As Marshall Fire Victims Rebuild, Louisville’s New Green Building Codes Raise Costs and Raise Tensions Over Local Climate Rules
An estimate prepared for the city later revealed that the regulations could add at least $20,000 to the cost of rebuilding an average house destroyed by fire. If the new standard adds a burden, Loo said city leaders should let fire victims rebuild under the previous version.
“It’s politics on the backs of people who have lost everything,” she said. “I just can’t understand that.”
The growing tensions highlight what happens when local climate politics collides with the daily impacts of climate catastrophe.
For some fire victims, Louisville’s new climate-conscious building codes are a chance for progressive neighbors to rebuild into a model sustainable community. Other families displaced by the Marshall fire fear those ambitions will mean more debt and longer stays in someone else’s basement.
Louisville, home to 20,000 people, is a coal mining town turned neighboring suburb of Boulder, where many residents commute to work for government or conduct some of the world’s leading climate research. Local voters elected a sustainability-minded majority to its city council in 2019.
Mayor Ashley Stolzmann, who won her current position in the same election cycle, spearheaded the promotion of new building codes last year. The final standards represent some of the most ambitious local efforts to reduce the climate effects of new buildings anywhere in Colorado.
Although she wishes the codes had gone further, Stolzmann said they are an example of how a local community can begin to treat climate change as a public health crisis. From his perspective, building regulations are similar to building codes designed to help prevent the next wildfire from spreading through the community, something else the council is considering in the wake of the disaster.
“That’s what building codes are basically for. It’s to keep your house from impacting your neighbor’s house. These energy codes are no different than that,” she said. . “Climate change is a matter of immediate public concern.”
The updates moved Louisville to the 2021 International Energy Conservation Code, which sets standards for home heating systems and insulation. The US Department of Energy estimates the standards reduce the average energy consumption of a home by approximately 9% compared to the 2018 standards.
Additionally, Louisville now requires new homes to accommodate a shift from fossil fuels to an all-electric future. Garages should have sockets ready for electric vehicle chargers and kitchens should have wiring for modern electric stoves.
One of the most ambitious elements of the new standards is the city’s net zero energy requirement.
Once a newly built home passes rigorous efficiency testing, the city requires homeowners to meet the rest of their energy needs through an on-site solar system. Alternatively, they can purchase another renewable energy project, such as a community solar garden, for a period of 15 years.
Stolzmann agrees that asking residents affected by the Marshall Fire to cover the cost of complying with the new code updates isn’t fair. She said city staff are currently working with a range of organizations — including Xcel Energy, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and appliance manufacturers — to put in place a series of incentives and rebates for cover additional costs.
Governor Jared Polis also wrote a public letter to residents promising he would help introduce legislation to fund a “sustainable and resilient recovery for your community and others in the future”. Will Toor, the director of the Colorado Energy Office, also thinks the city overestimated the costs of complying with the new codes and said its staff was preparing its own analysis.
Stolzmann said she was confident the city would come up with some kind of package to help owners offset the extra costs, whatever the total.
At a recent city council meeting, some fire victims applauded these efforts and asked local leaders not to budge from the new norms. Others weren’t convinced that any additional financial aid promised by city and state leaders would be enough to cover the full price of the upgrades.
Christian Dino, a Louisville architect and co-owner of a local construction company, first opposed the new code as a member of the city’s building code appeals board. After losing his home in the Marshall Fire, he fears updated codes will lead to many underinsured families finding new homes elsewhere.
“Code like this was written for the half-dozen houses built in a year,” he said. “Not for hundreds of Louisville residents who are currently homeless.”
Mayor Stolzmann said the city council has asked staff members to prepare additional financial aid information. She expects to have more answers for residents early next month.
Loo, the former city councilor, is also skeptical that financial aid will arrive quickly enough to make a difference. She said many fire victims are in a rush to start rebuilding due to inflation and insurance policies, which often only pay living expenses for a limited time. If the town leaders intend to offer help, she would like to see them as soon as possible.
“It’s kind of like the Tom Cruise movie. If the money is there, show me the money, because I can’t see it,” she said.