Jeremy Duncan enjoys scrolling through apps and websites regularly to check his family’s energy consumption at his home in Basalt.
“Holy Cross shows you how much you are saving, and SolarEdge has a feature where you can look at solar panels and see which panels are used most,” Duncan said. “You can break it down by month. I like that stuff.”
In addition to checking how much energy his family of four uses, Duncan’s local utility, Holy Cross Energy, sends updates about their energy consumption along with its impact on the environment. The utility provides perspective by quantifying the CO2 emissions the family has kept from escaping into the atmosphere along with the number of trees they’ve theoretically planted.
Duncan’s house is in Basalt Vista, a 27-unit affordable housing community not far from Basalt High School. It is Colorado’s first affordable housing project in a mountain town built to produce more energy than it consumes in a year and claim the term “net-zero.”
Basalt Vista may have been the first, but it certainly won’t be the last. A handful of mountain communities recently broke ground on their own projects — Telluride and Breckenridge will complete construction this summer, and Eagle and Avon have projects in the works. For many, the new buildings will serve as a holistic solution to a complex problem, help the towns reach their climate-action goals while keeping housing truly affordable with lower utility bills.
Though the U.S. Department of Energy has an official definition for net-zero homes, there are no rules or regulations holding builders accountable to special construction guidelines. It’s also difficult to know if a home will be net-zero until residents pay utilities for a year or two.
Jake Ezratty, program manager for Habitat for Humanity Roaring Fork Valley, the organization in charge of Basalt Vista’s planning and construction, listed the characteristics that qualify the homes for the net-zero label. “Solar panels on the roofs, efficient appliances, really tight building envelope with insulation, a special heating system that uses a heat pump air source and a heat pump water heater,” he said.
Duncan feels the impact in his utility bill. He pays about $12 a month, the required minimum fee to connect to Holy Cross Energy. On a cool fall day, Duncan explained the heater has been running for three weeks, and he admits he is guilty of taking long showers. But, the price remains consistent, and it’s incredibly cheap. But it took some time to get there.
“When we moved in September, the sun angle was down so we weren’t developing a lot of credits,” Duncan said referring to the energy credits his family banks from rooftop solar. “The bill was what you’d expect without credits, a couple hundred dollars.”
Basalt Vista’s success depended on the collaboration of several local agencies and organizations. Habitat for Humanity took the lead on fundraising and construction. The Roaring Fork School district donated land behind Basalt High School for the neighborhood, and Pitkin County covered infrastructure costs. Countless other businesses and organizations contributed to ensure the project’s affordability with financial contributions and equipment donations.
Builders are often wary of net-zero construction because of the higher price tag. Ezratty estimated even with all the donations, the project was still 15% more expensive to build than a typical neighborhood.
The all-electric project also saved money by not running a natural gas line into the neighborhood. And despite slightly higher building costs, investing in renewable energy is intended to save homeowners money in the long run.
Architect Erica Golden and her team at 2757 Design Co. designed the modern duplexes and triplexes that make up Basalt Vista. The keys to the last of the 27 homes will be handed over to new owners in May. The homes were priced from $270,000 to $370,000, compared with the median Pitkin County home price of $1.3 million in February. The houses are deed restricted, meaning that they can appreciate in value only 3% per year.
The Carbondale-based firm was founded on a passion for affordable housing, and Golden said prioritizing net-zero homes in affordable housing projects is especially important.
“It has to be considered as part of that discussion,” Golden said. “If you design affordable housing, that’s great. But then if you have a crappy, inefficient heating system, and you’re spending $300 to $500 a month on utilities in the winter, that’s not going to help.”
Traditionally, deed-restricted and workforce housing projects in mountain communities were built on the cheap, with inefficient baseboard electric heat that resulted in high energy bills during cold winter months.
In addition to Basalt Vista, Golden and her team designed an upcoming project in Telluride along with a few projects currently in the planning stages in Eagle and Avon.
Climate action through smart building
The goal behind many net-zero projects can be tied to addressing each town’s climate-action goals. In Telluride, the new 30-unit Sunnyside rental complex is pushing the envelope by taking into account the carbon footprint of the entire project, from beginning to end.
“San Miguel County has been doing a pretty deep analysis of our leading contributors to climate change,” county commissioner Hilary Cooper said. “Transportation and building are some of our largest contributors in the region.”
Sunnyside received a grant from Colorado’s Department of Local Affairs to develop a carbon calculator. The calculator will track the embodied energy of construction, which includes building a road, moving dirt and mixing cement. Cooper explained the county will offset the energy costs through a direct local offset, or formal carbon offset program, to make the project carbon neutral.
“We’re hoping that this carbon calculator can inform future development that happens in the region so that we can all sort of put our heads together to determine how to offset all of the building that’s happening,” Cooper said.
The Town of Breckenridge has three net-zero affordable housing projects under construction. All three were inspired by the energy goals created by the town in 2017. Jessie Burley, the town’s sustainability and parking manager, said Breckenridge has plans to reach 100% renewable electricity by 2035 and reduce greenhouse gas emissions 80% by 2030.
The affordable projects, Alta Verde and Block 11, and the newly proposed Alta Verde II, will provide hundreds of rental units powered by onsite solar systems. Constructing these homes in a mountain community presented some challenges.
“Breckenridge is obviously in an alpine environment,” Burley said. “So we had to calculate the snow load and the fact that these solar panels might not be fully productive throughout the year.”
The solar panels bank energy through a process called net metering, which allows energy to be offset throughout the year regardless of the weather. Homes send more energy to the grid during sunny summer months that allows them to draw the excess energy in the winter when solar panels might be covered with snow.
Historic districts can present challenges for net-zero housing
Dodson Harper is a principal engineer at Resource Engineering Group in Crested Butte. REG works on a wide variety of projects, but its main focus is on projects that have high efficiency or sustainability goals. REG was hired to conduct energy modeling on the projects in Basalt, Telluride and Block 11 in Breckenridge to forecast the energy needed to power the homes.
“We helped do the energy modeling to determine how much energy those buildings would need,” Harper said. “And then helped design the systems to offset that energy.”
Overall, the projects have been successful and well-received, but he said constructing all-electric homes with onsite renewable energy has its challenges. For one, the projects cost more.
“If it didn’t cost more, everybody would do it,” Harper said.
Other barriers include the limitations of building within historic districts. Up until about 15 years ago, many historic districts did not allow solar panels on roofs.
There are practical barriers to both active and passive solar energy. In Crested Butte, for example, the direction of the town street grid makes it difficult to build homes with passive solar, the free energy from the sun that is essential to warming most net-zero homes in winter. Houses in Crested Butte’s historic district face north and south and most windows that would capture the warming rays face east and west.
Despite the limitations, the town of Crested Butte is working to create energy-efficient homes. When the town posted a request for proposals for the Sixth and Butte complex, likely the last affordable housing project within town limits, it referenced the city’s new green building codes, created with the help of REG.
The new building codes will use an alternative to net zero: Home Energy Rating System, or HERS. HERS is a nationally recognized system that provides a more structured approach to energy-efficient building. The town will require the new homes at Sixth and Butte to have a HERS rating of 50, meaning the homes will be 50% more efficient than a standard new home.
“We wanted to do whatever we could to keep these as green as possible and balance keeping them affordable,” said Mel Yemma, long-range planner for the town of Crested Butte.
Yemma said the town will contribute $800,000 to help the project achieve green building standards, and they are also applying for funds through DOLA’s new affordable housing stimulus program. Like Cooper of Telluride, Yemma said the town hopes this project will help establish strategies to create green building standards for all future buildings.
“Our new 2021 building codes focus on including climate-action goals and strategies to take a hard look at green building standards for all buildings in the town,” Yemma said. “It’s a way to test waters with builders.”
The final units in Basalt Vista are still under construction, but every home will be occupied by May. Habitat for Humanity is pushing forward with its next net-zero project, 20 new homes in Rifle, 50 miles to the west.
Gail Schwartz is the president of Habitat for Humanity. She’s worked in affordable housing for 40 years, and she believes net-zero building is the future for affordable housing projects in mountain communities.
“It’s true affordability when you can control the cost,” Schwartz said. “The sun is the same price as it will be in 100 years.”