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"Colorado’s first geosolar development” in Arvada is a model for any city 

Net-zero hero

click to enlarge Geos structures rely on photovoltaics, but also passive solar and insulation. - COURTESY GEOS
  • Courtesy Geos
  • Geos structures rely on photovoltaics, but also passive solar and insulation.
When Norbert Klebl first pitched the idea of the Geos Neighborhood in Arvada in 2008, he was met with reactions ranging from intrigue to utter confusion.

“At that time, it was as if I came from the moon,” says Klebl, Geos’ master developer. “Most of these people didn’t know any of this stuff.”

It was not only the ideology of the Geos Neighborhood — which proclaims itself “Colorado’s first geosolar development” — that caused setbacks, but also the housing market crash at the time. Klebl put his Geos project on the back burner and started development on 12 individual houses in Boulder, where, two years ago, the average home price surpassed $1 million. The crash did not take a toll on those houses. But Klebl kept coming back to his project, one that has implications for Colorado Springs’, or really any city’s, sustainable building potential.

“I wanted to build houses for the average homebuyer, not just for people who don’t know what to do with their money,” Klebl said.

He wanted to establish a neighborhood that achieved net-zero energy, meaning the amount of renewable energy created equals the total energy the building uses annually. In layman’s terms, residents pay a $10- to $20-per-month fee for an energy meter — that’s the extent of their power bill.

The big question everybody asked Klebl was: Does this actually work?

“It’s a pilot unit; it’s a prototype,” Klebl says. “It needed to be proven, and it was.”

According to Klebl, his Geos homes are 75 percent more efficient than ENERGY STAR homes. There are eight established Geos homes now with residents — the first of whom moved in in January 2017 — with 12 more coming this year. Those eight homeowners were so energy-conscious through the first year that there’s actually a 30 percent energy surplus, he says; they’re producing that much more energy than they’re consuming. That’s thanks in part to rooftop photovoltaic panels on each structure. How else?

1. Southern-facing glass allows for maximum solar gains, and the overhangs on that side protect residents from too much sunlight during summer. The orientation of the houses within the neighborhood increases efficiency by not having them all parallel with each other, but rather, perpendicular.

2. The most underrated and oft-overlooked element of energy efficiency, according to Klebl, is the home’s shell, i.e. air tightness. They “tighten” the houses everywhere from windows to doors to the ceiling with heavy insulation. Klebl says Geos homes exchange air every 20 hours, compared to three for the standard house.

3. Mechanical innovations ensure internal air quality. Every Geos home has a unique sensor within to do so, which also manages the air transfer. Essentially, stale indoor air enters a heat exchanger on its way out, warming the outside air on its way in during winter, or cooling the air in summer.
Klebl says a dry state like Colorado proves ideal for such a system, though he keeps an eye on climate change for the future. “The only thing which could happen is if our global warming makes our summers even hotter than they are right now,” Klebl says. “At the moment, my system is pretty well balanced. I produce as much heat in the winter as cool [air] in the summer.”

And as far as price, Klebl wants to maintain a cost no more than 10 percent higher than the average house. The average home cost in Arvada, according to Zillow, is $381,200. Geos’ rowhomes start at $365,000, the townhomes are $425,000 and the single-family homes are $600,000.

Klebl grew up in Salzburg, Austria. He earned a degree in petroleum engineering there, then earned a Fulbright scholarship and got a master of business administration degree at Columbia University in New York City. Following 15 years as an industrial manager in Vienna, Klebl’s tenure as a Coloradan began in the early 1990s. He and Boulder were a perfect match.

At the turn of the millennium, Boulder County created radically environment-conscious regulations. Houses of 3,000-plus square feet needed to have at least 25 percent of their energy from solar; homes 7,000 square feet or more had to be 100 percent. (As of 2016, houses of 5,000-plus square feet have to be net-zero.)

“All of a sudden, they created this enormous movement in innovation,” Klebl says, noting he possessed the right skills to capitalize on it.

In 1996, the Passivhaus-Institut was founded in Darmstadt, Germany, with the goal of making ultra-low-energy buildings. The idea is for these structures to not need any active heating or cooling. The simplest versions of these buildings, which Klebl has now expanded upon in Arvada, is to have south-facing glass, bring passive solar gains and have plenty of insulation.

“I said, ‘Hey, what works in Austria must work over here,’ particularly since we have twice as much sunshine as they have.”

Klebl bought 25 acres of a 200-acre industrial-zoned lot on tax liens. He eventually won the zoning battle with the city of Arvada by showing the council his approach in his Boulder developments. His plot was rezoned residential. He worked on side projects in the same vein, even building net-zero-energy homes in Boulder, but it was not on the grander scale of the Geos Neighborhood.

It was not until 2014 that the banks switched from universal rejection during the worst of the market crash to dishing out loans for Geos.

But as soon as Klebl overcame one obstacle, a new one formed. The big building and construction companies dared not touch a radical housing development. “They don’t know what to do with it,” Klebl says. “It’s too complicated.”

So he enlisted smaller builders that typically take on 20 to 30 projects per year. It took a while to educate them, and many bailed on him during the process. “We had to search ... for subcontractors who understood and were able to build our quality,” he says. “That was really, really difficult... I had to basically subsidize the first eight homes in order to make them happen.”
click to enlarge Overhangs above windows guard residents against too much solar gain during summer months, while houses are set in perpendicular bunches. - COURTESY GEOS
  • Courtesy Geos
  • Overhangs above windows guard residents against too much solar gain during summer months, while houses are set in perpendicular bunches.
His gamble paid off, though, and he now has three different companies committed for future Geos Neighborhood construction.

Stephanie Andelman runs the marketing side of the Geos Neighborhood. She says there are two different types of prospective or actual Geos homeowners — those who live an environmentally conscious lifestyle and seek this type of home out, and those who come across the project at random and find it interesting and in an ideal location.

An example of the former is a pair of scientists from Dallas who found Geos online, came for a visit and bought one of the in-construction townhomes. During an open house in late February, speaking in an upstairs bedroom of one of the eight currently occupied rowhomes, Klebl says presales have turned away some prospective owners who aren’t willing to wait months or years to move in. No matter, as people continue to hear about Geos via word of mouth, he says.

Case in point, as we are talking, Lori Fuqua Gregory walks in, introduces herself to Klebl, and says she decided to come to this open house after hearing about Geos only an hour-and-a-half ago. With her is Eric Krohn, who works in business development for Cascade Solar & Electric. Not only does Krohn handle all of the solar components for Geos, he’s also a potential customer down the road.

“This is what I want,” Krohn says, “this is the future of homes.”

Andelman says those who sign contracts are interested in a lifestyle that’s “light on the earth, that’s a smart-living concept, that’s community-oriented... And they are very happy and proud that they don’t have to pay for energy.”

A local Colorado Springs project with similar goals is Earthship Village Colorado, which has been dormant on its launchpad for four years. Though not fully net-zero energy, the earthship idea is a self-contained home that incorporates “passive solar, thermal mass construction using trash and recycled materials (including tires), photovoltaics, wind turbines and integrated water systems,” according to an article in the Independent (Cover, June 4, 2014).

An ongoing legal battle over water rights that will likely extend until 2019 has halted the earthships movement to the point that — according to Sara Foster Berry, Earthship Village land manager and project developer — they have had to sell 75 acres (almost 20 percent of the planned development) to “keep the bank at bay.”

In the immediate future, Foster Berry and her husband are buying the ranch land on which they reside and plan to build two earthships on the property. Despite the setbacks, Foster Berry maintains that outside interest remains high for the Earthship Village, an alternative development venture here that’s attracting similar sentiments to Geos.

“It’s a dream for a lot of people who are just tired of the grind, basically, and looking for something more resilient, something less toxic to human health and environmental health,” Foster Berry says. “There’s tremendous enthusiasm about it. They’re kind of searching for their Shangri-La. Not that we’re close to Shangri-La; it’s rattlesnake-infested prairie.”

As for Geos, Klebl’s eventual goal is 300 units — 100 townhomes, 100 single-family homes and 100 condos — inside five years.

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