Energy efficiency turns affordable housing into affordable living

Affordable housing is crucial to maintaining healthy communities and a sustainable local workforce. While there’s a lot happening in our region to increase supply, what’s most encouraging to me is the shift to a more refined approach where the goal is not just affordable housing but affordable living.

Several local projects are demonstrating how incorporating energy-efficient design and clean energy can lower utility bills and the total cost of occupancy. At the same time, programs like Garfield Clean Energy are working to make existing housing more energy-efficient and thus more affordable to live in.

Habitat for Humanity Roaring Fork has been on the cutting edge of these developments. Its Wapiti Commons project, currently nearing completion in Rifle, is designed to maximize the “double bottom line” of affordable homeownership and low monthly bills.

Habitat opted to make the 20-unit complex all-electric and net-zero – a first for multifamily housing in Rifle. Heating, cooling and hot water will be provided by high-efficiency heat pump systems; being all-electric, the buildings will emit no greenhouse gases directly, and their indirect emissions will decrease as the grid adds more renewables.

The addition of rooftop solar gives Wapiti Commons its net-zero status. That means that it’s projected to produce as much energy as it consumes, on average, over the course of a year.

Habitat Roaring Fork CEO Gail Schwartz and State Sen. Perry Will recently visited the Wapiti Commons project.


By Dave Reed
This column was originally published in the July 12, 2023 edition of the Glenwood Springs Post Independent.

Net-zero construction is very rare in multifamily buildings and it’s even harder to achieve affordably. Habitat used an innovative panelized construction system that’s not only cheaper up front but also makes it more affordable to beef up insulation in the walls and roof. That reduces heating and cooling needs and, in turn, makes it possible to go with smaller, less expensive heat pumps and solar arrays.

The bottom line for residents will be rock-bottom energy bills that are essentially the utility’s minimum monthly fees. And the comfort and satisfaction of living in a carbon-free home? Priceless.

Two small Habitat parcels in Glenwood Springs are next up for development, and they’re aiming for an even more efficient overall design. Habitat is partnering with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory to optimize the buildings and mechanical systems for the lowest total cost of occupancy. The units are expected to use 38 percent less energy than if they were built under Glenwood’s already rigorous energy code. The energy cost savings will more than pay for the upgrades.

While Habitat is a nonprofit with a mission to create housing that’s affordable to live in, the for-profit Aspen Skiing Company has followed a similar playbook in its midvalley employee housing complex, The Hub at Willits.

The ski company was walking its talk on climate when it decided to make the 43-unit apartment building all-electric and solar-powered, but that wasn’t the only consideration. The problem all businesses in our area face is that employees are hard to attract and retain due to the high cost of housing. By minimizing energy costs, the ski company is able to pass the savings on to its employees in the form of a more sustainable rent.

Facing the same challenges, the Roaring Fork School District is now getting ready to break ground on a 50-unit teacher-housing project in Carbondale that will be – you guessed it – all-electric. It will also feature six electric vehicle charging stations with wiring for 33 more, allowing residents to electrify their transportation as well.

Energy-efficient design and clean energy can also make existing housing more affordable. As a member of Garfield Clean Energy, RFTA is taking advantage of free energy consulting as it prepares to redevelop the old Rodeway Inn on Highway 6 into employee housing. By replacing inefficient window units with high-tech heat pumps, RFTA will be able to pass an estimated $240,000 in energy cost savings on to its renters over the next 15 years.

The fact is, almost all existing housing can be made more affordable to live in with a few cost-effective energy fixes.

Garfield Clean Energy offers free “coaching” to all county residents and businesses on how to choose the best-bang-for-the-buck measures and where to get funding. Its ReEnergize Garfield County program, launched last year, provides financial aid to help low- and moderate-income households lower their utility bills and make their homes healthier and more comfortable.

The trend is clear and hopeful. Technology, economics, government incentives and building codes are all nudging us toward a more energy-efficient (and ultimately all-electric) future. Extra encouragement comes from onsite solar, which enables buildings to function as their own power plants, boosting energy independence and buffering against energy price increases.

If they aren’t already, local jurisdictions should be using their development-review leverage to require developers to adhere to high energy-efficiency and clean-energy standards. It’s good for business, good for community and good for the environment.

And if your energy bills seem kind of high, or your home is draftier or stuffier than you’d like, talk to a Garfield Clean Energy coach. It’ll be good for your pocketbook.