The housing project in a Denver suburb struggled at first but has recently drawn many visitors from nearby — and now from the other side of the world
by Allen Best
Ten journalists from the former Soviet republics called Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan spent a couple hours in the Denver suburb of Arvada on Sept. 24 to learn about the net-zero housing project called Geos.
This was the latest of many tours that project developer Norbert Klebl has hosted since his project gained national attention last year. He has hosted Colorado state legislators, city council members from Boulder, Golden, and Westminster, building contractors and others. This one was different. Two interpreters were needed to translate between English and Russian.
Klebl explained the major components of what it took to create housing that requires no natural gas. He started with 18 geothermal wells drilled 250 feet deep. Heat and coolness can be extracted, depending upon the need. He situated the houses and townhomes in a way to maximize solar gain. He insulated well and installed triple-paned windows. Solar panels are deployed, too.
No detail has been too small for his attention. He can talk for hours.
Austrian-born Klebl has a fascinating history. He managed factories in Europe and even Asia before landing in Boulder in the 1990s. At some point, he began tinkering with how to build a net-zero housing development.
For his experiment, he chose the unlikely place of Arvada. I say unlikely because I live here and, for the most part, I see conventional suburban sensibilities. Arvada tends to follow, not lead, cautiously allowing others to absorb the cost of inevitable mistakes.
You might think that a university town, say Boulder or Fort Collins, would be the front-leader on building technology. Both do have very forward-looking regulations and housing developments. But when Klebl began looking at raw land with water and sewer hookups, Arvada swam to the surface of candidates.
In 2008, Klebl got approval from the Arvada City Council for his forward-looking plans. He credits the mayor at that time, Bob Frie, with allowing him the room to do something then seen as wacky, building a subdivision without natural gas lines.
During the tour by the Asian journalists, I interjected my observation, as I have followed this project closely during the last 15 years. Klebl faced huge challenges in getting this project off the ground:
1) He had never previously developed real estate nor had he been a general contractor.
2) The techniques he chose were ahead of the curve. I told the journalists that he was 20 years ahead of his time. One particular challenge was finding subcontractors with the ability to execute what were then – and still largely are – unconventional techniques. Nine different crafts – plumbers, electricians, carpenters and so forth – were needed. Those rare skills elevated his costs considerably.
3) His building materials were not always the sort available at your local Home Depot. The type of triple-pane windows he wanted, for example, have only two manufacturers in the world (one of them nearby in Boulder County).
Together, the higher price of materials and personnel jacked up the cost, making the units 10% more expensive comparable to housing elsewhere.
4) Finally, you may recall the real estate market in 2008. The nation was going into recession. The thaw began in 2009, but almost no building was underway.
A city councilman at the time dismissed Klebl’s plans as wild-eyed and impractical. “It will never happen,” he said, pointing to the lack of construction (but failing to note the lack of building elsewhere, too).
All of this conspired to make funding more difficult to secure. He didn’t break ground until 2014. Then there was show and tell, a proving-up of the concept.
At some point, buyers determined to minimize their reliance on fossil fuels began seeking him out. Some were locals, but others came from far away.
Dar-Lon Chang had already garnered a flicker of national attention. He had worked 16 years as an engineer for ExxonMobil before he became disillusioned and quit, protesting that the company was dragging its feet on converting from fossil fuels. From his home in Houston, he searched around the country before settling on Geos as perhaps the most progressive vision to be found short of the banana-growing house of Amory Lovins near Old Snowmass.
The study by Chang corroborated what I thought I had understood: Klebl’s project had few peers. Once, in 2018, I squeezed in a trip to the University of California-Davis expecting to find laboratories of innovation. What I found seemed to be several steps behind what was in my own backyard.
In May 2021, Chang and others from Geos sat down with me to share their angst and anger. Because of a divorce, Klebl had been forced to sell the land with entitlements but without development to another developer. He says he received assurances that the developer planned to continue his vision, but by late 2020 it had become clear that the developer had other intentions. The company planned to install natural gas lines.
For various reasons, I couldn’t find a market for the story (“That’s nice,” was one response) and I was too busy with other projects—a mega wildfire story, the ending of a monumental legislative session, plus the usual stuff, including finding funding—to write something for Big Pivots.
But others eventually found their way to the story, most prominently a piece on CNN. That seems to have drawn the attention of the State Department, which periodically puts on tours for journalists from other countries on environmental topics.
(I myself have been on two trips to Canada, courtesy of the Canadian government – although perhaps with unintended effect. I left the tar sands of Alberta more persuaded that the Keystone XL pipeline was a bad idea).
The five central Asian countries together have a population of 70 million people. Colorado has a population nearing 6 million.
Income levels in the Asian countries, however, lag significantly. Gross domestic product per capita in the United States, fifth highest in the world, is $65,297. The countries from which the journalists came range from $7,308 to $27,757.
That’s not a typo.
Their electricity comes primarily from coal-fired generation, compared to 33% in Colorado (and set to decline to almost nothing by decade’s end).
What did the journalists learn at Geos that they will want to share with their readers and listeners in Asia? That’s hard to say. I asked one, who spoke excellent English, how climate change is impacting his country. He mentioned that 16 million people are imperiled by the shrinking of the Aral Sea, formerly the fourth largest inland sea in the world.
He seemed amazed that the state government could not specify to builders how they must build. (I explained that it’s complicated, more so in Colorado than in other places, where there is a delicate dance between local autonomy and state authority—although Colorado has become more muscular as it seeks to tamp down emissions from buildings. See story on next page).
While in Colorado, the journalists also chatted with Grace Rink, the first director (beginning in 2020) of Denver’s first climate agency about e-bikes.
In Boulder County, they were taken for a tour of Niwot Ridge, the facility operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; and they also talked about climate change with researchers from the National Center for Atmospheric Research.
From Colorado, the journalists were scheduled to visit Evansville, Ind., to talk with operators of a coal-fired power plant. Then they continued on to Pittsburg, a place once dank and dark with coal smoke that has reinvented itself.
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As always, Allen, an enjoyable read, and an interesting story.