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What Colorado's Marshall Fire Taught Me About Building Safe and Healthy Homes

As natural disasters and extreme weather continue to intensify, home-builders must prioritize resiliency, climate adaptation and green building in all new home construction.

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As the Marshall Fire, the most destructive fire in Colorado history, tore through Boulder County last month, those of us who are homebuilders in the area watched anxiously to see what would become of our customers and houses. Some of our homes are in Superior, which is located in the prairie where I never would have expected fire to strike, yet the blaze decimated much of the area. While many of the homes adjacent to our structures were destroyed, somehow ours were spared.

milehightraveler | Getty Images

As I looked at the pictures of the surrounding devastation, and our own homes standing with hardly a scratch, I was filled with gratitude, sadness and a host of questions. How much of our resilience was due to luck and how much was due to our building practices, which are centered on ensuring the health and safety of occupants? Equally as important: When will disaster strike again, and where? Is any locality safe from climate-driven destruction? And how can we brace against it?

Severe weather continues to wreak havoc

To be sure, the incidence of severe weather is accelerating due to climate change. In 2020, the U.S. suffered a staggering 22 natural disasters that caused at least a billion dollars in damage, surpassing the previous record of 16 set in both 2017 and 2011. These 2020 events included a record seven tropical cyclones, 13 severe storms, one drought and one wildfire. Last year, we almost met the record again — with 20 separate billion-dollar natural disasters, including a spate of deadly tornadoes that ripped through the heartland and the southeast.

The Marshall Fire was a sobering example of how climate change is impacting communities. It arose from a historic drought in Colorado, with a six-month run of almost no significant precipitation. And that drought followed a very wet period that gave rise to vegetation that eventually became fuel for the fires. Can we say to ourselves confidently that this is a fluke that will never happen again? Recent wildfire trends on the West Coast give us reason to doubt it.

Many real-estate developers look at these trends and say, what could we possibly do? They argue that climate is out of our control. But there are several things very much within our control as builders — and we have a responsibility to take them into account.

Related: What to Expect From the Climate in 2022

Resiliency, adaptability and green building

The first is resiliency. While not every disaster can be avoided by weather-resistant construction, many can. Perhaps fate played a role in our homes surviving the fire, but so did our airtight envelopes, our fire-resistant cladding and our fire-rated roofs. The Marshall Fire is going to cause our company to think even harder about what we’re specifying for our exteriors. We want to build shelters that actually provide shelter from what’s happening outside.

All builders can and must do the same, no matter where they are located. Using good materials on the outside of the home, tailored to withstand the risks inherent to your region — whether hurricane-force winds, extreme flooding or fire— is a basic measure that any builder can take. For the most part, these don’t involve earth-shattering costs.

The second priority must be adapting to the reality of climate change by creating healthier interiors. We can protect occupants from ozone and smoke by monitoring indoor air quality, utilizing top-notch filtration and installing smart systems that know what’s happening outside. A smart filtration unit will be able to detect high particulates from smoke and avoid bringing the air inside or at least scrub it first. These systems are easy to come by and affordable — often only a few hundred dollars.

Third and finally, we must build homes that aid in the ongoing fight against climate change. This means installing electric appliances, aiming for zero-energy homes and taking steps to offset the carbon emitted during construction. We also need to help homeowners understand the benefits of using reusable energy such as solar paneling to power their houses.

Resilient, healthy, climate-conscious construction must be a part of ESG — the investing movement built around environmental, social and governance factors. It’s my hope that ESG requirements will filter down into lending requirements, ensuring that every builder will take them into account. But we can’t wait for that to happen.

Related: 4 Principles for Building a 100-Year Home

Building homes with health and well-being in mind

Critics will say that no one builder can turn the tide on climate change, and that’s true. But is it possible to point ourselves in a direction where, over time, with enough of us working together, we could make a real impact on annual emissions? Absolutely.

All three goals — resiliency, adaptation and green building — work together. It is about building a home that operates together as a single system geared toward the health and well-being of the occupant. And remember: This is smart business too. It is about de-risking your company.

It is time for a wake-up call for all home-builders, no matter where we are located. No one is immune to natural disaster. As I learned anew through the harrowing experience of the Marshall Fire, building for the well-being of our customers must be our highest priority as builders. We must erect structures that are healthy, electric, resilient and decarbonized. It is the only way to prepare our customers for the future.

Related: The Impact of Technology on the Construction Industry

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