County creating free model home plans

Providing code-compliant, more affordable building options 

By Katherine Nettles

Although housing prices have continued creeping upward over the past several years, property owners looking to build more affordably in Gunnison County may soon have the option of using a free set of model home plans that comply with all current county energy and wildland urban interface building codes. 

The county’s community and economic development department secured two grants from the state energy office last month to help the county comply with its recently adopted energy codes. One of those grants will provide up to $61,000 for staff training, a contractor information session this spring and to develop a set of model home plans to be available to property owners at no cost. The other grant provides up to $90,000 for scholarships to local contractors to obtain energy efficiency training and equipment. 

The grants became effective on February 2, 2024, and the terms require that the model home plans be complete and available online to the public by the end of the year. 

Model home plans

The notion of providing model home plans to valley residents is one that Gunnison County commissioners have been loosely discussing for years, beginning with former commissioner John Messner and continuing with current county commissioner Liz Smith. 

 “I heard about it originally from Pitkin or Summit County,” recalls Smith. “I was intrigued by the concept that could help reduce the barrier for those trying to build a home. To have plans available for free, anything that can help fast track a building proposal through administrative review or show what people might be able to do on their property without having to hire an architect seems like a good idea for people who might want to build their own home locally that may not have the resources to do a custom project.”

The county adopted the 2021 International Wildland Urban Interface Code (WUI) in the fall of 2022 followed by the 2021 International Energy Conservation Codes (IECC) in the fall of 2023. Each places stronger regulations on building materials, building practices and energy efficiency performance for new buildings constructed in the county. These codes were adopted in keeping with the county’s climate-related strategic goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 50% by 2030 from 2005 levels, and in advance of anticipated state requirements. 

But some in the building community have also complained that these new codes drive up the already unprecedented building costs for the area, which puts undue financial strain on locals hoping to build a home of their own someday.

“As we go through the WUI codes and IECC codes we’ve been asking, what are the ways we can capitalize on this in an affordable way without people trying to wrap their minds around these new building material requirements and energy budget limitations? How do we help people see and understand what a WUI home can look like?” said Smith. “So the ideas expanded from there. One of the things I like is you have this sort of trifecta. You can make building more affordable upfront, then lower the ongoing maintenance and utilities costs if you are able to build in some long-term benefit with energy efficiency, while insulating our homes from the risk of wildfire.”

The idea began to coalesce when assistant county manager for sustainability and operations John Cattles and assistant county manager for community and economic development Cathie Pagano started talking about the concept in late 2022 and brought it to commissioners in 2023. It was a stated objective in the county’s IECC resolution adopted in November 2023. 

“We’ve been able to move quickly on this idea from conception to implementation,” said Pagano.

A memo to commissioners from county building and environmental health official Crystal Lambert outlined the terms and conditions of both grants, which are aimed at making WUI and energy code adoption easier on everyone.

“The first grant is specific to Gunnison County to update materials related to the recently adopted building energy codes, train building office staff, develop model home plans, and host a spring construction kickoff meeting for local building industry professionals,” wrote Lambert. A second grant was also awarded to provide funding to Gunnison County on behalf of the Gunnison Valley Building Code Collaborative, “to develop an energy efficiency scholarship program and to host educational seminar series for local energy professionals.” The Gunnison Valley Building Code Collaborative includes Gunnison County, the City of Gunnison, the Town of Crested Butte and the Town of Mt. Crested Butte. 

Cattles said the county plans to release a request for proposals (RFP) and solicit responses from architects to do the model home plans. “We will also consider proposals from others with design experience like builders and engineers,” he said. “We don’t have anyone in mind yet. I hope we can have a set of plans and details complete sometime in the fall but that will depend on the responses we get and the availability of architects who propose.” 

The grant award states that the county “shall develop publicly available, free model home plans that property owners and builders can use as a template to meet adopted building energy codes,” and conduct a public engagement process to identify practical features that will ensure the final model home product is affordable, desirable and appropriate for the climate zone and community. 

The plans are required to include at least one single family dwelling and one multifamily dwelling and contain all the provisions to meet or exceed the 2021 IECC and the Colorado Model Electric Ready and Solar Ready Code. 

Cattles said the county intends to begin with one model home plan which can be adjusted for various needs. 

“We are not planning on multiple plans but hope to create one that can be adapted to different looks with modest changes to rooflines and exterior materials. We also hope to come up with details that can be incorporated into plans by others to comply with energy code and WUI code,” said Cattles. “All of the plans we produce will be available to the public for their individual use. We hope this can be a resource that may help community members affordably build housing. It will also be a learning experience for us to apply our own codes and work through issues to find solutions.”

“We’re going to need a lot of quivers and a lot of help to make this place affordable for those who live here,” said Smith. “And anything we can do to help encourage multifamily building in construction is important as well.” 

The spring construction kickoff meeting will share information about the newly adopted codes with the local building industry professionals. The focus will be on the 2021 IECC and the Colorado Model Electric Ready and Solar Ready Code and the date is April 24 at 8 a.m. in the commissioners meeting room at the county courthouse.

Local building industry scholarships

The second grant is to provide funding to Gunnison County on behalf of the Gunnison Valley Building Code Collaborative to develop an energy efficiency scholarship program (up to $67,500) and to host and educational seminar series for local energy professionals (up to $15,000). 

The Gunnison Valley Building Code Collaborative includes Gunnison County, the City of Gunnison, the Town of Crested Butte and the Town of Mt. Crested Butte. 

The scholarships will help offset costs for local professionals attaining energy efficiency certifications and training, such as Home Energy Rating Systems (HERS), mechanical heat pump installation, insulation installation and mechanical solar installation. The scholarships are also meant to aid professionals that have received energy efficiency training or a certification in purchasing equipment. The grant states that this may include energy efficiency-related measurement, diagnostic or testing equipment. Scholarship application materials can be found at https://www.gunnisoncounty.org/1072/Energy-Efficiency-Professional-Scholarsh.

The education series is designed to help building contractors, designers, local energy professionals and property owners develop local knowledge and expertise of energy related code provisions, technologies and available solutions and options for building specific to climate zone 7. Classes may include heat pump technology, pv solar technology, electrification, energy rating, air-tightness and ventilation and insulation. 

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