Boulder’s building code update brings construction waste fee, possible law on gender-neutral restrooms

Boulder Commons. Courtesy of City of Boulder

Sunday, April 21, 2019

City council on Tuesday gave general, first-round approval to updates of Boulder’s building codes, including stricter energy efficiency on large homes and the potential creation of a city law to require or allow gender-neutral bathrooms.

Boulder generally updates its building codes every three years, following the same schedule as international building code changes. A number of local amendments create standards that are roughly 20% more energy efficient than international rules.

The code updates are many and complex, but staff on Tuesday night presented to council a handful of key questions related to some higher-impact items. Council supported them all. They are:

  • All new homes larger than 3,000 square feet must be net zero. Boulder currently requires this of new residences over 5,000 square feet, and is on pace to require net zero status for all residential construction by 2031. This change merely accelerates the pace. Home that are net zero have zero net energy consumption, meaning that the total amount of energy used by the building is equal to the renewable energy provided on-site.


  • Homes can achieve net zero status by buying into the city’s Energy Impact Offset Fund — but only as a last resort. There are currently two ways to achieve net zero: using on-site solar or other renewable energy generation (the city’s preferred option) or buying into a solar garden. If neither of those are feasible for the home in question, the household will be allowed to pay 2.16 cents per kilowatt hour of electricity into the EIOF. The EIOF is currently only used by marijuana businesses offsetting their energy use, or by rental homes attempting to achieve SmartRegs compliance but in which further upgrades to the property would be prohibitively difficult or expensive.


  • Energy efficiency requirements will be relaxed for renovation projects, in order to encourage renovation over demolition. This is a big one that involves many complex standards. But the basics are this: Energy efficiency requirements will now be based on the type of renovation being undertaken rather than the dollar value of the project. There will be four “levels” of renovations: Level 1 is simple things like window replacement. These will trigger “minimal” energy code criteria. Levels 2-3 are renovations that include more than 50% of the home; these will trigger “more stringent” energy efficiency requirements. Level 4 are “gut” renovations — projects “where you can see through the building,” said Christin Whitco, energy code coordinator for the city of Boulder. Energy codes for these projects will be equal to those required for new construction.


  • Commercial and residential construction/demolition projects will be charged a fee if they don’t recycle construction waste or donate it for reuse. Currently, only residential projects must donate or recycle 100% of the concrete/asphalt, plus 65% of the remaining construction waste by volume. The concrete/asphalt requirements were pulled out separately because of their massive weight: the 65% criteria could be met on concrete/asphalt alone. Moving forward, staff is recommending that the 65% be upped to 75% including concrete and asphalt — but three different material types must be recycled or donated. The requirements would apply to commercial projects as well.  Staff also wants to implement a fee to ensure compliance, to be paid upfront and returned when the materials are recycled or donated. Councilman Bob Yates pushed back a bit on the fee, saying he won’t fully endorse it until he sees estimates on how much it will add to costs: “I don’t want to go along with this and then find out we doubled the cost of construction.”


  • Single-family homes and duplexes must be equipped with sprinkler systems for fire suppression. This has been standard in international building codes since 2009, but Boulder exempted smaller residential dwellings out of concern for the cost it would add. City staff and Fire Chief Michael Calderazzo both recommend requiring sprinklers, from a life safety standpoint. Boulder County mandates them, and the city of Boulder is trying to align its building codes with the county wherever possible. Council tentatively agreed.


  • Boulder will explore a local ordinance to allow or require gender-neutral restrooms. The number of restrooms required in a given building is based on the size of the building and its use. When only one restroom is required, international code dictates that it be gender-neutral. But when more than one restroom is mandated, international codes require that they be gender-specific. Boulder could (and, after council feedback, will) explore a local law to either allow or require buildings to designate these restrooms as gender-neutral. Staff will not be making this call; a public process will be developed around this issue.

There were other recommendations related to the energy efficiency of commercial and residential buildings. Among them was a requirement that commercial buildings generate 5% of their energy use on-site through renewables. Other suggested changes that were not discussed included making residential and commercial buildings able to accommodate electric vehicle charging, and requiring all spas, pools, outdoor heating and snowmelt systems to offset their electricity 100% with renewables.

The suggested building code updates will have to go through an extensive public process before being implemented in 2020.  The Environmental Advisory Board, Transportation Advisory Board and Planning Board will all weigh in, at hearings scattered throughout May and June. Community feedback will be gathered from June to August, and the code will return to council in October.

(Author’s note: This is by no means a comprehensive overview of the building code changes. For more information, view the staff presentation to council. If you are involved in building or development in Boulder, I recommend contacting the city directly for detailed information and with any questions.)

For a Twitter thread of Tuesday’s discussion, click here.

— Shay Castle,, @shayshinecastle
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