Arvada’s Net Zero Energy Geos Community Faces a Challenge From New Developer

The Geos Community located southwest of Indiana Street and 72nd Avenue in Arvada is a shining example of what’s possible in net zero energy home construction.

Geos Solar PV

All Geos homes are solar powered and have no natural gas service. Heating and cooling is provided by ground source or air source heat pumps. Water heaters utilize heat pumps, not gas, and all the homes and townhouses are built according to passive solar design standards.

 Two Geos homes were on last fall’s Metro Denver Green Homes Tour, and you can view narrated video tours of them by clicking on that link.

Now a developer has bought the remaining land within the Geos Community but is intending to install natural gas service in all the homes they will build. Naturally, the current residents are quite upset about this turn of events and are hoping to convince the City of Arvada not to allow this diminution of the original intent of Geos to be a strictly net zero energy community.

Visit www.DiscoverGeos.com to appreciate this community’s net zero energy mission.

Rainer W Gerbatsch, a Geos resident, in an email to Linda Hoover, Senior Planner for the City of Arvada, expressed concern about the new developer’s plan to deviate from the community’s principles by installing natural gas in future homes. Here is Ms. Hoover’s emailed response:

Thank you for your strong interest in your community.  I was forwarded your concerns regarding the new upcoming development in the GEOS Neighborhood and I will do my best to address your comments.  The GEOS Development was approved 12 years ago.  I took over as the staff planner for this project in 2014 when the previous planner left the City.  When GEOS was approved, it was intended to be a sustainable community and Norbert Klebl tried for many many years to obtain the funding to make that happen.  To date,  the only homes constructed out there are on Block 10 which has a mix of the staggered “checkerboard” single family detached homes and townhome units.  This totals approximately 38 units out of the 282 planned.  While the existing homes have a number of sustainable features, SunStudios (Architect) and Laudick Engineering are telling us that marketing of this concept has been very difficult in part due to the economics of having a development without gas service and other unique features of this development, such as having custom designed mechanical heating systems, etcetera.  Most of the larger home builders want developments that have gas service.  As you may know, this development went through a bankruptcy last summer.  The new owners are currently in the process of working with a new builder – Dream Finders Homes.  As Dream Finders comes on board, they are planning on keeping many of Norbert’s original concepts, but wanting to make some adaptations to make it economically feasible.  The lot layout which has the staggered checkerboard placement of single family detached homes in the middle of the block and townhome units on the ends of the block will remain as originally intended.  As a result these homes will continue to have the same architecture and passive solar design.  In addition, solar panels will be placed on the rooftops and appliances will be energy efficient.  These new homes will follow the Building Code to construct energy efficient homes.  The building codes adopted by the City already allow various paths/choices to construct very efficient (minimum energy code) all the way to net-zero buildings – the traditional codes were followed to build the first 38 units. It is my understanding that DreamFinders would prefer to have the project served by gas, but are still looking into the economics of this issue.   

This development was and still is zoned PUD (Planned Unit Development) which has its own unique design requirements rather than following the standards in the City’s Land Development Code (LDC).  The GEOS Design Book states that “architecture should strive for Energy Self-Sufficiency and the avoidance of Fossil Fuels.”  It also identifies net zero homes as one of the intended goals (not requirements) and further clarifies that that “goal can be achieved by combining good solar orientation and good insulation with geothermal or solar thermal heat, and photovoltaics.” However, it is silent on the issue of gas service.  

As a result, we would allow the development to be built without gas service (just as was done for the first phase of GEOS) provided alternatives were ensured.  However, no restrictions were included in the Design Book or on the project approvals that prohibited gas service. Passive systems, energy efficient buildings, heat recovery ventilation are guidelines not requirements.  

Sent 5/13/2021

Here is Rainer’s response to Ms. Hoover’s email:

I am familiar with the background of GEOS and the more recent events. Contrary to your statement that net-zero homes are difficult to sell, recent sales activity of homes in GEOS show just the opposite – there is high interest in these homes resulting in higher than expected returns for the seller and very short listing periods. It would appear that cited developer/builder statements are either uninformed or demonstrate an unwillingness to engage in construction practices that are a win-win situation for the builder, the buyer, and perhaps most importantly, the environment we all rely on. Also, I contacted and asked the architect whether he supported the cited developer/builder statements, and he responded that he did not.

Studies of completed net-zero buildings in Colorado (including GEOS) conducted by SWEEP also show that the initial cost of net-zero, all-electric homes at this time is on par with so-called traditional (polluting) construction. Net-zero construction represents a clear choice once future buyers understand that (1) these homes represent (already at this time) substantial yearly savings in energy use/expenditures (fossil fuel based energy costs will only increase as the cost of natural gas escalates based on the need to curtail and ultimately eliminate gas as a potent driver of climate change), and (2) eliminate health risks related to exposure to gas appliances and fossil-fuel burning heating devices that generate a variety of air pollutants which have been linked to cancer, decreased lung function, heart disease and a host more diseases. While these risks have been recognized for some time, they are finally receiving mainstream media attention. However, resolution is not possible without the engagement of all levels of government with developers/builders on more responsible construction practices. In summary, net-zero construction is currently superior to traditional construction because of reduction in emissions, elimination of health issues traced to fossil fuel based energy use in homes, and escalating future costs of fossil fuels, particularly natural gas.

GEOS’ prominence as a leader in de-carbonized and sustainable community living is recognized locally (we have been visited by members of sustainability committees of several Colorado towns), and nationwide (CNN’s chief environmental correspondent Bill Weir visited GEOS; CNN will be airing a nationwide broadcast on GEOS, highlighting its features as the model for home construction to achieve decarbonization and healthier interior air quality for residents). In that vein, responsible governments on all levels are preparing and committing to road maps with the goal to rapidly reduce emissions in home construction through elimination of fossil fuels, increased efficiency in appliance/lighting and heating/cooling, as well as the production of on-site renewable energy. In order to have an effective road map, commitments are required which mean nothing less than elimination of fossil fuel use in all new buildings. Consider that the IEA has just issued a special report; this statement stands out: Fatih Birol, the IEA’s executive director and one of the world’s foremost energy economists, told the Guardian: “If governments are serious about the climate crisis, there can be no new investments in oil, gas and coal, from now – from this year.”

It is 2021, and permitting a developer/builder team the inclusion of natural gas infrastructure for about 250 new homes, based on questionable developer/builder concerns of perceived marketability or economics, thereby locking in emissions for the life of the buildings, subjecting owners to health risks related to gas pollutants and escalating energy costs (not considering future mandated retrofits based on the trajectory of climate induced changes), is not responsible, sets the wrong signal and constitutes a serious setback in rising to the challenges of the climate crisis.

The City of Arvada has the opportunity and responsibility to address the climate crisis, facilitate the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy, and protect the health of residents from natural gas pollutants. Both can be realized, simply and effectively, through rapid adoption of policies and building codes that support state and nationwide goals in emission reductions. We urge you to demonstrate your commitment to a sustainable future not only through elimination of the fossil fuel infrastructure for the next phase(s) of GEOS, but through a city-wide commitment to net-zero construction, fossil-fuel free construction.

Sent 5/20/2021

All-Electric Homes Are Practical Now, and Can Help Mitigate Climate Change

The typical American home is powered electrically but heated by natural gas, propane or other fossil fuels. You and I can generate our own electricity with solar panels, but there’s no way for us to generate natural gas or other fossil fuel energy, so the transition to a “net zero energy” lifestyle necessitates turning away from fossil fuels and going all-electric.

Fortunately, technology has advanced — just in the last decade — to the point where going all-electric is totally practical, affordable, and a way you and I can mitigate climate change

At Golden Real Estate, our office was heated with natural gas until November 2017, when we installed a heat pump “mini-split” system and had our natural gas meter removed. With 20 kilowatts of solar photovoltaic panels, we were able to eliminate our natural gas bill but not increase our electric bill. We continue to pay just $11 per month to be connected to the electric grid (which functions as our “battery” thanks to net metering), but we are generating all the electricity needed to power, heat and cool our office building. We even have enough electricity from the solar panels to power our four electric cars without buying any net electricity from Xcel Energy. We hope other businesses will follow our lead.

Making the switch to all-electric at home is still in our future, because — like you, I suspect — we prefer gas cooking, gas grilling, and having a gas fireplace.

If, however, we can get beyond those preferences, it is possible now to heat our home and domestic hot water using heat pump appliances, and to cook our food with electric or induction cooktops and ovens.  Electric grilling is also available, although not as attractive from a taste standpoint to most of us.

All-electric homes was the subject of a talk by architect Peter Ewers at last week’s meeting of the Colorado Renewable Energy Society’s Jeffco chapter.  You can view an archived video of Peter’s talk at www.cres-energy.org/video.

Once we have removed gas service from our homes (and gas cars from our garages), we will have also eliminated the risks of explosion and carbon monoxide poisoning, too.  Wouldn’t that be great?