimate I have seen is a general ballpark and has not been supported by any detail,” said Stolzmann, who invited residents who receive overly costly bids to forward them to her office for review.

The updated rules, known as the 2021 International Energy Conservation Code, require newly constructed homes to have electric vehicle charging infrastructure, to be built with better energy efficiency and with all-electric systems and appliances or to be easily upgraded from natural gas to electric systems.

Residential construction also will have to meet a net-zero carbon emission standard, and homeowners must buy offsetting credits from community solar gardens if they can’t meet that goal.

Jurisdictions across the country have adopted the new codes, which are being considered by several western U.S. states and cities, said Ryan Colker, vice president of innovation at the International Code Council, which writes the rules.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, the new codes provide a 51% reduction in energy use compared to the predominate energy codes in the early 1990s, when most of the homes destroyed in the fire were built.

But Rex Hickman described the code as being "adopted into a virtual vacuum” by city leaders who thought it would only apply to the relatively small number of people moving into Louisville to build, not knowing that hundreds of residents would soon be without homes.

The Hickmans, who would have to draw from retirement funds to rebuild or consider leaving the area, pointed out that the neighboring town of Superior, where 378 homes were destroyed, has exempted its residents from stricter building codes.

Superior's town board unanimously adopted the 2021 building codes at a meeting Monday night but allowed those who lost homes in the fire to opt out if they rebuild, following the building code in place at the time of the fire instead, Mayor Clint Folsom said.

The board also backed giving fire victims a rebate on the town's sales tax on their building materials and part of their building permit fee, Folsom said.

“We want to remove as much uncertainty and potential cost from the rebuild process,” he said. “We realize what a stressful situation people are under with the potential for the underinsurance gap that a lot of people are facing, not having enough money to rebuild. And if this can help them bridge that gap, we want to do so.”

Marci Sannes, whose Louisville home was destroyed, said she hopes the city follows Superior's lead for that very reason.

“I keep reading these things online about how it would be such a missed opportunity for the city if we rebuilt the old way and didn’t take this opportunity to be more green. And it’s so frustrating to me because it’s not an opportunity, it’s just people trying to go home,” she said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a green community if all of our families move away.”

Sannes, who bought her home 20 years ago for about $360,000, said she expects to pay at least $75,000 extra to rebuild under the new standards at a total cost of about $1 million. Her insurance company, she said, will only pay about $600,000 of that, leaving her with the choice of selling the charred lot, building a smaller home or building back to the same size and ballooning her debt.

“For (the City Council) to keep at it now, seeing the impact on people, it just shocks me that we're having the conversation about it. That they didn’t instantly say, ‘Our priority is having our families in Louisville rebuild and come back home,’” she said.

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