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Victims of a Colorado wildfire can choose a green rebuild that's within their budget

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

In Colorado, a climate-driven disaster is testing a community's resolve on climate change. They had just adopted new green building codes when last year's Marshall Fire hit in the dead of winter, incinerating more than 1,000 homes. Now residents are wondering if they can really afford the tougher, greener homes. Here's Sam Brasch of Colorado Public Radio.

SAM BRASCH, BYLINE: The beginning of this story, it's not really the fire itself. It kicked off a few months earlier at a Louisville City Council meeting.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Thank you all for joining this evening.

BRASCH: Louisville is a progressive suburb in Boulder County. It adopted a climate plan to slash its emissions in 2020. And in that meeting last year, the city proposed what would have been the state's most ambitious green building codes. Many kids testified in favor.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: My future depends on the world making this decision, so we might as well start here.

BRASCH: And the council approved, requiring new homes to be extremely energy efficient. Superior, a town just across a highway, soon considered similar standards. Local leaders assumed they would apply to deep-pocketed developers. Then the Marshall Fire changed everything.

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UNIDENTIFIED FIRST RESPONDER #1: Fire's jumping 36 right now.

UNIDENTIFIED FIRST RESPONDER #2: Big push coming through. I think we're going to have people trapped here in just a second.

UNIDENTIFIED FIRST RESPONDER #3: Winds are shifting. I would evacuate. It's moving north now.

UNIDENTIFIED FIRST RESPONDER #4: We have multiple houses fully involved.

BRASCH: Suddenly, hundreds of families had to rebuild. And many feared the new codes would make that way more expensive. In February, about a hundred fire victims crowded the sidewalks outside Louisville City Hall and called for the codes to be revoked.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: We all want to do the best we can. But we want to come back to our homes.

BRASCH: Concerns about costs are understandable, says Boulder County recovery manager Garry Sanfacon. After the fire, insurance payouts are falling far short of record rebuilding costs, sometimes by hundreds of thousands of dollars.

GARRY SANFACON: It's a systemic problem that predated this disaster. And it's really exacerbating this one due to the cost of building materials and labor.

BRASCH: Both communities ended up making the new code optional for fire victims. And this is where the state stepped in. See, together with Colorado's largest power company, it now offers cash rebates for climate-friendly rebuilds. A team of architects and builders crafted a plan to take advantage of those incentives. It's a new house designed to show that a green home doesn't have to be a luxury home.

ANDREW MICHLER: So we really wanted to, like, prove that point and really make this even cheaper than some of the homes that are coming out at the exact same square footage.

BRASCH: This is Andrew Michler. He's behind a project to make a middle-class home built to passive house standards, a green certification first developed in Europe. It's called the RESTORE Passive House. None of them have been built yet, but Michler made something similar for himself.

MICHLER: Sure. Let's go inside and take a look.

BRASCH: The house is a modern rectangle tucked under a metal roof. It clings to the side of a cliff in the Colorado foothills.

MICHLER: So what we do is we design buildings that are extremely well-insulated. And as a result, they end up using about one-tenth of the energy of a basic code home nowadays.

BRASCH: One-tenth of the energy?

MICHLER: One-tenth of the energy needs.

BRASCH: The house is so efficient thanks to its hulking walls. Each one is thicker than a car tire, which favors a basic design. Michler says that has an added benefit in fire-prone landscapes.

MICHLER: The house is simplified in shape, so there's less places for embers to get into the corners and nooks and crannies of the house and start fires from there.

BRASCH: The final design for the RESTORE Passive House is super straightforward. Imagine two house-shaped blocks, kind of like monopoly pieces, arranged around a two-car garage. To control costs, the team limited options for customization and negotiated discounts with local suppliers. And then there's those green building incentives. Michler was thrilled to find out they knock off an extra $50,000.

MICHLER: Suddenly, we were kind of in the ballpark for really making the affordability part count.

BRASCH: OK, so the final price for one of these three-bedroom homes - an estimated $550,000. Fire victim Peter Ruprecht knows that sounds like a lot for a rebuild. But the former computer scientist says, it's not in Boulder County.

PETER RUPRECHT: This is just a house for regular people. It's - it doesn't cost that much more than a production house would.

BRASCH: Today, Ruprecht's neighborhood is a collection of vacant construction sites. He raised a family there, but there's parts of his old home that he doesn't miss.

RUPRECHT: The houses were definitely built to a price point. The wind would blow in through the walls. And so it was cold in the house in the winter. And it was just kind of uncomfortable.

BRASCH: His family is now the first to buy a RESTORE passive house. It wasn't the cheapest home on the market, but it was close. And he wanted a house built for climate change, something more efficient, less flammable, and better sealed against poor air quality. The RESTORE house actually exceeds the green building codes the town of Superior considered before the fire.

RUPRECHT: I think having a way better house is a silver lining from this whole disaster. (Laughter) I'm just glad that we're going to be able to come back to our neighborhood and to have a house that's just going to perform way better.

BRASCH: It's unclear how many of Ruprecht's neighbors will follow his lead. At this point, only 10% of fire victims have permits to start rebuilding. And less than half plan to use those green building incentives. Most homeowners are still negotiating with their insurance companies and trying to find any home that can work within their budgets.

For NPR News, I'm Sam Brasch in Denver. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sam Brasch