Net-zero heroes—Energy-efficient solutions to an affordable housing crisis

An affordable net-zero community in Basalt aims to serve a critical segment of the community—teachers
Many stakeholders came together to get this affordable, efficient project off the ground. (Photo: Habitat Roaring Fork)

A new affordable housing community in Roaring Fork Valley, Basalt Vista, is definitively a community project. Roaring Fork School District donated seven acres adjacent to Basalt High School that are worth $3.2 million. Pitkin County provided funding for roads and utilities, and rooftop solar panels. The Town of Basalt reduced permit fees to facilitate building. Holy Cross Energy donated solar equipment and electric vehicle chargers for four units, and the Roaring Fork Valley chapter of Habitat for Humanity is building the homes with its team of employees, subcontractors, volunteers and the homeowners themselves.

[Related: Cost saving and resale rates make green homes attainable]

Habitat for Humanity’s mission in Roaring Fork Valley has been to “build homes for people who are stuck in a cycle of poverty,” said Scott Gilbert, president of the Roaring Fork chapter.

However, the goal of the development is not just to meet a critical housing need, but to bring the “first net-zero community to the Western Slope.” Holy Cross Energy, a sustainable energy provider serving the Roaring Fork Valley, is treating the project as a pilot program, working with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory to study the efficiency and energy demand of these types of homes, as well as how comfortable they are for owners.

“We wanted to do first-of-its-kind pilot field demonstration on how to better visualize our grid and control distributed energy resources, such as photovoltaic solar, storage using batteries, electric vehicles, and also [homeowner] comfort,” according to Chris Bilby, an engineer at Holy Cross.

Basalt Vista

When it’s completed, Basalt Vista will comprise 27 homes, half of which will be reserved for people employed by the Roaring Fork School District. The remaining homes will provide housing for other workers in Pitkin County. Construction on the first nine homes began in November 2018. The first four homes, a pair of duplexes, are expected to be completed in June.

As a former teacher himself, and with family members who are teachers, Habitat’s Gilbert was sensitive to the particular challenges that teachers face.

“Typically, if you want to be able to buy a home in our area, you need to actually make double the area median income … to be able to afford a nice home,” he said.

Local teachers were especially vulnerable, according to Gilbert.

“Teachers here in R Valley make less than teachers in Littleton, let’s say,” he noted, but “homes cost more here.”

He approached RFSD about some undeveloped land adjacent to Basalt High School.

“I went to the school district and talked about the land I thought they didn’t need. They agreed they didn’t need it, and [said] they’d give it to us,” he said. Then “I went to the county and said, ‘If you give us the money for the utilities and the road … we’ll give you a proportionate number of units for people who work in the county.’”

The project got the attention of one of Basalt’s council members, Auden Schendler, who runs sustainability programs for Aspen Skiing Company and has worked extensively on addressing climate change.

Because the land had no utilities in place, he saw it as an opportunity to build an entirely electric community.

For climate change strategy to work, Schendler said, “We’re going to have to turn the electric grid to renewable or zero-carbon. We’re going to have to electrify transportation, and we’re going to have to electrify heating.”

He continued, “This is a great opportunity to put in a pilot project and deal with all the different problems that you’ll encounter in doing this, and be a model for the rest of the country.”

A learning community

The Basalt Vista community will provide affordable housing to local teachers, but it is also an explicit learning opportunity for stakeholders in the effort to make homes more energy-efficient.

Multiple partners came together to wring as much information from the project as possible.

The Community Office for Resource Efficiency is a nonprofit that provides funding for renewable energy projects in the Roaring Fork Valley. The organization awarded 33 grants worth $750,000 in 2018, according to its annual impact report.

Marty Treadway, program director at CORE, said the organization has had a close relationship with Habitat Roaring Fork for several years, and Habitat’s growth in the area coincided with CORE’s objective to take on bigger projects.

“CORE had started a net-zero homes program a couple of years ago for individual homeowners, but this is a rural community—there are just not a lot of folks who can hit that mark, so we’ve only done a dozen or so over the years,” Treadway said. “With this one project in Basalt, we get 27 units and it’s a great headline for Habitat and a great partnership opportunity for us.”

[Related: Energy-efficient windows top consumers’ most-wanted green features, NAHB finds]

Danielle Andrus

Danielle Andrus was previously the managing editor for Colorado Builder, and is currently Editor for the Journal of Financial Planning.

Danielle Andrus has 343 posts and counting. See all posts by Danielle Andrus

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