By October, a number of new houses and townhomes are expected to sprout up seemingly overnight on a piece of land in north Pueblo.
These are not ordinary homes, but eco-friendly spaces that would come with zero-energy ready home certification from the U.S. Department of Energy. With walls built in a factory, construction could be completed in a matter of days instead of months. If homeowners add solar photovoltaic panels, the houses would be nearly electric-bill free.
“The only difference between zero energy ready and net zero is the addition of PV panels on the roof,” said Rod Stambaugh, founder of Sprout Tech Homes, formerly Sprout Tiny Homes, which built small houses on wheels for an affordable housing project in Aspen in 2017.
With the solar panels, “you can literally have a zero energy bill,” he said. “The only thing you have to pay for is your monthly access fee to the electric grid which is, in this case, Black Hills Energy. It’s like $9 a month or something like that.”
Stambaugh has for years had big aspirations for changing the form and function of infill neighborhoods — not always successfully. But if this deal gets done, it could be one of the largest communities of net-zero homes in Colorado. Most communities are just a few houses, like the 28-home Geos neighborhood in Arvada.
Sprout’s plans are much grander with up to 300 homes and townhouses eventually. They would be just a small part of the larger North Vista Highlands master planned community that could bring thousands of houses and apartments to the area. The plans for nearly 5,000 homes were approved by Pueblo City Council back in March 2009.
The city’s Planning and Zoning commission approved the latest plans for the larger project earlier this month, even as some area residents expressed concerns about the density and potential of diminishing property values because of “less-expensive homes,” The Pueblo Chieftain reported.
But that may be because the bulk of the project is no longer going to be a net-zero housing project beyond what Sprout is planning, said land developer David Resnick, who three years ago counted on North Vista Highlands having double the number of zero-energy ready homes.
“At that time I was so certain the homebuilders would embrace zero-ready construction but they have not,” Resnick said. “Unfortunately, the entire community will no longer be zero-energy ready, and some builders will build to zero-energy standards and some will not.”
The land, just north of the Walking Stick Golf Course and Colorado State University Pueblo, was approved years ago to someday hold nearly 5,000 homes. Changes made recently retain that vision, though with less water-intensive landscaping. Based on progress toward getting infrastructure and roads in, the first housing permits can start, though the city’s planning department hasn’t received any yet, said Beritt Odom, principal planner for Pueblo.
“There’s such a housing crisis here,” Odom said.
Odom said the eastern part of the project, or Planning Area 4, will be where the first houses will be built. There are 162 lots for a mix of single family homes and townhomes, plus 43,000-square feet of retail with apartments above. There will also be 4.6 acres of parks.
Stambaugh isn’t a newcomer to building houses. But his background has been more diminutive. He started the company that in 2016 built a handful of tiny houses of about 500-square-feet each for workers of Aspen Skiing Co.
“The project has been a big success and well received by both our employees and the community as a whole,” Philip Jeffreys, project manager at Aspen Snowmass said. “They are full on an annual basis and we are very happy with the project.”
But Stambaugh also has a history of promoting projects to build tiny communities that never came to be.
“They got all the approvals they needed,” she said, “but they never got built. They sold the property and now it’s being developed into an RV park.”
Stambaugh also backed out of a plan to build 33 tiny homes on an abandoned football field in Walsenburg, which he touted in 2015 as the world’s first community of tiny homes. The town was one of the first in the country to adjust its regulations to allow for such small homes.
“He bought that property and we changed the zoning and set it all up and he then ran into some problems and he just dropped it,” said Jim Eccher, who was mayor of Walsenburg when Stambaugh sketched plans for a 33-unit tiny home community in the town. “He had a good plan. I think he saw bigger dollar signs in Salida and he put us on the backburner.”
Stambaugh said that he ended up selling the Salida project to another developer because some leadership changes in the town changed some of the rules and that complicated the project, such as requiring he further negotiate for right of ways for the sewer line.
“We spent a lot of time and money on it, but it got more and more complicated as the internal stuff with the city of Salida was going on,” he said.
He doesn’t believe the Pueblo project will run into the same issues because the land has been developed. The streets are mostly complete and the project is fully funded, he said. These also are not tiny houses.
Sprout has relied on loans and equity financing since its inception in 2015. At the end of June, the company reported $19.6 million in debt with $224 cash on hand, warning investors in its latest financial statement filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission it was dependent on raising additional capital to fund operations and pay its debts.
Last week, Sprout Tech announced it acquired Legacy Homes of Pueblo and formed Pure Zero Construction to handle the project. The company is also finalizing a deal to acquire a structural insulated panel manufacturer so walls can be built faster off site and transported to the property to speed up construction.
And Stambaug said he isn’t stopping at zero. The homes are designed to be healthier too, and would include energy efficient ductless HVAC systems (because ducts can attract mold) and be built with nontoxic materials for better indoor air quality.
“We’re going to build and stay true to what we’ve done in the past and that is building nontoxic, chemical free interiors,” he said. “There are no particle board cabinet boxes. They’re all plywood. Real wood cabinet boxes so nothing in the interior of the home will be toxic.”
Single-family homes would range from 1,800 to 2,600 square feet, while the town homes would be two-story, two-to-four bedrooms with a two-car garage and, “likely net-zero,” with solar panels built in, he said. Prices are expected to be $400,000 to $575,000.
The company’s been working with a developer partner who is funding the project and working on attracting interest. No homes are under contract yet, but Stambugh believes that will come as the walls start going vertical.
“People have been waiting for quite some time and they’re very excited to see that this is not your traditional site built, stick-built tract home development that you would see in Denver or anywhere else,” he said. “We believe once the vertical construction starts, it won’t be long before all the homes are committed.”
Colorado Sun reporter Jason Blevins contributed to this story.