Ari Armstrong, Boulder County, Energy, Housing, Marshall Fire, Uncategorized

Armstrong: Let people build homes how they want

Leave people free to build homes how they want, so long as they don’t endanger their neighbors or otherwise violate people’s rights. Why is that policy even controversial? But bureaucrats know best, say people on the left, and government must micromanage people’s every move. Even if “green” housing regulations add many thousands of dollars to the cost of rebuilding homes lost to fire.

Personally, if I were building or rebuilding a house right now (I mean, hiring contractors to build one), I would seriously consider both electric-only systems and fire-resistant building materials. I think electricity is the wave of the future, whether via nuclear power or solar and wind. My next car probably will be electric. I like the idea of electric heat pumps for heating and cooling (probably with some backup system).

And, although I’m not too familiar with the details, houses can be built with materials that far better resist burning. I’m just thankful that, although I could see the flames of the Marshall Fire from my north-facing window, the fire never endangered my house. If I do end up with a big building project someday, I can figure out the details for myself; I don’t need government “help.”

If people want to stick with natural gas for now, why is that any of government’s business? Right now most electricity in Colorado is generated with natural gas anyway, so electric-only houses are really “natural gas at a distance” houses. Even if you think that government rightly acts to curb global warming, the less-intrusive approach would be to price in the costs of fossil fuels rather than to micromanage housing construction.

Sherrie Peif has the story of the fight in Superior over “green” building codes. She reports that “Xcel Energy made promises of rebates [for ‘green’ construction]–that the monopoly utility can’t actually guarantee–for fire victims who couldn’t afford the additional cost.” She reports, “None of the rebates are guaranteed . . . as Xcel must clear them through the Public Utilities Commission.” Estimates of the additional costs range from $5,000 to tens of thousands of dollars. Town trustees talked about exempting the Marshall Fire victims. (See also video of Superior’s February 14 meeting, where a representative of Xcel discussed the rebates.)

Colorado Pubic Radio (CPR) talks as if the “incentives”—ranging from $7,500 (for heat pumps or high-efficiency gas) to $37,500 (for passive homes)—are a done deal, neglecting to mention the necessary approval process. Trish Zornio does the same thing in her column for the Colorado Sun.

Even if these rebates eventually are approved, and even if they come close to covering the extra costs, an energy “rebate” is just a fancy way to distribute some of the higher building costs to other rate payers. Why should some Coloradans be forced to subsidize other people’s “green” houses?

Maybe with the right builder costs can be contained with these new systems. Home builder Brian Fuentes told Zornio, “We believe, with the right design decisions and construction knowledge, a home in Boulder County can be built today that is all-electric, zero-energy for negligible cost increase beyond the typical code minimum building.” (I guess he means “zero net energy,” a claim that should make your eyebrows twitch at least.) Zornio also points to long-term energy savings.

But if it really makes financial sense to build these “green” houses, why do we need city mandates and Xcel wealth redistribution schemes? Builders and activists are welcome to promote the voluntary adoption of these building methods. That many people want to back up the plan with government force makes me suspicious of the rosier figures. Either these people don’t really believe the story they’re telling, or they think people are just too stupid to make their own decisions without “help” from the elites.

Regarding codes for fire resistance, CPR is outright cheerleading for more mandates. Consider this headline: “Stronger Building Codes And Other Rules Can Save Homes From Wildfires. So Why Doesn’t Colorado Have A Statewide Law Mandating Them?” Again, why can’t people make their own decisions regarding such things? Just make sure insurance companies are free to price in the extra risks with their policies. Of course, government should pursue proper fire mitigation on government-controlled lands.

A tangential point about insurance: Many homeowners affected by the Marshall Fire say they ended up being pretty dramatically underinsured. I have not yet reviewed my homeowner’s policy, but that’s on my to-do list. You might want to get hold of your agent as well. Obviously insurers don’t want to overinsure houses, as that creates perverse incentives not to protect them. But, from the perspective of a homeowner, you want to make sure you have the resources to fully recover if the worst happens to your property.

A lot of people seem locked into the view that any idea good enough to implement is also good enough to enforce by government. That’s a dangerous perspective because force also can lock in bad ideas, and it does not allow for people to account for their unique contexts and needs. Force also entrenches the presumption that individual choices do not matter, only bureaucratic control does. Individuals don’t always make wise choices. Often they do. Regardless, they should be free to make their own choices, including about how to build a house. Then let individuals enjoy the fruits, whether sweet or sour, of their independent judgment.

Ari Armstrong writes regularly for Complete Colorado and is the author of books about Ayn Rand, Harry Potter, and classical liberalism.  He can be reached at ari at ariarmstrong dot com.


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