Navigating The Rules For Building In Boulder

My Boulder Dream Home

Rodwin Architecture onsite
Photograph courtesy of Rodwin Architecture, Boulder Co. Planning is key to meeting all rules for building in Boulder

One of the greatest real estate opportunities is building your dream home in Boulder Colorado from the ground up.  Or, as is quite common, re-imagining an existing house to be your ideal sanctuary.  Complicating the process are the myriad and heavily enforced construction rules for building in Boulder.   Rodwin Architecture  delivered a stand out presentation on the codes and rules for building in Boulder.   This post touches on what you need to know in the City of Boulder (the county is somewhat different).

In creating rules for building in Boulder, the City has worked towards two overall goals. To preserve neighbors’ property rights and to enforce code.  For instance, Boulder has a strong policy regarding height limitations. In constructing your new home, there is a policy for determining the low point from which your house will be measured. Did you know this low point could be on your neighbor’s property line?

courtesy of Rodwin Architecture, this table discusses how big can you build in Boulder Colorado
Courtesy of Rodwin Architecture.  A common question: How big can I build my new home in Boulder Colorado?  There are rules for building in Boulder that address height, total size, flood plain, historic preservation and much, much more.


Boulder Architects Have Extensive Knowledge Of The Rules For Building In Boulder

There are urban myths that didn’t follow the rules for building in Boulder.  Realtors cite the house built three inches too tall.  According to lore,it had to be torn down because it failed code inspections.  Of course, the truth is likelier that Boulder code required the owner to correct the height, which could have meant taking the roof off, re-doing the trusses, then new roof on, re-shingle, etc.  Not fun.

You don’t want to make a mistake on the rules for building your dream house and find yourself tearing it all down.   Having an excellent architect is key to successfully working through all the requirements while delivering a stunning new castle for your family.

Steps One To Three

Imagine for a moment, the perfect lot is available to you.  It is the one you’ve been eying for years, day dreaming of remodeling or just flat-out building upon.  Step one should be to contact an architect and make certain you can do what you have in mind.

Budget is going to be an important part of the transaction.  What risks does any given property carry?  The flood path, past permitting by the seller, solar shadows, even the use of the driveway are items that can be quickly probed in an initial consultation.  How will quirky rules for building in Boulder affect your budget? The roof line?

Fast Fact: A typical Permit Review in Boulder Colo can take 5 to 8 weeks

If things feel good at this stage, you will probably want to have an official feasibility study.  With so many different rules for building in Boulder on the books, you need to understand how a wide range of attributes will affect your property.  Such as:

  • lot size
  • zoning,
  • historic preservation (Martin Acres is 50 years old; not historic, but certainly not new)
  • Allowed, conditional and prohibitive uses
  • setbacks and encroachments
  • height
  • greening building
  • accessory units
  • parking
  • solar
  • maximum home size

This phase may even involve creating a sketch.  When it comes to engineering your dream home, the more information you can specifically supply the building department, the better.  If you have not already, this is also a good stage to select an architect.  Boulder prefers newer homes to be energy efficient. Three architects with a strong emphasis on this aspect of building are:

  1. BAS1S Architecture
  2. Rodwin Architecture

The Devil Is In The Details

Some of the rules for building in Boulder sound crazy. Almost to the point of disillusioning.   For instance, in Martin Acres it is especially common to see a garage that has been converted to living space.  Oddly, this creates a problem for parking — even if an ample sized driveway exists.

Photograph courtesy of WORKSHOP8 Architecture in Boulder Colorado.
Photograph courtesy of WORKSHOP8 Architecture in Boulder Colorado. One f the most often overlooked building rules in Boulder is in regards to parking setbacks

Generally code excludes the driveway as a parking space in terms of approving a permit.  Sure, the previous owners parked all their cars there for years. A lack of parking scenario could prevent you from qualifying for your future dream home permits.  Brandy LeMae with WORKSHOP8 makes a good case for having an experienced architect from start to finish.  Doing so prevents little mistakes from cropping up midway into a project -surprises can be costly.

Another aspect to consider: solar rights.  The sunshine that falls on your neighbor’s lot and home is protected.   Builders need to take care with roof lines to protect a neighbor’s right to sunshine.  Boulder Colo has stringent guidelines regarding total square footage.   Decks and balconies count towards the total allowed square footage. Patios do not.  Hence, frequently with major remodels and new construction owners trade decks for patios.

bas1s architecture pictures of two homes that followed ther rules for building in boulder
Photography from BAS1S Architecture. Site review and compliance are important in meeting height limitations for your dream home.

Frequently overlooked and potentially expensive are any prior permits.  For instance, sometimes you run across houses where a seller pulled a permit and then failed the final inspection.  While the outgoing owner has always lived with it, the new buyer owner could be saddled with the task of first correcting back to original any failed permit items before starting the new work.

This is the sort of rules of building in Boulder the average home owner is likely not familiar with.  And it is a great example of the value an architect will lend your dream home project.

I suppose if I mention Historic Preservation you are bracing for the next “oh no” moment.  And while there are some additional concerns for historic homes, there are actually some benefits.  Historic homes can get around parking issues more readily.  And the rules for building in Boulder can be more flexible on height for a historic home.  There is no single answer when it comes to designing your dream domicile.  Architects can really help you save time, money, even the fate of your project.

How high Can I Build In Boulder?

35 Feet is the simple answer. But when it comes to permits and meeting code, there is nothing simple about following the rules for building in Boulder.  For starters, the height is not measured from the base of your house to the highest potential spot.  Instead, 35ft is measured from lowest point within twenty five feet of the tallest side (lowest exposed point) of the structure to the highest point on the structure.  See diagram.  And by the way, that lowest point could actually be on a neighbor’s lot.

rules for building in boulder height requirements
The rules for building in Boulder are not what you would expect when it comes to meeting height requirements

Architects have a few tricks of the trade to help improve the numbers.  For instance, if the lowest point of the structure is a porch, it might be possible to cantilever the porch and move your starting low position uphill a bit.  Sometimes, a small effort like this can make all the difference.

Historic Preservation

Since the early seventies, Boulder Colorado has had an active Historic Preservation Board.  This board balances protecting community assets with the rights of individual owners.  Your property will face a review if it is:

  • In a historic district
  • Older than fifty years (this is not really all that old for a home, i.e. think: Martin Acres)
  • Property is an individual landmark
  • A building that is more than 50 years old will be moved or partially demolished.

What about upgrading doors and windows for higher energy efficiency?  While Boulder is generally all about better energy savings, historic preservation can prevent an owner from making upgrades.  City of Boulder code can require repair versus replacement depending upon where the window is located.

doors and windows in boulder
Table courtesy of Rodwin Architecture. New energy efficient windows sound like a great idea. Better check the rules for building in Boulder first, especially if your home is in a historic landmark portion of Boulder!

Believe it or not though, there are advantages with historic homes.  State and Federal tax incentives exist.  And variances are allowed for items such as parking or measuring the height of the renovated home.

Can I Build In A Flood Plain?

Yes. Sometimes. No.  When it comes to building a home in the flood plain in Boulder, it really makes a difference what portion of the flood plain the house sits inside.   If the house is located in the 500 year flood plain, remodeling or construction is allowed.  At the other extreme, if the property is high hazard, then construction is not allowed.  New construction will require a house to have its narrow side facing uphill – so that water in a flood could readily move around a house versus hitting it broadside like a dam.

Fast Fact: Rodwin Architecture offers a FREE consult before you start your project.  Find out, can you do what you want before you commit.

Easily Overlooked Items

Setbacks, easements and parking are all too often overlooked with construction/remodeling projects in Boulder.   For instance, your neighbor’s solar rights can limit your ability to build up even if your lot would otherwise allow for it.  Steve Lane, with BAS1S, points out a good architect can change the dimensions of the roof to accommodate the neighbor’s solar rights.

Edge house boulder colorado on a snowy night
The Edge House by Rodwin Architecture followed the rules for building in Boulder and created a one-of-a-kind dream home

Additionally, parking is required for a home.  A driveway may be present but qualify due to setbacks, per rules for building in Boulder.   This is one that catches buyers off-guard all the time. Another concern would be outstanding permits from previous projects. Occasionally, owners start a project but are unable to complete it to code. Failing a final inspection requires the incorrectly finished improvement be torn out before any new permits can be issued.   This can add time and cost to a project.

ghost house kitchen
Ghost House Kitchen. Photo courtesy of WORKSHOP8. This Boulder architect focuses on projects start to finish, using innovative building materials to comply with the rules for building in Boulder to create energy efficient homes that meet or exceed code.

Water is another item that can sweep remodeling plans off the table.   Be sure to check the size of the main water line.  Some homes will require an upgrade from 3/4 inch to one inch when adding a bathroom.  Adding costs of fifteen to twenty five thousand to a project can dampen an owner’s enthusiasm for that new master bathroom.

Energy Efficiency

net zero kitchen boulder colorado
You needn’t break any rules for building in Boulder to create a gorgeous kitchen and achieve a near Net Zero energy rating. Photo courtesy of Boulder architect Scott Rodwin

Boulder makes the news lately for discussing the process of becoming its own utility.  This is reflective of one of the many areas where Boulder looks at energy consumption and savings.  Homes undergoing remodeling project are subject to improved energy requirements. New construction homes, especially those over 3,000 square feet, can face rigorous rules for building in Boulder.  HERS or similar scoring systems can mandate homes to be quite energy efficient – bordering on Net Zero.  This attention to energy savings can add 15% to 25% to the total cost of construction through higher quality materials, mechanical systems and construction techniques.  WORKSHOP8 builds contemporary homes with a very low (ideal) HERS rating and even constructed the net zero Ghost House in Denver.

BAS1S Architecture (photo credit) designed this elegant and functional kitchen
BAS1S Architecture (photo credit) designed this elegant and functional kitchen.  Architects can simply design a set of plans or walk with your through the entire process.  Start to finish, BAS1S can interpret the rules for building to meet your needs and comply with all the Boulder codes.


Vacant Lots: Build From Scratch

A vacant lot in Boulder will offer plenty of advantages, though home buyers should be prepared for additional costs.   Start by adding $50,000 to the cost of a blank lot for initial utilities, permanently affordable incentive programs and more.  And keep in mind, all the usual rules for building in Boulder apply.  And, many of the expenses with a vacant lot are cash.  Mortgage lenders require larger down payments and adding utilities (unless part of a construction loan) are cash outlays.

Remodeling an existing structure can save on start up expenses. Building upon a virgin lot can offer plenty of advantages: positioning for the best views and sunshine, maximizing the lot.

Boulder Real Estate Collaboration And Partnership

When it comes to designing, building, executing and enjoying your dream Boulder home, my goal is to be an active partner.  From start to finish.  Having resources for my clients is important.  The architects and engineers can assist you in complying with all the rules for building in Boulder.  I will help you find that perfect lot, location or view.  Get in touch today to start your home search.

Thank You Boulder Architects

A big thank you to Steve Lane with BAS1S, Brandy LeMae with WORKSHOP8 and Scott Rodwin and Kirsten Snobeck for all the information, photographs and slides they shared to make this blog possible.


About the author: The above local Real Estate information on Navigating The Rules For Building In Boulder was provided by Bob Gordon, a local expert in his field. Bob can be reached via email at or by phone at 303-443-3334.  Bob has been helping people move in and out of the Boulder/Denver area since 1995.

Thinking of selling your home? I have a dedication to Real Estate and relish the opportunity to share my wealth of marketing expertise!

I service the Boulder Real Estate market including: Superior, Louisville, Lafayette, Superior, Broomfield, Niwot, Gunbarrel, Longmont, Lyons, Hygiene, Erie, Frederick, Firestone, Arvada and Denver.

3 thoughts on “Navigating The Rules For Building In Boulder”

  1. One thing most architects don’t know is working in the field and nothing is impossible. It’s all good on paper until you try to build it. That’s why an engineer’s red stamp is approval. But even then, so called engineers over build in excess.


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