This story first appeared in The Outsider, the premium outdoor newsletter by Jason Blevins.
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The Aspen City Council last week adopted some of the strictest home building codes in the state as the community aligns its ambitious climate action goals with land use regulations.
The Aspen council suspended home construction in the city in December 2021 to better study the impacts of the city’s over-the-top residential market, which sees homes selling for as much as $6,000 a square foot. After approving strict regulations limiting short-term rental permits and home demolitions, the council this week took another major step toward reforming how homes are built in one of the continent’s most expensive markets.
“This is a clear statement that this council and this organization continues to lead when it comes to thinking about climate in a wide range of policy and regulatory spaces,” said Phillip Supino, the city’s community development director.
The 40-page list of new building regulations align home construction with the city’s Climate Action Plan. Adopted in November 2021, the climate plan aims to reduce the city’s greenhouse emissions by 63% by 2030 and to zero emissions by 2050. Buildings account for 57% of the city’s greenhouse gas emissions, with most of those emissions coming from Aspen’s palatial homes.
The new building codes make 49 amendments to the International Building Code, which is the international standard for building safety and efficiency. Some of the larger changes require automatic fire sprinklers and fire-resistant exteriors on all new homes. Insulation requirements are all increased, with a requirement for triple-pane windows in all new homes. All air conditioning units in new homes must be heat pumps. The new building codes incentivize electrification of everything with expedited review of homes that run on just electricity.
The new codes cap the total amount of energy spent on exterior heating at 200 million BTUs for all homes. The new codes buttress Aspen’s 23-year-old Renewable Energy Mitigation Program, which requires owners of large homes with snowmelt systems for driveways and patios, heated pools and heat tape on roofs and gutters to pay an extra fee — $1 per square foot of the home — to Aspen’s Community Office for Resource Efficiency or offset their energy use with an on-site renewable energy system, like solar panels.
The new cap on total energy use for outdoor heating can be used to reduce energy use across the community by assessing penalties on homes that consume a lot of energy. This will be the first time Aspen has set energy limits for every building in the city.
“It’s a framework we can build on to continue to expand emissions reductions,” Supino said.
Dallas Blaney, the executive director of the office for resource efficiency, said the new building codes are “a key component” of the city’s effort to reduce emissions to zero by 2050.
Last year the council required most of the new energy-efficiency rules for homes that received one of the city’s six annual demolition permits. Now the rules will apply to all new homes.
The city’s focus on increased regulation of home construction comes after decades of largely unfettered castle building in Aspen. The past two years have seen extraordinary buying and selling in Aspen, with the average single-family home in 2022 selling for $19.8 million, up from $12.7 million in 2021.
The new regulations are not about affordable housing. There’s little hope of converting Aspen’s free-market homes into housing for locals. The Roaring Fork Valley’s Aspen Pitkin County Housing Authority owns or manages 3,045 deed-restricted and rental units for locals, offering what is essentially a secondary housing market with attainable prices. The free-market homes in Aspen are more of a financial investment option than housing.
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A superintendent for one of Aspen’s high-end home builders, who asked not to be named citing confidentiality agreements with his clients, said his company is booked through 2025 and most of those homes are in the permitting process and will not have to adhere to the new building codes.
In a city where building is already “very, very difficult with very rigid rules,” he said, the new regulations will increase the costs and hassles even more. The uber-wealthy who build and renovate homes in Aspen are not troubled by added costs. But the hassles are problematic for the uber-wealthy who are not used to having their requests denied.
“This is just another layer of red tape for them to get around,” he said. “But there could be a limit. This is a real thing and we are all going to have to adjust. But I just heard about a buyer who wanted to drop somewhere around $40 million for a house in Aspen and once he started going through the process and understanding all the ‘No, you can’t do this,’ and ‘No, you can’t do that,’ he dropped the project and moved it all up to Big Sky. I see more of that coming down the pipe.”
“Spend a day commuting with me and you will be amazed at the sheer number of dump trucks and excavators and cement trucks moving through Aspen,” said Bart Axelman, who has been installing mechanical systems in Aspen’s largest palaces for 20 years. “The construction in Aspen is never ending.”
Axelman does not expect the new regs will reduce the rumbling thrum of construction that is the soundtrack to Aspen.
“To have a real impact, you need a lower amplitude of stuff going on. Aspen needs to learn to just say no,” Axelman said. “The city is pursuing goals that can be quantified as having a positive effect but if you look at the overall metabolism of the city, are you reducing its obesity? This is like a really obese person drinking a 12-pack of Diet Coke and feeling good about themselves.”