Dar-Lon Chang moved to this Denver suburb to start a new life.
In Houston, he’d spent 16 years as an engineer at ExxonMobil, the nation’s largest fossil fuel producer. In Colorado, he planned to pursue a career in renewable energy, but the real draw was his new house.
Oriented towards the sun, with solar panels on the roof and high-performing insulation, it was capable of generating as much carbon-free energy as it consumed. What little heating and cooling it required came from an efficient, all-electric heat pump.
Through these parallel tracks—the domestic and the professional—he and his family would become part of the climate solution, he hoped, rather than participating in its destruction.
But nearly three years after moving, Chang is learning how difficult change can be. Despite applying for jobs, and getting some interviews with potential employers, he remains out of work. And while his home is everything he had hoped for, the fossil fuel-free community it was meant to be a part of now appears unlikely to grow as planned.
Chang’s home is one of 28 that were built over the past several years as part of the Geos Neighborhood, a sustainable community in Arvada. Geos was supposed to include 254 more homes just like Chang’s, but after the original developer was forced to sell last year, as part of a divorce, a new owner changed course, making plans to install natural gas lines for the rest of the project.
Dismayed, Chang and some of his neighbors appealed directly to the new owner, Peak Development Group, and to local politicians. They spoke passionately against the move to gas at city council hearings, and, when that failed, they organized protests and a petition, even printing shirts saying: “No Gas Holes.”
The building sector is emerging as a contentious new front in the nation’s transition to cleaner energy, as some states and the Biden administration seek to cut greenhouse gas emissions across the economy. Buildings produce about 13 percent of the nation’s emissions, more if you include those from generating the electricity that powers the structures’ lights and appliances.
The sector’s emissions have increased slightly in recent decades, but they need to fall sharply if the country is to meet President Joe Biden’s goal of reaching net-zero emissions economy-wide by 2050. For that to happen, said Mike Henchen, a principal at RMI, a clean energy think-tank, buildings need to stop burning natural gas in furnaces, boilers and stoves. And the easiest place to start that phase-out is in new construction.
A small but growing number of cities and states have begun passing laws or ordinances to ban natural gas in new buildings, with New York City being the most recent. Those steps have spurred a backlash from fossil fuel companies and some in the building sector, who have successfully pushed at least 20 state legislatures to prohibit local governments from enacting natural gas bans, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council.
But Henchen said that perhaps the biggest force preventing a more rapid shift away from fossil fuels in the building sector is behavioral.
“There really is this inertia around gas,” he said, “where gas is the default, and all the parts of the system, all the key players just sort of think that way.”
Chad Ellington, owner of Peak Development, said he had tried to find a builder who would construct the homes without natural gas, but that no one was willing to do so. Norbert Klebl, the original developer, said that before he was forced to sell, he had found two builders who were prepared to complete the homes without gas, but that they would have taken three or four years to finish. Those builders did not respond to requests for comment.
For Chang, the news that the new developer would incorporate gas in the remaining homes was a blow. After trying unsuccessfully to work for a more sustainable future while he was at Exxon, and having failed so far to find a job in renewable energy, the derailing of his fossil fuel-free community sent him reeling, he said.
“It seemed like the part of my life that I had control over, that I could move my family to this neighborhood and could support this neighborhood, that part was being crushed,” Chang said. As he has struggled to find work, Chang has thrown himself into the community, giving tours to state lawmakers and anyone who would listen to show that a different way of living was possible. “All of my hope from a personal standpoint, to help be a part of a seed that spreads into more and more developments that are built without fossil fuels, was crushed.”
‘A Hopeless, Challenging Task’
When Klebl moved to Boulder, Colorado in 1993, he found a home with a view of the mountains. One day, he was reading the newspaper when the corner of the page began to flutter, as if in a breeze. He looked outside and saw that a cold wind was blowing down from the Rockies, and making its way into his home, even with all the windows shut.
Klebl, now 82, spent a year weatherizing the house and became obsessed. He began meeting with architects and engineers, he said, learning about how to make homes more energy efficient.
Klebl is originally from Austria, and in neighboring Germany, a new movement was growing behind “passive houses,” air-tight constructions that were oriented in such a way that they captured the sun’s heat in winter and blocked it out during summer, minimizing the need for heating and cooling.
Eager to put these ideas into practice, Klebl purchased 25 acres of undeveloped land on the outskirts of Arvada. With a team of architects, he planned a development of 282 homes that would incorporate these design elements at a relatively affordable price. In addition to the physical orientation, the homes would use geothermal heat pumps, which draw on the relatively constant temperatures found underground to heat and cool a house. To control air quality, vents would pull air out of the homes and pass it through heat exchangers that would capture the warmth in winter and pass that heat on to the fresh air being drawn into the house.
It took Kleb years to obtain permits and rezoning, and then the 2008 housing crisis set him back, but he finally broke ground on the development in 2015 and, over the course of more than four years, completed 28 homes. Some buyers, like Chang, moved to Geos from across the country after searching for just such a place.
“They all just were so excited that anyone would go through the bother to build a house like this,” Klebl said.
But all that bother took a toll on Klebl. Because so few people had built homes in this way, he said, he had to search exhaustively for suppliers and installers and train each subcontractor he hired. He worked through weekends for five years, and, he said, his marriage fell apart.
“My wife said, ‘You’re married to Geos,’” Klebl said, “‘you’re not married to me.’” (Eileen Starnes, Klebl’s ex-wife, declined to comment for this article but said she did not remember saying this.)
The couple separated in 2013, and in 2018 she filed for divorce. Court records indicate that Klebl and Geos faced financial troubles, including, at one point in 2019, hundreds of thousands of dollars of unpaid fees and defaults on some loans. A judge placed Geos in the hands of a receiver and in 2020, a lender initiated foreclosure, according to the records.
Klebl denies that he was struggling financially. The foreclosure, he said, came after a judge would not approve interest payments. The unpaid bills, he said, were only those withheld until the work was finalized.
Michael Tavel, the architect who helped design the neighborhood, said Klebl’s struggles were those that any small developer might have faced, particularly when trying to build something innovative.
“He’s a small, tiny, one-man-shop developer trying to compete in a large industry,” Tavel said. “It’s kind of like somebody inventing a new car and building it in their garage trying to compete with Ford Motor Company. It’s kind of a hopeless, challenging task.”
Tavel, who specializes in sustainable design, said the structure of the housing industry makes it extremely difficult to try something new.
“When you change one thing, such as changing the mechanical system from a gas furnace to electric, in theory it shouldn’t be any more expense,” he said. But when you actually try to do it, he added, “there’s adversity coming from a thousand different places.”
Banks, suppliers, installers, laborers, all of them have built their businesses around a certain way of constructing homes, Tavel said, and that way generally burns fossil fuels, at least in much of the country. “In an industry that relies on massive amounts of repetition and a massive amount of familiarity of everybody associated with the industry of how things are done,” he said, if someone changes one thing, “it could create enough chaos that you can’t make it work economically.”
Tavel said the building industry is in a similar state as the auto industry, where sales have yet to shift dramatically to electric vehicles even as stand-out companies like Tesla show success is possible. “While the science might be all worked out, it can take generations for the science to find its way into the economic and regulatory realities of an industry,” he said. “And I think that’s where the Geos Neighborhood finds itself.”
Pushing for Change
Ellington, Geos’s new developer, said that when he bought the property, he wanted to complete it as planned.
“The fossil fuel-free goal was one we researched exhaustively,” he said. “We talked to some of the most green-building, at-the-forefront-of-technology builders, and none of them would do geothermal for the rest of the build-out. So it became a balancing act of decision making.”
Ellington pointed to the fact that Klebl was only able to build 28 homes over more than four years as evidence that the idea wasn’t viable. Klebl insists that he could have completed the final 250 homes without gas using two builders, but that it would have taken longer than a traditional developer might want to wait.
Ellington said the homes will still include many of the original design features that make them highly efficient, including the passive solar orientation and rooftop solar panels. But he said the market isn’t quite ready to go fossil-fuel free.
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Henchen, of RMI, said all-electric homes are economically viable in pretty much any part of the country now, but many developers, builders and home buyers simply don’t yet realize it.
“We’re at the front end of a market transformation,” he said. “Things are already changing fast, we want them to go much faster.”
In January, Denver, right next door, said it would begin implementing new building codes to phase-in all-electric heating and appliances for new construction over several years.
Chang said he does not buy Ellington’s argument that he couldn’t build the homes without gas, and pointed to his own house to show that it could be done (court records say Klebl testified that he broke-even on the first 28 homes, but anticipated profits for subsequent phases). Chang and his neighbors haven’t given up their fight to stop the new homes from burning gas, but he acknowledges it is all but certain they will. So he and some neighbors have turned to local politics instead. Chang has begun canvassing parts of the city, hoping to build support for city council candidates who will work to phase out gas from Arvada’s buildings.
“The bigger hope of our neighbors is even though we might fail in stopping this next phase from being built without gas, that we can get enough people knowledgeable about this, enough people upset about this, like we are, that they’ll push for more legislation to phase out gas.”
In the meantime, he’s still looking for a job in clean energy.