The 2021 Marshall Fire destroyed almost every house in the Sagamore subdivision in Boulder County, Colorado. It was the most destructive fire in Colorado’s history in terms of property loss. These were not lavish houses—designer Andrew Michler described them as “solid middle class.”
Michler is a Passive House designer whose own Colorado house has been covered in Treehugger. He teamed up with Seattle-based architect Rob Harrison—seen walking by Susan Jones’ house in Seattle—and local builder Chuck Bower of Joubert Homes to offer the Restore Passive House to residents who lost their homes in the fire.
It’s a very interesting home for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that it is available as a predesigned, pre-priced package for $550,000 after a bunch of government incentives for building efficient all-electric homes. That’s not high for a 1,750-square-foot house with a full basement.
Joubert Homes tells Treehugger that another builder priced out an Energy Star house of about the same size at $100,000 more. It is built with “firewise” construction using non-combustible cladding and roofing, triple-pane windows with tempered glass, and no overhangs that fire and wind can get under.
The design is simple and straightforward. The company said, “We took our design cues from Colorado mining vernacular architecture, a simple cross-gable form you might see in early 20thcentury Colorado small towns.” Simplicity is very important in a Passive House design; every jog and bump can turn into a “thermal bridge,” increasing heat loss as well as building costs.
I often use architect Bronwyn Barry’s hashtag #BBB—boxy but beautiful—to describe Passive House designs with simple forms, but this one isn’t so simple. It is L-shaped, which increases surface area.
However, there are advantages. It enables the house to stick out in front of the garage instead of getting that horrible snout house look. When I complained about the garage, Harrison said they would have preferred to do a whole new site plan with garages in the back, but it would have added years to the project, given that the site plan and the zoning is all in place.
Harrison also tells Treehugger that it creates four roof planes facing in different directions, so they can site the house on any lot with any orientation, and still have lots of roof facing south for solar panels.
The Colorado Public Radio News covers the house in an article with the ridiculous title: “This climate-friendly house for Marshall fire victims isn’t a luxury home.” What’s not luxurious about a draft-free house that is comfortable everywhere, with great indoor air quality, no dust, and no noise from outside? I have actually called Passive House a standard of luxury.
RESTORE Passive House
The plan certainly looks luxurious to me, with its generous kitchen and a “media room” with a full bathroom on the ground floor because they are “adaptable for those with temporary or continuing mobility issues. It’s always good to have one bedroom on the ground floor.”
RESTORE Passive home
The second floor looks pretty luxe too, with every bedroom having the possibility of natural cross-ventilation and access to decks.
The house is all-electric, with two mini-split heat pumps doing the heating and cooling—you don’t need much of either in a Passive House—and a Dutch heat recovery ventilation system delivering fresh filtered air. There is an induction stove, a heat pump clothes dryer, and a heat pump water heater.
RESTORE Passive House
Michler built his own house to be as close to foam-free as possible, and while this house is not marketed as a “healthy house,” it’s pretty close to plastic-free, with wood flooring (no vinyl), ceramic tile on the floors in the bathrooms and entry, high-quality cabinetry, painted wood sills and drywall wraps for the windows, solid surface countertops, and LED lighting. Passive House designs are generally healthier by their very nature; there are no drafts, no condensation on windows, far less chance of mold, dry warm basements, and most importantly, continuously controlled ventilation. Being all-electric, there are nitrogen oxides or carbon monoxide from gas stoves and appliances.
RESTORE Passive House
The house is described as “an ultra-high performance alternative to other options for rebuilding that will be comparable in price to conventional construction but provide an unparalleled level of comfort and long term energy savings.” That sounds like luxury to me.
According to the NOAA Climate site, “because the risk of drought and warm extremes are increasing as a result of human-caused global warming, it’s reasonable to think that global warming contributed in some way to the devastation caused by the Marshall Fire.” Others are more definitive. “It’s the first time in my career I have felt comfortable saying this is a climate fire,” said Natasha Stavros, director of a laboratory at the University of Colorado that focuses on multidisciplinary science problems.
Rebuilding with all-electric passive house designs is an appropriate response to dealing with climate change; they do not directly emit greenhouse gases and reduce indirect emissions by using much less electricity. There was evidently a lot of resistance to green building codes after the fire, because people worried that it would add costs, but as the Restore team demonstrates, it doesn’t have to add upfront costs if you do it right, and it will dramatically reduce operating costs. Let’s hope that they build an entire subdivision of them.
Watch Michler explain how to do resilient design in the face of fire: