Post-fire rebuilding – first draft of new County regulations

On Thursday, September 30th, Boulder County government held another update meeting for homeowners and the design and construction community on the status of potential regulations for rebuilding efforts after the Fourmile fire.  The new regulations regarding building permits, site plan review, septic systems and waste disposal were discussed.  Most of the meeting was consumed with discussions and complaints about the State of Colorado’s recent clarifications to waste disposal regulations for potentially asbestos containing material.

Cleanup, Demolition & Deconstruction

The State’s latest directive on this will require that buildings that have been completely destroyed by the fire be treated as assuming asbestos contamination.  Because of the degraded nature of the building materials, no testing will be sufficient to prove, or disprove, the presence of asbestos containing material.  The following procedures will be required:

  • Materials must be wetted to minimize dust; packaged inside a double 6-mil plastic sheeting liner in an end-dump roll-off with the sheeting completely closed over the material once the roll-off is loaded.
  • The roll-off can only be taken to designated landfills.
  • The landfill must be contacted prior to moving the material to confirm waste acceptance and initiate waste profile.
  • Contractors should consult OSHA regulations to determine required training and personal protective equipment that will be required for those handling this material.

These regulations have only recently (within the last week) issued and have come as quite a surprise to homeowners, contractors and the County.  Some folks have already begun filling up roll-offs that may have to be off-loaded and reloaded under the new restrictions.  The number of loads will be significantly increased, greatly adding to the cost of cleanup.  This is an especially egregious regulation for structures built after 1984 when asbestos was no longer used in building materials.

Additional items:

  • In addition, metals can be recycled, but must first be “rinsed”.  I am not sure at this time if this water would then have to be treated or not.
  • Foundation removal will require a State demoliton permit.
  • Deconstruction will not be required although strongly encouraged.
  • No Boulder County permits or fees are required for cleanup.

Site Plan Review, Building Permitting

There will be three-tier system for rebuilds:

  1. For rebuilding in the same basic location, at the same size and height, no Site Plan Review will be required for 2 years, extending the current regulation from 6 months.
  2. For rebuilding in the same location but adding up to 10% of the existing building area, there will be a 2 week streamlined review process.
  3. For rebuilding in a significantly different location or of larger size or height, the normal Site Plan Review process will be required.

Additional planning items:

  • The 2009 IRC code will come into effect in January and will be the acting code at that time.  All rebuilds will have to meet building codes.
  • Sprinklers will be required for any structures larger than 3,600 square feet and this provision may change with the adoption of the new codes.
  • TDCs (Transferable Development Credits) will be available for properties rebuilding under the size threshold.
  • The County’s BuildSmart program will apply to all rebuilds, although there may be some modification for properties requiring renewables because of a building area trigger.

    These planning provisions are not final.  A draft of the provisions listed above will be issued next week, presented to Planning Board on October 2oth and the County Commissioners on the 21st.  These are public meetings and you should attend if you would like to be heard.

Fourmile Fire Community Mapping Project

In the aftermath of the recent fire, a new landscape has been formed.  The formerly isolated houses in Sunshine and Fourmile canyons, nestled in thick stands of pines and occasional aspens, have been opened up to wide-open vistas and uninterrupted panoramas due to the staggering loss of trees.  From a single house site you can see across valleys and draws to distant hillsides and see houses, some standing, some not, that were never before visible.  These views of other houses have become if not the dominant then at least very significant, new landscape feature.  So, along with the sense of community that was forged in the tragedy of the fire, there is a new visible community apparent like never before.

Standing out in that denuded landscape, the immediate question occurs to everyone looking out at newly visible neighbor’s properties – “are they rebuilding?”  – “are they moving their house to a new location?”  -“I didn’t know that road existed.”

San Francisco Bay Area Seismic Retrofit mapping project by EERI

To that question, there are a number of people that are proposing an online community mapping project.  Using Google Earth as a platform, the idea is to build 3D computer models of new and existing houses as they progress in the rebuilding project.  Along with the buildings will come the knowledge, publicly accessible, of what is being done, who is rebuilding and when.  This is an attempt to fill in the gap of the unknown, of the uncertain prospect, of living again in that beautiful but scarred landscape.

Community mapping projects take many forms, from economic resources to educational opportunities.  This map will attempt to record the past – in models of houses pre-fire, and the present and future – in models, geo-located within Google Earth, of houses proposed and under construction.  The map’s beginning will be simple.  The first stage is to add some information like property boundaries and driveway access to layers on the existing Google Earth topography.  The next step is outreach – to encourage homeowners, of houses existing and proposed, to include their building information on the map.  This can take the form of a precise SketchUp model uploaded to Google Earth as created by their architect, or a simple marker indicating some intention of rebuilding or not.  This basic information will allow any homeowner, along with the local fire department and sheriff’s office, to identify what is being done in what location.  A homeowner will be able to “stand” in the location of their new or proposed house and look out over the landscape and survey who else is rebuilding and where.  Architect’s will be able to use the model to craft designs that can respect the views and forms of other houses and possibly to pool resources during construction.  The local emergency responders will be able to look at the entire model and know if there is any longer a building at the end of that driveway and the location of new access roads.

Google Earth topographic view from Bald Mtn looking east along Sunshine Canyon Drive

Potential layers are endless and can be added over time.  GIS information indicating plant species, steep slopes, soils types, solar access and other layers can be included and will greatly help everyone in the rebuilding process.

Key to this process is the participation of as many homeowners, architects and builders as possible.  Inevitably questions of privacy arise and I think a simple and frank discussion can ally those fears.  Certainly the advantages of this information I think will surpass the possible negatives. I want to strongly encourage everyone’s participation and I would be happy to sit down with any homeowner, architect or builder to explain the process and power that this map can convey.

The group putting together this effort includes the local architects as both project directors and participating architects:

Michelle Wheatley of Studio Arc-Hive

Juana Gomez of Lawrence and Gomez Architects

Y. Rosemary Fivian, Architect

Mark Gerwing, M. Gerwing Architects

A map ties information to location.  It is a tool for information and visualization.  But most importantly this kind of map is a constituent of community.  It will give everyone an idea of what has been and what is to come.  By including information pre- and post-fire it links information to location to time, history and future.

Please feel free to contact any of us listed above if you have any questions or suggestions.  We hope to have a website up and running soon and this will include the first of the models located on the landscape.  We will need lots of help to build as much of the existing area as possible – all of the Gold Hill buildings, existing houses, etc. – and we will have a quick workshop about how to quickly build models and to solicit help and advice.

Many thanks to the good folks at Boulder’s own Concept3D, the leader in the field of database rich 3D mapping technology and Google SketchUp for providing technical assistance and advice.

check out the website, 4milemap, and you will be able to see current projects as well as some posts on rebuilding advice and stages in the ongoing community mapping project.

thoughts on post-fire construction

The devastating Fourmile fire is finally coming under control and, as we reported in an earlier post, the County’s code allow for rebuilding in the same location at the same size and height.  I have been in touch with a few local architects who would all like to help out in any way we can.  Some thoughts about how these efforts might take place:

We would like to offer to design/redesign the lost home of emergency responders for free.  Many of the architects I have spoken to have already expressed interest in this and we hope it can be of some help.  The County has waived Site Plan Review requirements, so this is a fairly straight-forward design and document process that we think will result in a higher quality of both design and construction for these heroic firefighters.  I still have to line up consultants who are willing to donate their time but I believe this will be forthcoming.  I will release a list of participating architects and consultants soon.

In light of the number of homes that need to be rebuilt, we would also like to come up with some ideas about how we might exercise some economy of scale to keep construction costs down and allow folks to get more bang for their buck.  This could take a couple of forms:

1.  Modular construction – you are all probably familiar with this and you may be likewise acquainted with my criticisms of this process.  Basically this is a semi-custom design and construction process where the building is subdivided into a number of trailer-sized components, built in a factory, and shipped and then assembled on site.  My chief objection to this process has to do with the exporting of labor – the factories displace the work of local carpenters, framers, and other tradespeople.  As the construction economy has been so terribly lately, I would not champion a method of construction that might make this situation worse.  Not to mention that some of the people who lost houses are probably the same tradespeople that could use some work as well as a new house.

Marmol Radziner's modular desert house

2.  I think this method has a lot of promise.  Panelization also breaks the  building down into components, but does so at a much smaller scale – that of walls, not whole structural sections.  These panels could be built down in Boulder or Longmont and this kind of construction could continue without the weather interruptions common to the mountainous sites for which they are intended.  Key to the potential cost savings here is the development of a series of semi-standard panel sizes that can be configured to accommodate differing sites and maybe existing foundations.

Eames House - a model for panelization?

(photo by Eric Wittman)

3.  Bulk purchasing of materials.  There certainly is money to be saved in purchasing in quantity and pooling some efforts, even among different contractors, could be utilized to reduce construction costs.  This would allow a great variety of designs and styles but some similar material expressions.  You can see a great example of this in the Floral Park Historic District in Boulder.  A one-block collection of houses built in the 1940’s was constructed using identical brick and similar window sizes and styles.  These materials and components were purchased in bulk by the builder and not only saved the homeowners considerable money but also lend the neighbor a kind of theme-and-variation consistency that has only improved with time.

Floral Park Historic District, Boulder

4.  Design Build partnerships.  Many of these already exist and it may makes some sense for architects and contractors to form new partnerships to speed up the design/cost/construction process.  We have done this process quite a few times in the past with Cottonwood Custom Builders resulting in considerable savings of both time and money.

I  don’t know if any or all of these efforts will come to pass and there is serious talk about forming a non-profit of architects, builders, and engineers to help out.  If you have other ideas or would like to be included, either primarily or by simple reference, please let me know.  I think that simply doing nothing would be a bit of a disservice to the efforts of the emergency responders and pooling our efforts may help create a new community of homes in the mountains that can be energy efficient, thrifty, and beautiful.

Boulder County Land Use Department is holding a brownbag lunch/discussion tomorrow, 9/14 at 11am in the Administrative Services Training Room of the County Courthouse (east side) to identify the issues we need to address and the questions we need to answer.  This is a brainstorming session and everyone is welcome.

after the fire – rebuilding restrictions for Boulder County

Even though the fire is really just barely out and maybe not even so, I have been asked about the problems of rebuilding in Boulder County after the tragedy.  Here is the info I have found and confirmed with the Boulder County Land Use staff:

Good news for all the homeowners who are considering rebuilding after the devastating Fourmile wildfire here in Boulder County.  Many people have a very wary view of the County’s restrictions when it comes to new building and rightly so.  There are a lot of rules and regulations that must be complied with in the required Site Plan Review process.  However, staff has confirmed that for fire-destroyed properties, you will have 6 months before you will need a Site Plan Review:

“3. Restoration of a structure that has been damaged or destroyed by causes outside the control of the property owner or their agent provided the restoration involves the original location, floor area, and height. Must comply with the current provisions of the Boulder County Land Use Code other than 4-800 (also see Nonconforming Structures & Uses, Article 4-1002(D) and 4-1003(F)).

a. Such  be commenced within six months after the date  the structure was damaged or destroyed, or a latent defect discovered and completed within one year after the date on which the restoration commenced. This limitation may be extended in the case of extenuating circumstances as determined by the Director.

b. The provisions of this Section 4-802(B)(3) shall not apply to substantial improvements to structures in the Floodplain Overlay District as provided for in Section 4-400 of this Code.”

This is clearly dependent on keeping the house the same size as before but not necessarily the same shape, etc.  I will try to get some clarification from the County to verify if you can build smaller than before under these provisions.  I will also verify with staff that this means that a building permit must be either applied for or obtained within 6 months, nothing else.

Word is that they are going to be flexible on this deadline because of the circumstances.

This is very good news for homeowners whose houses were located on the tops of ridges.  The current interpretation of the Land Use regulations generally does not allow any new construction to be taller than surrounding trees.  On a ridge-top sites this is almost impossible so the maxim “thou shall not build on ridges” has been a bit of an unwritten rule in the County for a while now.  The code listed above will clearly allow people to rebuild on their existing sites (if existing foundations, septic systems, etc. can be re-used is a complex issue).  Keep in mind that significant re-grading of any portion of your property, and that includes both cut and fill, may require an additional permit and/or Site Plan Review or Limited Impact Special Review.  If you want to re-do that steep driveway, please remember this.

If you do not have information regarding the size of your existing home, the County typically uses the County tax assessor information.  We all know this is often not very accurate so there may be some interpretation allowed.

In any case, if you are rebuilding you will have to meet all the current building codes and that includes the County’s Ignition Resistant Construction and Wildfire Mitigation procedures.  Presumably this will also include the County’s relatively new energy codes as well.  If you are not considering rebuilding then the County’s Transferable Development Right may apply to your property and you may be able to benefit from your property.

I will keep updating blog posts with more information as I dig through the codes and their applicability in this situation. The Boulder County Land Use staff will be able to answer any questions you have and please, PLEASE, schedule a Pre-Application with them prior to doing ANYTHING. This is free and simple – you don’t need any drawings or plans – just sit down with staff and review what was there, what you can and can not do and how to do it.