Marshall Fire homes being rebuilt twice as fast as national post-disaster average

The remains of the Lombardo family home in Louisville are seen after the Marshall Fire. (Courtesy photo)

Saturday, April 29, 2023

It’s spring in Boulder County. Flowers are blooming, trees budding.

Something else is sprouting in the Marshall Fire burn area: Houses. Dozens of them, being built anew after 2021’s devastating blaze, twice as fast as the national average for rebuilding following a natural disaster.

Building professionals say that’s thanks in large part to the efforts of the local governments to simplify and demystify the rules, prioritize Marshall Fire victims and put them on a fast track to a new home. 

As a result, 495 of the 1,096 lost homes have been cleared to begin rebuilding, according to municipal dashboards. Thirteen 13 families have been able to move back home, with many more expected to join them throughout the summer.

“By September 15, we anticipate having at least 100 families back home” in Louisville alone, said Lisa Ritchie, the city’s planning manager. “It’s been all hands on deck.”

Making it easier

On average, it takes five years for just 25% of homes to be rebuilt after they are destroyed in a natural disaster. That’s according to the American Institute of Architects National Disaster Recovery Committee, and Scott Rodwin, president of Boulder-based Rodwin Architecture and director of the AIA for Northern Colorado.

Rodwin, who has five clients in various stages of rebuilding, recently co-presented to the AIA Colorado board on the Marshall Fire progress, followed by a driving tour of the burn area. He estimates that, by the two-year mark, some 250 homes will be complete — hitting that 5-year average three years early.

As of now, 45% of homes destroyed have been granted building permits.

Boulder County: Building permits issued for 57 of 157 destroyed homes (36%)

Louisville: Building permits issued for 247 of 550 destroyed homes (45%)
Plus another 10% in review, and 4 households moved home

Superior: Building permits issued for 191 of 389 destroyed homes (49%)
9 households back home

The FEMA-led debris removal, the first of its kind in the state, helped tremendously, Ritchie said, finishing in six months. When lots were cleared and rebuilding started in the fall, Superior, Louisville and Boulder County were prepared with a streamlined process, beefed-up staffing and reduced fees and taxes for Marshall Fire rebuilds.

Planning and building staff from the three municipalities also meet frequently with residents to identify and address whatever issues arose in the process. Superior’s town board went from two meetings a month to two or three per week. 

“We upped the amount we were interacting to make sure we were nimble enough to execute anything we knew needed to get done,” said Superior Mayor Mark Lacis. “We reached out to community and said, ‘If there’s anything we can do to make this easier, we want to hear about it.” 

In Boulder County, everyone is assigned their own individual rebuilding coordinator, according to Kim Sanchez, deputy director of community planning and permitting.

“They are that point of contact,” Sanchez said, to address issues, provide updates and answer questions. “So there’s just one person that the property owner has to deal with.”

‘Bending over backward’

Boulder County had an advantage over Superior and Louisville, in that they already had a set of rules to govern what happens after a natural disaster. It’s Article 19, developed after the 2010 Fourmile Fire. With each new destructive event, it’s been amended. 

“Unfortunately, we have sections for each of the disasters we’ve experienced: Fourmile, the 2013 flood, the CalWood Fire,” said Sanchez. “Right away, we went to work writing provisions for the Marshall Fire.” 

Among other things, Article 19 guides rebuilding. Crucially, it allows applicants to skip a lengthy site review process if they stay within certain parameters. 

Not having to do site review “shaves half a year off,” Rodwin said. With other changes the county has made to prioritize Marshall Fire rebuilds, the time spent in permitting has been drastically reduced.

Prior to the Marshall Fire, the “fastest possible path” through the county’s regulatory process “was 11 months,” Rodwin said. “Sometimes it took 2,3 years: You had to wait in line just to get an appointment to meet with anybody.” 

Post Marshall Fire, “we’ve been getting building permits approved in under two weeks.”

“It’s not a perfect process,” he said, “but the county is really trying hard, bending over backward.”

The Lombardo family and their building team celebrate the groundbreaking of their new Passive House in Louisville, 15 months after they lost their home in the Marshall Fire. (Courtesy photo)

Rebuilding greener

Louisville also set a goal of 10-15 days for first review of a building permit. The city’s chief building official, who typically doesn’t handle building permits, sets aside Thursdays to process them for Marshall Fire victims, Ritchie said. “Sometimes Wednesdays, too.”

There are exceptions. Production builders, developing multiple properties at once, are sometimes pooling all the applications and submitting them together. But, generally, things are moving much more quickly than usual. 

The permit for Casey and Kevin Lombardo’s Louisville home took eight weeks — a bit longer than they initially thought. But the city’s first pass did indeed take two weeks from when it was submitted. 

The extra time was to address the Lombardos’ plan to build a Passive House, an energy-efficient structure that relies primarily on design, shading and ventilation for heating and cooling. After the family fled the Marshall Fire, they watched former neighbors quickly begin planning to rebuild. 

They were overwhelmed, having bought their previous homes already finished. It wasn’t until they attended a webinar from the Colorado Green Building Guild  that “something clicked,” as Casey said. 

“Seeing this possibility of this other type of home, that excited us,” she said. “That was a turning point.”

Added Kevin: “I went from, ‘I don’t want to have anything to do with this,’ to ‘I want to be deeply involved.’”

The Lombardos are not alone in pursuing greener rebuilds. Planners for Louisville and Superior said 70% of properties are meeting or exceeding the most recent energy codes, despite the towns exempting Marshall Fire homes from them.

Extensive rebates from the state and Xcel Energy made it financially feasible, builders said. Passive Houses like the Lombardo’s come with an extra incentive: They’re more resistant to fire.

“From the moment we decided to build, we decided we always want to look back at this time and say we did everything we could, we made the best choices,” said Casey. “We didn’t just throw up a house because we wanted a house.”

A rendering of the Lombaros’ in-progress rebuild, Sunflower Passive House. (Courtesy image)

‘We need everybody’

Not everyone will be able to rebuild. Most properties were under-insured relative to the cost of new construction. The area’s relative wealth meant that some families could cover the difference themselves, with second homes to move into in the meantime. 

Others don’t have that option. Sanchez said many of the folks who haven’t yet started the process in unincorporated Boulder County are still dealing with their insurance.

“Most still had a two-year stipend for living expenses,” she said, “A lot of people were riding that out and still working on their settlements.”

As the clock ticks down, Louisville is preparing for an increase in the number of applications it receives, anticipating 10 or so each week this summer, up from two or three per week now. 

Assuming the permitting process continues to be smooth in all three jurisdictions, the biggest slowdown may be in the actual construction, plagued by supply and labor shortages.

“To build 1,000 houses, we need everybody,” Rodwin said. “We need people coming in to help from all around the state in order to get people back in their homes in a reasonable time. We need every factory in all of Colorado building wall panels.”

And as more people move back into what are essentially construction zones, there will be the need to balance the currently relaxed rules for worksites with the needs of families living in a neighborhood. Louisville is planning for that now, Ritchie said.

“There’s still a million barriers” for these families before they return home.

In addition to the increased workload, Ritchie and other city officials are making time to attend as many move-ins as they can for returning households. Superior’s mayor went to one Wednesday afternoon; he’s committed to attend “every single one that I can.”

“We’re a small enough town that we can do something like this,” he said. “I can actually commit to attending 391.”

“It’s hard to work in these tragedies,” said Boulder County’s Sanchez, “but it’s really gratifying work for the planners to help someone through this.”

The Lombardos’ groundbreaking was Monday, April 3. Their building team, architects and landscape designers were there, with champagne and framed blueprints and gold-painted shovels for the Lombardos’ two boys. 

“There’s still a lot to go,” Kevin said. “But I’m hopeful.”

— Shay Castle, @shayshinecastle or on Mastodon at

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