Louisville makes its tougher, green building codes optional for Marshall fire victims

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Lawn furniture stands untouched next to a home in the Harper Lake area of Louisville destroyed by the Dec. 30 Marshall fire. Jan 14, 2022.

The Louisville city council voted Tuesday to give Marshall fire victims flexibility on some of Colorado's most ambitious green building codes, meeting the demands of many fire victims who said the stricter standards would increase construction costs and push them further past the limits of their insurance policies.

The decision offers some resolution after the tough standards divided the suburban community following the most destructive fire in Colorado history. The changes allow residents who lost homes to rebuild with Louisville’s less stringent 2018 standards. The 2021 requirements, approved months before the Marshall fire, remain in place for anyone else trying to build homes in the suburban city.

Superior, Colo., the other community devastated by the Marshall fire, adopted a similar plan earlier in the week.

The decision came after more than four hours of testimony stretching late into the evening. Some residents and environmental advocates pushed the council to stand firm on the codes, saying they marked a logical response to a climate-driven disaster like the Marshall fire. 

City staff also detailed a package of incentives meant to offset any additional costs due to the green building codes, including rebates from Xcel Energy and a dedicated community solar garden. Elise Jones, the director of the Boulder-based Southwest Energy Efficiency Project, said there was more help on the way from charitable donations and state legislation set to be introduced sometime in the next week. 

The reassurances weren't enough for most fire victims who attended the meeting. In tearful testimony, many said they wanted to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions but had to contend with the financial realities of rebuilding in a tight construction market. Mark Hughes, whose family lost a home to the fire, said residents shouldn't have to bear the burden of ambitious climate policies.   

"I'm not an opportunity. And I don't want to be treated like I'm an opportunity. I'm a Louisville resident and I want my home back," Hughes said. 

Louisville approved its updated building codes just eight weeks before the fire destroyed more than 1,000 homes in Boulder County, including 550 in Louisville. . The changes made Louisville the first city in Colorado to adopt the 2021 International Energy Conservation Code, a set of rules designed to make homes more energy-efficient. 

The city also added amendments requiring plugs ready for electric vehicle chargers, solar panels and all-electric appliances. A "net-zero" provision further required homes to cover their energy needs with renewable resources, like rooftop solar panels or a subscription to a community solar garden.

There was little agreement on how much those updates would add to rebuilding costs. Research from Group 14, a Denver-based engineering consulting firm contracted by the city, found the added costs to meet the upgrades would range from $12,000 to $38,000, depending on whether residents opted for electric appliances or on-site solar. Other numbers from the Colorado Energy Office and the Pacific Northwest Energy Laboratory found the 2021 codes would only cost residents about $5,000, excluding additional costs for Louisville’s add ons for electric cars and renewable energy. A separate estimate from the Home Builders Association of Metro Denver found the updated codes could add almost $100,000.

Louisville Mayor Ashley Stolzmann, a climate hawk who pushed for the 2021 code update, led the effort to assemble green building incentives for fire victims. She said further commitments were finalized just days before the meeting, including a promise for discounts on Mitsubishi electric heating equipment. 

Stolzmann was confident those incentives would cover the extra costs due to the code upgrade. She proposed giving fire victims flexibility on Louisville additions for electric car hookup and net-zero homes, but argued the 2021 International Energy Conservation Codes should stay in place.

That assessment appeared to be correct, according to Councilmember J. Caleb Dickinson. He worried the reality of the situation would not square with the perception of keeping the updated codes in place. 

"I am concerned this is totally logical, but we are still going to have the same sales-job problem of people feeling like we don't care," Dickinson said at the hearing. 

Councilmember Chris Leh said all the uncertainty around costs was reason to offer fire victims some lenience. If the tougher requirements add up a better deal due to extra incentives and energy savings, he said the city should trust people to take it. 

"We've got to respect the agency of the people we're dealing with. They don't have a lot of choices. They are so many things being dictated to them," he said.    

The meeting ended with the council unanimously directing city staff to detail plans to let fire victims rebuild to the 2018 standards. It also asked for policies to make it optional for residents to meet safety codes to protect homes from future wildfires.

It’s unclear how the changes could impact the amount of money fire victims receive from insurance companies. Many residents have "law-and-ordinance coverage" to pay the cost of code upgrades. Early in the meeting, Colorado insurance commissioner Michael Conway said he did not know what would happen if a city rolled back requirements in the wake of a disaster. 

"It's going to depend on the policy language itself. My guess is, in most cases, the law-and-ordinance coverage wouldn't be paid," Conway said. 

The council also scrapped a 2014 ordinance requiring fire sprinklers in all new homes. The city estimated the change could help residents save up to $17,000 on rebuilding costs.