Two months after the Marshall fire burned through nearly 1,100 homes and structures in Boulder County, impacted residents now face the daunting task of rebuilding. 

Amid much uncertainty, many are finding hope in the prospect of building back better.

“My family and I lost our home in the Marshall fire,” said Louisville resident Susan Nedell. “[It was] an unprecedented disaster made more severe by our changing climate. But now we have the opportunity to rebuild better, more comfortably, more affordably and with zero emissions.”

Fellow Louisville resident Greg Harms agreed. 

Trish Zornio (Photo by Holly Hursley Photography)

“We plan to rebuild with a goal of constructing a net-zero energy home,” he said. “The last thing anyone needs are construction hurdles and added expense during the rebuilding process, however, I am optimistic that after rebates, incentives and discounts, we will be able to reach this goal with no, or nominal incremental expense. And the resulting reduction in utility costs will pay dividends for years to come.”

Harms’ hopes for rebates are already underway. 

Developed in partnership with local and state stakeholders, Xcel Energy recently announced new rebates for energy efficiency. The program will offer a minimum of $7,500 for rebuilds under the 2021 building codes, reaching as high as $37,500 for rebuilds with a passive solar design. 

More incentives are also expected to be announced in the coming weeks. They are likely to include opportunities for affordable solar energy, heat pumps, a new donor-assisted community fund for resilient building and even support from the state legislature.

Especially for residents seeking to make the most of limited insurance dollars, such efforts are critical to rebuilding successfully. In Louisville, residents will have no trouble accessing the rebates quickly so long as the current codes aren’t rolled back. 

Unfortunately, affected Superior residents are not currently eligible for the rebates due to town officials so far having opted to table implementation of the 2021 codes for fire victims.

This decision is being revisited in light of the new rebates at Monday night’s town meeting, and Superior residents wanting to qualify for the program should actively contact local officials in support of adopting 2021 building codes for fire victims with an opt-out option.

It’s critical to note that rebuilding with high-performance homes does more than reduce our carbon footprints. Additional benefits include improved resiliency, long-term cost reduction, increased marketability, better health and increased comfort.

Mark Attard, a certified passive house tradesperson, shared one example of how his own high performance home outperformed others in handling the secondary impacts of the wildfire. 

“One of the greatest advantages of building to a high-performance standard, is the built-in resilience and durability that comes with an airtight, well-insulated home. My home was very close to others that burned in the Marshall fires. Because of the air-sealing strategies that were employed during my energy retrofit, I had no smoke damage or even smoke smell after  the fires.”

Given the hundreds of residents still displaced due to smoke and ash, coupled with ongoing air quality issues in the region, this form of resiliency is paramount to human health and safety and overall post-disaster recovery.

Brian Fuentes, a green builder and architect who lost his home in the fire, also expressed optimism for rebuilding sustainably and resiliently without breaking the bank.

“We’ve been dedicated to building high performing, all-electric homes for over two decades. While the current labor and materials issues in the construction industry present significant challenges that we have not faced in recent history, we believe, with the right design decisions and construction knowledge, a home in Boulder County can be built today that is all-electric, zero-energy for negligible cost increase beyond the typical code minimum building.” 

In fact, it would seem that claims by traditional builders of high-performance builds being drastically more expensive simply don’t resonate with the facts. Across multiple analyses, including cost comparisons in Colorado specifically, building “a new all-electric, single-family home is less expensive than a new mixed-fuel home” over a 15-year period of study.

So where are the dramatically increased cost estimates coming from?

It appears that some builders attempt to meet the higher standards by reusing traditional building plans and modifying them after the fact, as compared to experienced high-performance builders that plan from the beginning to achieve the higher standards. This avoids the need to modify later and yields far more comparable upfront costs. 

In this light, residents seeking to rebuild sustainably may have far more options than previously realized. 

With a combination of experienced builders, extensive rebates and incentives, long-term cost reductions and increased marketability, it’s actually most likely that high-performance rebuilds will ultimately be the more economically savvy option overall. 

There is no new home that can undo the harm this disaster has caused, but together we can seize the opportunity to build back better and improve our community’s resilience in the long run. High-performance homes are one step in this process, and can open the door to energy efficiency retrofits for surrounding residents in the future.

Trish Zornio is a scientist, lecturer and writer who has worked at some of the nation’s top universities and hospitals. She’s an avid rock climber and was a 2020 candidate for the U.S. Senate in Colorado.

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Trish Zornio is a scientist, lecturer and writer who has worked at some of the nation’s top universities and hospitals. She’s an avid rock climber and was a 2020 candidate for the U.S. Senate in Colorado. Trish can be found on Twitter @trish_zornio