The cost of building in Boulder


Housing construction costs have risen sharply in the last few years.  This means that not only the large, market developer home builder prices are up, but so are those of the small general contractors and all the associated trades - plumbers, carpenters, electricians, etc.  

That is very apparent especially in Boulder.

warmer climes

sky and sea

sky and sea

As the weather in Colorado is heading toward more much-needed snow, I am longing a bit for the sun and warmth of warmer climes.

These photos were taken by me over the holidays in the Florida Keys.  The Keys are a stringy set of islands connected by the Overseas Highway, like so many necklace beads.  Each island is just barely over sea level and the buildings are predominantly one- and two-story piles.  Consequently it is a landscape dominated by the horizontal layers of sea and sky.



You might imagine that this would inspire similarly horizontal architecture, not just low and single-story stuff, but an architecture that celebrates the horizontal planes like the Prairie School work in the Midwest.  Alas, quality architecture has not really arrived in the Keys.  With the exception of the older parts of Key West, the built environment is uniformly cheap and composed largely of inexpensive variations of painted concrete block.

sea and sky

sea and sky

I'm sure there are architects and property owners down there trying to up the game a bit, but it will be a long task.  Unlike the almost limitless prairie, the potential of building down in the Keys would inevitably face the pressures of expensive and scarce land to build upon.  The dueling pressures of a relentless horizontality of the landscape and the efficiency of vertical building would be a rich conflict from which a quality architecture could grow forth.  As the old cliche' goes, difficult sites make for good architecture.

photos by Boulder architects M. Gerwing Architects

Dakota Ridge Village house, construction progress

MT framing 01

MT framing 01

Framing has begun in earnest on a new house we designed for the Dakota Ridge neighborhood in north Boulder.  Weeks of excavation and foundations do not lend much to the physical presence of the building, but in few short days, a flurry of framing happens and the building begins to take shape.

The pace of construction is not apparently consistent.  The largest single physical change happens during framing when the building takes its initial shape and the scale and size of the elements can be clearly seen.  This all happens rather quickly - a few weeks - compared with the overall one year building schedule.  What follows next is the time-consuming effort to put into place all the basic plumbing and electrical and mechanical systems.  This rough-in period often far exceeds the framing and seems painfully slow by comparison.  Weeks go by with very little changes - a pipe here or there, some electrical wires - and the pace seems glacial when set next to the dramatic physical transformation that takes place during framing.

MT white plan

MT white plan

Framing certainly is the most heroic part of the construction phase, when mere lines on paper are transformed into the very solid stuff of beams and rafters, joists and studs.  It is the most exciting for me as an architect as I get to see the first real glimpses of the building on the landscape, the scale and proportion of rooms and the presence of the building.  It comes as a great disappointment to most homeowners that the end for framing is only about one third or less of the project's completion.  It is a marathon, not a sprint.

The cost of building



Housing construction has been in the dumps in the last few years.  This means that not only the large, market developer home builders are out of work, but so are the small general contractors and all the associated trades - plumbers, carpenters, electricians, etc.  Things are pretty dire but they do seem to be picking up a bit as of late.

Not that you would know that here in Boulder.  Our fair city is such an insulated bubble of wealth that regardless of the current economic situation, the dominant paradigm is still to place as many roadblocks to development as possible.  There seems to be an attitude here that any development at all, even small, carefully sensitive growth, will destroy the high quality of life that is so prized.  You may not have much sympathy for wealthy Boulderites looking to build multi-million dollar homes, but remember that most of the money that is expended on that kind of a project stays here in the region in the pockets of tradespeople.

The dominant anti-growth agenda is of course reflected in the permitting and review process.  The folks in the various City departments are all doing their jobs administering the code to the best of their ability but the extraordinarily high cost of a permit is the most transparent indication of this anti-growth agenda.  If you aren't particularly welcoming to new construction what better way to demonstrate that than to set the fees for building permit at an astronomical cost.

To demonstrate:  building permits and fees for a single-family, 3800 square foot, new construction house on an empty lot in Boulder as evidenced by one of my current projects:

  • Building Permit fee: $3,439.oo

  • Growth Management Allocation fee: $26,000.00

  • Plan Check fee: $860.00

  • City Sales Use Tax: $8,525.00

  • Electrical Permit fee: $232.00

  • Mechanical Permit fee: $1,115.00

  • Plumbing Permit fee: $119.00

  • Residential Energy fee: $84.00

  • Capital Facility Impact fee: $6,028.00

  • Utility-Water, Irrigation & Fire: $300.00

  • Water Meter: $544.oo

  • Water Tap fee: $222.00

  • Wastewater Permit/Inspection: $296.00

  • Wastewater Tap fee: $201.00

  • Plant Investment fee, Water: $10,602.00

  • Plant Investment fee, Wastewater: $4,136.00

  • Plant Investment fee, Stormwater: $5,603.00

  • Grand Total: $70,306.00

I don't know what permitting costs are in other places.  I do know that it varies widely from small rural towns to larger cities.  I even know that many cities and towns, in the light of the recession and as impetus to create jobs, have temporarily suspended permitting fees.

This permitting cost total is approximately 6% of the hard construction cost and you will notice that the single largest item, the Growth Management Allocation, is alone $26K.  Pretty effective growth management I would say, not dissimilar to a country club where the buy-in cost is enough to keep out the riff-raff.

Fortunately there is still work being built in Boulder and of course I am part of that process in a very small way.  In general I rarely work for large developers and for my projects, for individual families, this cost is staggering.  The high cost of entry into the Boulder market has lead most development in the direction of large, expensive speculative projects that can effectively recoup some of those fees in a way that smaller, more moderately priced projects can not.  Most Boulderites lament the few large houses that do get built but they have created a system that nothing small and modest can be built as an alternative.

the Flyover



Over the recent Thanksgiving holiday break I took a roadtrip from Colorado to my native Kentucky.  This is the vast Flyover land of the center of the United States.  It is roughly the former vast inland sea from the Rocky Mountains to the Appalachian Mountains.  It is certainly the least densely populated one third to one half of the the US, and largely dominated by fields and pasture, sheds and barns, farmhouses and shacks of agricultural America.

This immense area - eastern Colorado, Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, western Kentucky - is not the stuff of dramatic landscapes.  That is not to say that it is not beautiful, but it is a softer, more subtle set of relationships between land and sky that makes this area's initial uniformity peel away to reveal an intensely beautiful sense of place.  And in that flat, or gently rolling landscape, a building sticking up from the earth holds a kind of power that qualifies the space around it.  A sense of space aggregates around a building.  Here in the Rocky Mountains and in so many places along the eastern seaboard, there seems to be a natural space that buildings have been placed within.  But in these midwestern plains, a building makes a space, a small domesticated sphere that comes into being only by the nature of the building.



Frank Lloyd Wright knew this.  He clearly understood how a building sits on this flat earth and how a large, sheltering roof can make a space more profound than a series of walls.  On my recent trip I did not visit any of his iconic prairie-style houses, but rather the Price Tower in Oklahoma.  More about that in an upcoming post.

Driving for many hours is a great way to reflect on things, and for me this naturally falls to things architectural.  Over the next few weeks I will post some more photos and thoughts that bubbled up during this long drive.  Send me your thoughts.