Author(s): Michele Steinberg. Published on May 2, 2023.

Building Back Better

Incentives are encouraging Colorado fire victims to rebuild greener and with fire resistant materials—an approach that should be available to everyone

Imagine having the opportunity to build the home of your environmentally conscious dreams, one that uses only 10 to 20 percent of the energy typically used for heating and cooling. There’s just one hitch: your original low-efficiency home burned to the ground 18 months ago in a wildfire, and your homeowner’s insurance is only covering about half the cost of rebuilding. Would you still do it? 

Nearly 250 Colorado families who lost their homes to the Marshall Fire in December 2021 are taking the plunge. Their decision is due in part to an unprecedented effort by local governments, builders, public utilities, and state energy officials to educate and incentivize residents and industry about the value of new energy standards that were incorporated into local codes just months before the destruction occurred.

The Denver Post noted that some of the same homeowners who organized vocal protests against complying with new standards as part of rebuilding their homes in the Town of Superior, the City of Louisville, and unincorporated areas of Boulder County are now taking advantage of significant incentives to “go green.” During the traumatic months following the Marshall Fire—which killed two people and destroyed more than 1,000 buildings, mostly single-family homes—roughly two-thirds of the victims discovered they were substantially underinsured, with gaps into the hundreds of thousands of dollars between their coverage and the cost to rebuild. Standards including the 2021 International Energy Conservation Code and requirements for residential fire sprinkler installation in new or rebuilt single-family structures became targets of outrage by residents who regarded them as additional costs that would revictimize them and prevent them from rebuilding. Louisville rescinded its home fire sprinkler ordinance, and both Louisville and Superior exempted Marshall Fire victims from the energy code requirements.

But a program to help homeowners “rebuild better” has managed to convince many of them to do so in a way that will dramatically shrink their homes’ carbon footprints. The Rebuilding Better program is a consortium of local governments, the local energy utility, and state officials that provides a one-stop resource for property owners. In addition to rebuilding, the effort includes advisors who can customize solutions and help people find the right team of contractors and architects. It also incorporates wildfire-resistant construction and landscaping guidance. Some Marshall Fire victims have united around working with a single contractor to rebuild several adjacent homes, further reducing costs. 

While there is much to praise in this approach, it makes me wonder why our society seems to lack the foresight and drive to make improvements before crises occur. The combination of incentive funding (up to $30,000 per rebuilt home) and the appeal to residents to care for the environment has been heady enough to sway some of the most distraught individuals, some of whom will struggle to pay for a rebuild. Meanwhile, Rebuilding Better champions see a bright future in Colorado, as these rebuilt homes offer tangible examples of how new homes can look and perform. Yet without the loss of nearly 1,100 homes in a single traumatic day, how long would Coloradans have had to wait until the next major crisis capable of opening that window? 

People rebuilding in Louisville are doing so without the requirement to include home fire sprinklers. But the argument that safety “costs too much” is ridiculous in the context of the Marshall Fire recovery—the energy code success proves that people can and will act in their own best interests if given the information, resources, and incentives to help them do it. Champions of life, property, and environmental safety should be emboldened to make their case before the next disaster.

Michele Steinberg is director of the wildfire division at NFPA. Illustration: Michael Hoeweler