Waldo Canyon fire creates a bond between builders, Mountain Shadows residents

February 22, 2013
photo - Homeowner Gloria Horne and builder Gordon Stegner stand inside Horne's home on Majestic Drive in the Mountain Shadows neighborhood in Colorado Springs. Horne hired Stegner to rebuild her home, which was destroyed by last year's Waldo Canyon fire. The two became friends in the process, as Stegner provided support for Horne in the fire's aftermath.  Photo by MICHAEL CIAGLO, THE GAZETTE
Homeowner Gloria Horne and builder Gordon Stegner stand inside Horne's home on Majestic Drive in the Mountain Shadows neighborhood in Colorado Springs. Horne hired Stegner to rebuild her home, which was destroyed by last year's Waldo Canyon fire. The two became friends in the process, as Stegner provided support for Horne in the fire's aftermath. Photo by MICHAEL CIAGLO, THE GAZETTE 

Classic Homes vice president and project manager Jim Boulton, who works with Mountain Shadows residents who lost homes in last year’s Waldo Canyon fire, recalled meeting a couple who wanted their rebuilt house to be identical to their old one.

Before they met, Boulton went to the Internet, found a photo of the couple’s old home and printed a copy. Some residents can’t remember every last detail of their home, so a picture — whether for rebuilding or insurance purposes — would help the couple’s memory, he figured.

When Boulton handed the photo to the couple, they studied it for a moment and then, overcome with emotion, began to tear up. Boulton reached for the photo, turned it face down and apologized. It was too much for the couple, he realized.

“We’ll get through this another way,” Boulton told them about discussing plans for a new home.

Accustomed to smiling faces and joyous celebrations on the part of buyers, Springs-area homebuilders have confronted a different scene in the aftermath of the Waldo Canyon fire. The blaze destroyed nearly 350 homes in the northwest side Mountain Shadows in late June.

Over the last several months, some builders found themselves essentially serving as grief counselors — listening intently to emotionally scarred Mountain Shadows residents, holding their hands and whispering consoling words as they made the choice of whether to rebuild their existing home, construct a new one or just walk away. Nearly 120 homeowners are rebuilding, Pikes Peak Regional Building Department records show.

“It’s kind of like dealing with accident victims,” said Gordon Stegner, owner of Palace Homes Inc. in Colorado Springs. “Very much similar to that. Somebody that’s been through an accident or a trauma or a death.”

In good times and bad, Stegner said he tries to tailor his communications and relationships to the needs of individual buyers. But that practice became critical when Gloria Horne, a U.S. Postal Service letter carrier, showed up unannounced at Stegner’s office late on a Friday afternoon in July.

In April, Horne beat out one other bidder to purchase a three-bedroom, two-bathroom home on Majestic Drive in Mountain Shadows. She completed the $205,000 purchase June 1 and began moving in. The Waldo Canyon fire broke out June 23 and her home was destroyed three days later.

Before she even hired an excavator to remove her foundation and debris from her home, Horne had received a stack of solicitations from homebuilders — polite letters saying they were sorry for her loss, but nevertheless were interested in her business.

Horne had never bought a new home, and was turned off by builders who listed post office boxes and websites as their point of contact, instead of street addresses and phone numbers. She also rejected solicitations from out-of-town companies.

Her excavator handed her a business card for Stegner, a small custom builder who has constructed about 100 homes in the nearly 18 years he’s owned his company. Stegner doesn’t advertise and relies on word of mouth for his business.

For Horne and others like her who had been shaken by the fire, establishing a level of trust is key, he said.

“They’ve been so inundated, and I’m talking calls, letters and so on. ‘Let us help you rebuild’,” Stegner said. “Letters and calls and emails. The folks I’ve run across have just really had a hard time trusting individuals because they look like they’re just out there to make a buck.”

Once he established a bond with Horne, Stegner learned she needed more than just a new home; she needed support and a friend.

“I needed a chance to cry every once in a while,” Horne said. “He gave me that chance.”

There are hundreds of decisions that must be made in building a home and, at times, Horne’s stress level soared, Stegner said. He remembered once how her body language — pursing her lips in frustration — sent a clear message she was overwhelmed.

That’s when he told her, “go home, and we’ll deal with it tomorrow,” Horne recalled.

Said Stegner: “Your whole way of thinking has to be done in a very empathetic, very deliberate manner, so that you’re not going to be charging ahead and saying to them, ‘you need to make this decision right now.’ ”

Horne expected to have moved into her home by today.

Some homebuilders have adapted their business practices for Mountain Shadows homeowners.

Vantage Homes has a standard package of options, said president and majority owner George Hess. But in Mountain Shadows, Vantage accommodated special requests on the part of buyers — extending the back of a home by 2 feet, for example, or making structural changes that the builder wouldn’t have made in another neighborhood, he said.

“It’s a sensitivity issue,” Hess said. “You have to remember that when these people started, or when we started working with these folks, they weren’t new homebuyers. They didn’t want to be new homebuyers. It wasn’t their objective.”

Sometimes, however, being flexible and understanding only goes so far, some homebuilders found.

Scott Hente, the City Council president who’s also a builder, said he had a handful of Mountain Shadows residents — a small number, he stressed — who seemed unwilling to accept their loss, which made it tough to accommodate them. A Mountain Shadows resident, Hente’s home also suffered substantial fire damage.

In one case, Hente met with residents about rebuilding their home, but they could only talk about the improvements they had made to their now destroyed house.

“They couldn’t get past the fact that all of the improvements were gone,” Hente said. “They couldn’t get past the fact they couldn’t have their old house back.”

The couple went elsewhere to have their home rebuilt, he said.

“I’m not a psychiatrist,” Hente said. “But it was like, I wasn’t getting through. You could just see it in their eyes, I wasn’t having any effect. ... Maybe there were magic words that somebody could use with them. I just don’t know what those would be. I just couldn’t figure out the right thing to say.”

There isn’t a formula on how to deal with Mountain Shadows residents, other than to be sensitive and open-minded to their needs, other builders said.

Randy Deming, CEO at Campbell Homes, remembers a Mountain Shadows couple that wanted to tweak the design of their new home to enlarge the bathroom. Deming told them he could make the change, but it would shrink the size of a closet.

That’s OK, the couple said; they didn’t have any clothes, anyway.

“You have to have a servant’s heart, to do the right thing for them, and not push them too hard and not lead them too hard, but find out what’s important to them and try to rebuild their life,” Deming said.

Boulton, of Classic Homes, said some Mountain Shadows residents took their loss in stride. Others didn’t. But as a builder, he said, he’s tried to adapt to the situation — and eventually looked at the plight of Mountain Shadows residents as a challenge and opportunity to help people in need.

“In the beginning, it was really sad,” Boulton said. “It’s still tragic today. But after you get over the initial shock of all these people talking about their losses and the trauma and all sorts of different stories and where they were the day of the fire, and how long they lived there, you just kind of go along with it. You know what to expect next time. You get better and you improve and you listen more.”

Contact Rich Laden: 636-0228

Twitter @richladen

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