On Friday afternoons, Derek Drechsel and his wife leave work to meet with their homebuilder, going over floor plans, square footage, building codes, permits and paint schemes as they figure out what sort of house they can afford after losing everything in the Marshall fire.
It’s time-consuming and tedious. And worries over money are always present.
Already, the family decided to build a smaller home than the one they lost in Superior, ditching a formal dining room and a small sitting room to lower costs. They want to build the most energy-efficient, environmentally friendly house possible, but are still figuring out the math to understand what works best in their budget, Drechsel said.
“My wife and I are the type of people where we are building this custom home without anything extraordinary,” he said. “We looked at a custom home where there was a 20-foot waterfall in the entryway and their basement was a speakeasy with secret rooms. We’re not going for stuff like that. We’re not doing anything over the top. We’re trying to get our house back to what we had with a little more modern consideration with the more modern technology that’s available.”
In August, Boulder County announced that its public, federally funded debris-removal program was finished, setting the stage for the next phase of recovery. With the burned-out cars, appliances and other household ruins gone from most properties, it’s time for homeowners to start picking out contractors, designing their new homes and applying for permits.
Many homeowners continue to wrestle with insurance companies over policies that won’t cover the complete cost to rebuild. And they face myriad decisions about what their new homes will look like and how they will be built, including whether they can afford to make the new structures more energy-efficient and environmentally friendly.
Of the 1,084 homes destroyed in the Dec. 30 wildfire, only one has been rebuilt. The town of Superior’s online recovery dashboard shows one certificate of occupancy has been issued out of 380 homes that were destroyed there.
Superior has issued 34 building permits while Louisville has issued 32 and Boulder County has issued 10, each entity’s recovery dashboard shows.
The combined estimated value of the destroyed homes exceeded a half-billion dollars, although it’s too early to know exactly how much the rebuilding effort will cost.
Kate Arrington, assistant recovery manager in the Boulder County administrator’s recovery and resiliency division, said the county estimates it will take up to 10 years for the burn zone to return to its previous occupancy. The Community Foundation Boulder County estimates that 75% of the homes will be rebuilt over time, which is higher than the national average after a disaster, she said.
“My personal thought on the matter, having been in this field for some time, is every lot will be built on but some won’t be by the former homeowners, unfortunately and heartbreakingly,” Arrington said.
Since the Fourmile fire in 2010, about half of the 169 homes destroyed in Boulder County have been rebuilt, she said.
Grants, loans and paperwork
Boulder County, in coordination with Louisville and Superior, the community foundation and other nonprofit organizations, is working to make the rebuild as affordable and efficient as possible. Financial help is available, including a $20,000 grant for every family rebuilding its home. That money will come from the community foundation, which allocated $20 million toward the Marshall fire recovery, Arrington said.
Other grants and low-interest loans are available, depending on a family’s income. Between 10% and 15% of the Marshall fire families will be eligible for a U.S. Housing and Urban Development Community Development Block Grant to help with housing, she said. The federal government directed $7.15 million toward that pot of money.
Five recovery navigators have been hired to help families figure out paperwork, building codes, loans, grants and other complicated things associated with the rebuild. Several agencies worked together to create one application that serves multiple functions to help families eliminate at least a portion of the paperwork they are facing.
“We know residents are overwhelmed by paperwork and applications,” Arrington said. “Everybody, community members especially, have shown such extreme patience and grace with the bureaucratic system. All the government and partnership groups I’m on have so much caring. Everybody wants the county rebuilt in the best, quickest way possible.”
One issue that is gaining more clarity is how a push to build more energy-efficient homes will play out.
In the early days after the fire, Louisville residents protested a city regulation that required all new homes to be constructed under 2021 green building codes.
Many residents found their insurance policies would be hundreds of thousands of dollars short of what they would need to rebuild, and they said adding requirements for solar panels, electric vehicle charging stations and all-electric heating and cooling systems and appliances would be too much. They packed virtual Louisville City Council meetings and held a rally outside City Hall, leading the council to rescind those requirements for Marshall fire victims.
Now, however, Boulder County officials believe building greener homes will be possible thanks to incentives such as Xcel Energy rebates, supplier discounts on equipment and homebuilders who are designing model homes and crunching numbers to make it work.
Zac Swank, the built environment coordinator in the Boulder County Office of Sustainability, said homebuilders are starting to release home designs and pricing levels for the Marshall fire victims. At least one builder has released plans for a series of model homes where the cost for a more energy-efficient home is less expensive or equal to a home that doesn’t follow the most modern building codes.
“We are starting to see real pricing and that’s where the rubber hits the road,” he said.
Still, Swank sympathizes with homeowners who are struggling to figure out how they will afford a new home.
“Will I have money left in insurance coverage?” Swank said. “It’s really hard to say without knowing what the specifics are for their design criteria and how their builder is pricing it.”
Drechsel and his wife, Devon Scott, are working with a custom homebuilder to design a new house on their lot on Eldorado Drive in Superior. Already, they realize they never will be able to recreate their former 4,600-square-foot house exactly as it was.
They bought their house in 2018 for $850,000 and its estimated value when it burned was $1.3 million, Drechsel said. The home had remodeled bathrooms, custom closets and “an enormous new deck with a stone finish.” And the highlights were the hand-painted walls in their children’s rooms — a jungle scene with wild animals for their daughter and railroad and outer space themes for their son — that had been commissioned by the previous owners.
Now, though, Drechsel said the family will reduce their home’s footprint to save money.
“The cost of rebuilding is alarmingly high,” he said. “We certainly have cut square footage because that can save $20,000.”
They want to build an environmentally friendly home, but they’re still pricing out the various levels of energy efficiency to figure out what is within their budget.
“It’s an opportunity to do something that is good for the environment and something that is good for the health and safety of our family and our community,” Drechsel said. “I recognize that, in the grand scheme of things, one house out of hundreds may not make that big of a difference. But it feels good for us to do.”
The Marshall fire was four blocks from Nick Jacobs‘ Louisville home when the flames died out, making the rebuilding effort personal for him as the founder and president of Diverge Homes.
His company spent about six months trying to figure out how it could build attractive, affordable homes in the fire zone that also take advantage of Xcel’s incentives for green building.
“We realized we needed to create a product for the Marshall fire families,” he said.
After months of asking questions and consulting subcontractors, Jacobs said he has figured out how to build green homes that are affordable. His company is offering six models for Marshall fire families that range in base price from $635,700 for a 2,310-square-foot home to $928,600 for a 4,049-square-foot home.
Thanks to rebates and discounts, Diverge Homes’ online prices show that the smaller houses built under the more stringent 2021 energy efficiency codes are less expensive than homes built under the 2018 standards. So that 2,310-square-foot house would cost almost $10,000 more if it is built to 2018 standards, according to the price chart.
Jacobs said he recently figured out a design plan that would lower the cost of a green home for his large-scale floor plans, although that is not yet reflected on the company’s website. Typically, large homes have multiple heating and cooling systems, which is why it costs more to make them more energy efficient, he said. But he thinks he can make them fall within the same price range as those built under 2018 standards.
“Because of the incentives that are being provided to the Marshall fire homeowners, we are either at cost or below cost on green homes,” he said.
But sorting out what level of green home to build can be confusing for an owner.
There are multiple levels of certifications, and the expense rises as a home becomes more energy efficient.
“It’s justifiably difficult to everybody in the Marshall fire,” Jacobs said. “If it’s difficult for me, I can’t imagine how difficult it is for people outside the industry.”
So many decisions to make
Homeowners face a daunting mountain of decisions to make while they already are stressed because of displacement, bureaucratic paperwork and insurance shortfalls.
“It’s such a shame in our world that you can’t buy a house in the way of a car,” Jacobs said. “It’s as detailed as having to think of which muffler you wanted if you were buying a car.”
Drechsel knows all too well how complicated everything is. And he has found a lot of misinformation circulating.
One builder told him that using natural gas in a home was far cheaper than electricity and not worth the money. But Drechsel sees how Colorado and the rest of the United States is moving away from natural gas usage in homes and wants his house to be as modern as possible.
“How much of it is a company can come in and crank through building a typical gas furnace and all the other things they’re used to doing and knowing they can crank through 50 homes?” he said. “Or will they take time to learn how to do the work and install it on their end?”
He’s attended town hall meetings, talked to energy consultants and poured through online information to make the best decisions possible.
“It’s still a significant amount of information to navigate,” Drechsel said. “You can’t make these decisions in an instant.”
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