LOUISVILLE, Colo. — Six months after Colorado’s most destructive wildfire, the scars are hard to miss in the City of Louisville, which is still in the early stages of rebuilding. Homes that didn’t stand a chance against climate change’s latest rude awakening — the Marshall Fire.
“People lost everything … People lost their pets. People lost things that are not just things, but a collection of memories that they've made over a lifetime,” said Ashely Stolzmann, the mayor of Louisville about the Marshall Fire. “You really go through all the stages of grief, and people are grieving and hurting.”
As people navigate their way through the pain and mourn the loss of entire neighborhoods, plans for the future are forming.
Passive House Incentives after the Marshall Fire
Government and private sector incentives for rebuilding to Passive House standards.
“There's also a tremendous amount of fear in the community because people are underinsured,” said Stolzmann. She said many people are finding a huge gap between what their insurance company will pay and the actual cost to rebuild. The rising cost of construction materials and labor has pushed the shortfall to as much as $100 to $200 per square foot.
The monumental task ahead of hundreds of families to rebuild after the Marshall Fire is enough to overwhelm anyone, but government agencies and private companies are asking families to move forward and rebuild better.
“It actually saves people money in the long run. So you can electrify your house, you can have clean indoor air, you can have all renewable energy powering your home. And right now, even if you were to do it without incentives and rebates, you would be better off,” Stolzmann explained.
She and others are talking about rebuilding to high-efficiency or Passive House standards, which are defined by air-tight, fully-electric, highly energy efficient buildings. As Stolzmann mentioned, there are some pretty hefty incentives available for Marshall Fire victims.
Xcel Energy is offering one-time incentives to those families who put the time and money into building more efficient homes. There is a range of standards and rebates being offered, starting at building an ENERGY STAR® Home v3.2 and receiving $10,000, as well as building a home to Passive House standards and receiving $37,500.
“The rebate will cover the entire certification costs and typically any added design and energy modeling expenses for an average budgeted home. The extra costs in upgrading the actual building is very much in the hands of the team that designs and builds it,” said Andrew Michler, a Passive House designer who is working with a number of Marshall Fire victims to rebuild to Passive House standards.
Michler helped build and design Colorado’s first certified Passive House in 2016. He is the first to tell anyone that upfront costs are comparable to building a “typical” home but people will save immediately when they move in.
“So if a mortgage is a little bit more, but the energy costs are a little bit less, you end up paying the same amount for a better, more durable product at the end of the day,” said Michler.
On top of that, Colorado lawmakers passed Senate Bill 22-206, which was directly inspired by the Marshall Fire to establish a disaster resilience rebuilding program, the sustainable rebuilding program and the office of climate preparedness. In essence, the bill provides loans and grants to homeowners, landlords, businesses, local governments and other organizations working to rebuild after a natural disaster.
“When you have something so catastrophic as the loss of over 1,000 homes in one event, there has to be a really coordinated response. I do think that this might be one of the first bills that not only addresses something like the Marshall Fire, but really is funding for future disasters,” said Christine Berg, the senior policy advisor for local government for the state energy office.
Berg is also the former mayor of Lafayette and still lives there and this disaster, like so many, hit close to home. All these months later, she said it still breaks her heart driving through the neighborhoods where homes were wiped out in a matter of hours. And that reality is why she wants people to really think about what they are building.
“Every county in the state of Colorado has had some sort of state-declared natural disaster. No one is untouched by a change in climate,” said Berg. “So it matters … how we rebuild these neighborhoods.”
Both Berg and Stolzmann told Rocky Mountain PBS there is a lot of fear and misinformation unfortunately hitting these homeowners looking to rebuild. With new building codes passed last fall in Louisville, many are worried and upset the upfront cost is too substantial.
“People are stoking those fears and inflaming them to their own end. So when I see, you know, developers or oil and gas companies or energy companies trying to leverage those fears for their financial outcome, it is disheartening,” said Stolzmann.
Berg agrees with Stolzmann and said most of the misinformation is coming from builders and architects who don’t know how to build a house to Passive House standards. That is where the trick truly comes in. Starting from the design stage to picking the right materials to putting it together in an air-tight fashion, the knowledge of building to Passive House standards isn’t that common.
However, there are more of those materials and designers out there now than 10 years ago, Michler said. He said over his career as a builder technology and materials have advanced immensely. This is why Stolzmann wants Boulder County residents to truly understand the details of rebuilding a home.
“We really need to get information out to community members so they not only know the real costs of rebuilding in a clean and green way, but they understand the technologies available, readily available, and that there are many builders and installers in our area that are doing this already,” said Stolzmann.
On top of saving on energy costs and being more environmentally friendly, homes built to Passive House standards are also much more fire resistant. The simplistic shape of the building, the triple-pane windows, the air-tightness of the building and the materials used all add to a more fire resistant home. And if a whole neighborhood could build these types of homes, a disaster like the Marshall Fire would be less likely to take out so many buildings.
“One of the major components of why neighborhoods burn is that one house that burns leads to the next house that burns, and leads to the next house that burns. So it's a domino effect,” said Michler. “So the more protected each house is from fire, the more the entire neighborhood protects itself from fire.”
So as people come together to rebuild, the message is to take time to do the research and think about the future and prevent the next Marshall Fire.
“Our community is an example for everyone to look at to see the effects of climate disasters and what climate change can do,” said Stolzmann. “We can choose to keep doing things like we've done things that put us into this mess in the first place, or we can do better and we can make life better for future generations and even for ourselves.”
Jeremy Moore is a senior multimedia journalist with Rocky Mountain PBS. You can email him at email@example.com.
This story is part of an episode of Colorado Voices which first aired June 30, which marks six months since the Marshall Fire. Colorado Voices: Building Back Better after the Marshall Fire reairs at 5 p.m. on July 3.
You can also watch the episode below.
Colorado Voices: Building Back Better After the Marshall Fire