A citizen group working with Pitkin County government on potential changes to residential building regulations to meet county goals of reducing energy consumption has recommended no change to the cap on maximum house size, an idea that was discussed extensively last year.
The group, largely made up of individuals tied to the development community, has instead offered up a possibly untested concept involving a “whole project energy budget.”
The details have yet to be decided, but essentially the idea involves setting a threshold for energy consumption that’s less centered on square footage. It would be more grounded in the totality of consumption by interior and exterior amenities such as appliances, snowmelt driveways, heated pools, hot tubs and the like.
The new regulatory system might work in the following manner: Builders would be required to implement renewable-energy processes, such as solar-power generation, and other energy-saving systems into their projects. An annual budget for energy consumption would be set, with homeowners perhaps required to pay an upfront fee based on estimates of excess use above the threshold.
The county would monitor consumption over a certain period, maybe one or two years, and if homeowners end up using less energy than was estimated in the budget, they may be eligible for a rebate. If they have gone over budget, they could be required to pay extra.
There are other facets to the concept, and whether county commissioners are amenable to the basic idea is not known. They meet Tuesday for a work session at 1 p.m. for an overview from community development staff and invited representatives of the citizen group. Commissioners are expected to provide direction and no formal vote will be taken.
Cindy Houben, community development director for the county, said the group of 25 to 30 people met each Wednesday for 14 weeks from January to April. The group developed the idea of the “whole project energy budget” on its own as an answer to suggested reductions in maximum home sizes and other previously discussed changes to county building and energy codes it viewed as punitive, such as proposals to substantially increase fees under the Renewable Energy Mitigation Program, commonly known as REMP.
In addition, county staff held meetings with the Aspen Chamber Resort Association and local real-estate broker groups to gain input about how to proceed. Houben said some of the ideas from those sessions dovetailed with others from the citizen group meetings.
“The end result was the recommendation from the group that from an energy perspective, we lean toward ‘net-zero’ impact through use of an energy budget,” Houben said. “It’s pretty cutting edge.”
She said local citizens — including builders, architects, planners and real-estate brokers and others not necessarily tied to the development industry — became concerned last year about the direction the county was heading with regard to new building and energy codes. At a November work session, commissioners directed staff to expand its community outreach, which led to the formation of the weekly working committee and also meetings with ACRA and the local Board of Realtors.
“There’s been a lot of outreach and we feel like we’ve gotten a lot of good input. This will be our first chance to bring it back to the commissioners,” Houben said.
Discussions last fall among county commissioners and community development staff focused on a variety of measures to reduce the carbon footprint of large homes. One idea, based on a professional analysis that correlated increased square footage with an exponential rise in energy use, was to reduce maximum allowable floor area to 10,750 square feet from 15,000 square feet.
Currently, developers are allowed to build houses above the “growth management exempt floor area,” which peaks at 5,750 square feet. Houses above that threshold, up to 15,000 square feet, can be constructed either through a successful review process or by purchasing certificates denoting transferable development rights, or TDRs.
Reducing the maximum allowable floor area to 10,750 square feet, a 2018 staff memo states, “reduces the overall ecological footprint, reduces energy consumption and greenhouse gas emission [and] increases county road lifespan.” The concept of some type of decrease appeared to have the support of at least three of five commissioners, but no firm decisions came about as the elected body overall decided to seek more public input.
Now, county staff and commissioners will “absorb all the recommendations” from the various groups and investigate them more thoroughly, Houben said.
“We might get into it and say, ‘This is a great idea but it’s just not going to work.’ We just don’t know yet,” she said.
It also appears that building and energy use regulations tied to the concept of a “whole project energy budget” haven’t been tested anywhere else, at least not in Colorado, Houben added.
Commissioner Greg Poschman said Monday that he’s excited about the presentation.
“I think everybody on the board understands how important this is, and that we have to get it right, and we have to do something regarding energy consumption if we are going to take carbon emissions seriously,” he said.
It would be easy to create a new building code that’s more “complex, draconian and onerous,” Poschman said. But commissioners would prefer an innovative approach that will be embraced by the community while still accomplishing the goal of reducing energy consumption.
“The idea was, ‘Let’s not come up with something and try to shove it down everybody’s throat.’ Let’s reach out to the community, and knowing that they understand the problems we are all trying to address, maybe we can come up with a new way of doing things that could be simpler and goal-oriented rather than rule-oriented,” he said.
Poschman said it makes sense to bring the development community into the process because they’ve been working over the years to make homes more energy efficient and they understand the latest innovations.
“Home sizes play into it but that’s not all of it,” he said. With any new building project, regardless of size, the best methods of design should be employed to ensure maximum energy efficiency, he said.