Pitkin County’s max home size may be reduced

SDS Real Estate, Steven Shane, The Lewis House, Little Cloud, Fri. June 25, 2010.
Steve Mundinger

Overseeing an effort to revamp the Pitkin County energy code to make it greener, commissioners will look at whether to lower the maximum size of houses now allowed in the county, currently set at 15,000 square feet.

“I’ve always wanted to cap the home size,” Pitkin County Commissioner George Newman said last week. “I’ve always felt the 15,000 (square feet) is really an arbitrary number put together years and years ago with nothing behind it.”

And while Newman’s four colleagues on the board might not be as gung-ho, all said in recent interviews they might support reducing the size cap.

“I think it’s worth a conversation,” Commissioner Patti Clapper said. “I might be able to support bringing down the 15,000 number.”

Two main factors are driving the debate about home size: a recent study by local energy providers showing that energy use rises exponentially with home size and the community desire to limit growth, commissioners said.

“The common expectation is that as a home increases in size, the energy used per area (per square foot) of home will decrease,” according to the study of Pitkin County energy use conducted in April by Resource Engineering Group. “Anecdotal evidence has previously shown the opposite.”

Indeed, hard evidence supplied by Holy Cross Energy and Black Hills Energy demonstrated the exact opposite, according to the study.

“Energy use per square foot of home increases as the home size grows — by three times,” the study says. “Put another way, a 10,000-square-foot home doesn’t use 10 times more energy than a 1,000 square-foot home, but instead uses 30 times more energy.”

Graphs supplied with the study show that energy use per square foot begins to rise more drastically once a house reaches 7,000 square feet.

“(Energy use) goes up exponentially beyond 7,000 square feet,” Newman said.

Reasons for the increase include snowmelt systems, pools, spas, complex audio/visual systems, “increased expectations of thermal comfort” and “a liberal use of glass in the high-end residential market,” according to the study.

Pitkin County’s annual community survey also plays into the efforts.

In the 2018 version, 71 percent of the 518 residents who responded rated limitations on house size as important, while 48 percent found great benefit in house size limitations.

Still, the house size debate is only part of Pitkin County’s current discussion about curbing energy use and making buildings in the county more energy efficient, County Manager Jon Peacock said. Other ideas include making large homes produce all the energy they consume, or perhaps placing limits on snowmelt systems and pool size, he said.

Commissioner Kelly McNicholas Kury echoed those sentiments.

“One thing I don’t want to assume is what’s driving (the energy use),” she said. “If energy use is what we’re after … then does just reducing the house size get us there, or is it the amenities?”

Commissioner Steve Child said he would like to see every new home be “net zero” in its energy use, meaning the home supplies as much energy as it uses.

“Then if you build a big house, it’s not as big of an impact,” Child said.

Board Chairman Greg Poschman said in September that the board’s “ambition” should be to limit the size of homes in the county, thus limiting the energy use.

The comment was made during the board’s discussion about significantly increasing fees on large new homes to offset their energy use.

Earlier this week, Poschman pointed to recent community surveys and said commissioners will need much more public input in the near future.

“We’re not trying to tip over the apple cart,” he said. “But the long-term goal this community has articulated to us … is trying to look at energy conservation and renewables.”

Newman pointed out that several county caucuses — including the Emma Caucus where he lives — have already restricted house size with an eye toward preserving rural character.

“I’ve always felt large homes in urban areas may be all right,” he said, “but in unincorporated Pitkin County, large homes have always been sort of an issue for me.”

Nothing has yet been decided, Newman said. Commissioners are expecting information back from the Community Development Department, which has been meeting with local developers, land-use planners and others, by April, and will begin debating any changes after that.

“I don’t see anything changing until at the earliest the end of this year,” Newman said.


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