BOULDER, Colo. (AP) - A $50,000 home in Boulder County is difficult to imagine.
But that’s the goal for two local companies pitching alternative solutions to the region’s affordable housing crisis: Studio Shed of Louisville and Longmont’s Zometool.
The two firms make small structures that could be used for residential housing if building codes in Boulder County communities were tweaked, reported the Daily Camera (https://bit.ly/2aHI0oY).
Studio Shed’s products range from about 80 to 420 square feet. The largest offering, a 14-foot by 30-foot, starts at $19,900. For a few thousand extra, you can have it outfitted with insulation, glass doors, flooring, lighting - even a paint job on the interior walls.
Plans for the Zometool houses aren’t quite as firm, but the plan is for a $50,000, 600-square-foot dome shell with functional plumbing and electrical systems. An optional second floor (for an extra $6,000) would bump the square footage up to around 1,000.
“I’ve wanted to do housing since I was three,” said Paul Hildebrant, an inventor and founder of Longmont’s Zometool. “Before I could speak, houses talked to me.”
Hildebrandt, who no longer holds a position at Zometool but continues to advocate for the product, is one of the many minds behind the Zome home, a domed structure built using the invention of Steve Baer, a system of plastic struts and connecting balls that - with some tweaks from Hildebrant and others - became Zometool.
The product, similar to Tinker Toys, is sold by Longmont’s Zometool as a children’s toy, but it also helped scientist secure a Nobel prize: Dan Shechtman won in 2011 for creating a model of a previously unknown structure called a quasicrystal. He used a Zometool to do it.
But the original intention was always to use the Zome technology to build affordable housing.
Drop City 2.0?
The idea got its first go at mainstream awareness and acceptance in the 1960s in Trinidad, when Baer and a group of artists established Drop City, a community of structures that combined elements of Bear’s zome geometry with Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic designs.
Some of the original structures cost far less than the current $50,000 iteration.
“It cost us $14 to build - it was constructed from salvaged car steel purchased for next to nothing from salvage yards,” said Clark Richert, another Drop City alum who is consulting with Hildenbrandt on the resurrection of the zome home.
Richert lived “comfortably” in the dome for three years as Drop City drew free thinkers from all over the country, garnering fame as the first rural hippie commune before being abandoned in 1973.
It was perhaps that association with the counter culture that kept Zome houses from becoming mainstream, Baer said.
“The thinking about a box is so simple,” he explained. “You can divide a box into other boxes; you can put the porch for a box with a very simple right angle - it’s very convenient.”
The prevalence of square homes, boring as Baer might find them, has created a twofold barrier to the creation of Drop City 2.0: Not only do many consider domed houses unusual, but the multitude of building codes in the county essentially prevent them from being built within existing communities.
“There has to be some sort of architectural compatibility,” said Ben Ortiz, a planner with the City of Longmont. “A dome in any neighborhood in Longmont would run into some problems with respect to that because it would look so substantially different.”
‘We have to look at all our options’
Nearly every neighborhood in Boulder County has similar aesthetic requirements. Even if a group of dome home enthusiasts banded together and purchased a plot of land on which to construct a Zome zion, Longmont’s minimum square footage requirement for single family homes (800 square feet) would thwart those efforts.
Zome houses would be 600 square feet; an optional second floor (for an additional $6,000) would nearly double that.
That’s plenty big enough for everywhere else in Boulder County: Louisville has no minimums; Lafayette and unincorporated county land follow the International Residential Code of minimum room size of 70 square feet; and Boulder’s 270-square-foot single family minimum is accommodating.
The IRC was updated in 2015 to lower the minimum square footage recommendation from 120 square feet, in response to the rising demand for tiny homes - typically considered less than 500 square feet.
Closer to home, a few municipalities are considering changes that would make it easier for tiny homes to take root.
Longmont City Council at its retreat earlier this year discussed the possibility of tiny home communities, with council member-at-large Polly Christensen advocating for more city-led efforts at providing alternative housing.
“If the city owned land, we could use it to do all sorts of experimental housing: tiny homes, shipping containers,” she said at the February event.
Her interest is supported by Longmont’s residents: A public survey showed that 26 percent of citizens would like to see more tiny housing in the city.
Boulder City Council in the fall might look at rules governing accessory dwelling units, structures on property that already have an owner-occupied home. Current standards on density and size limit the real-life practicality of ADUs as an affordable solution, said city council member Aaron Brockett.
“We absolutely have an affordable housing crisis in this city, and we need to (be) looking at all our options if we’re ever going to retain the long-term economic diversity of our residents.”
‘It’s kind of immovable’
ADUs are one area where Jeremy Horgan-Kobelski sees potential for his company, Louisville-based Studio Shed, to provide a solution.
Studio Shed makes prefabricated buildings to serve as backyard sanctuaries - “The man cave, refined,” as Horgan-Kobelski likes to say.
Most customers use the structures as studios or workshops. But an increasing number of people along the West Coast are placing orders for one or more modular units to serve as their primary dwelling, and the company has a line of larger structures, the Summit Series, that it touts as ideal guest accommodations or mother-in-law suites.
“You don’t need a 2,000-square-foot home addition,” he said. “You just need a little more space.”
Because they are built with traditional housing materials - lumber, cement siding and glass - and are intended to be placed in backyards, they don’t face the challenges the zome homes do of fitting in.
The structures, priced between $5,000 and $20,000, can also be a more cost-effective solution than a traditional home addition, eliminating the need for architecture, design and foundation work.
But of course, in Boulder County, the costs of the structure itself, the so-called “sticks and bricks,” isn’t the main problem: It’s the high value of the property itself, and the cost to connect to municipal services.
Land costs typically run between 20 and 25 percent of the home costs, said Steven Erickson, managing director and principal at Louisville-based builder Boulder Creek, and municipal fees - for things such as water and sewer hookups and various permits - make up another 10 percent.
As an example, Erickson pointed to the company’s current development of single-family homes in Erie, priced around $400,000 each. About $40,000 of that is in building permits alone, “which is very typical for the Front Range.
“When you’ve got 35 percent of the home cost in land and permitting, it leaves a much smaller section of total aggregate price that you can carve down in efficiencies in building. That’s a big number, and it’s kind of immovable.”
‘We’ve got to get creative’
Byron Fears said about half of the people who contact his tiny home company, Simblissity, about custom-built homes are from Boulder County, but the majority of orders come from outside the county.
Often, Fears said, potential buyers are scared away once they realize how expensive it will be to set up a tiny home on a foundation (required in the unincorporated parts of the county, though not everywhere) and hook it up to water and sewer.
The costs, although reduced for smaller structures, are “just absurd,” Byron said. “A water tap can be tens of thousands of dollars. It’s just so expensive.”
For those reasons, Hildebrandt and his team say they aren’t even going to attempt to pursue a zome home development in Boulder County, instead targeting nearby Adams and Weld.
Horgan-Kobelski, on the other hand, is pushing hard for various local municipalities to tweak some of their regulations to make it easier for Studio Sheds to be lived in.
“It’s a very smart solution to address some of Boulder’s housing issues,” he said. “When you compare something like an ADU to larger multi-family development, it has lower impact on neighborhoods; it allows home owners to house an aging parent or rent a flexible space for extra income.
“It’s not really that far out of the box.”
Going a bit outside the box might not be a bad thing, Longmont council member Christensen said.
“We’ve got to get creative,” she said. “We can’t keep doing the same things we’ve been doing and expect things to change.”
Information from: Daily Camera, https://www.dailycamera.com/
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