written by:
photos by:
January 15, 2009
Originally published in Growing Up Green
Boulder, Colorado, straddles a dynamic geographical border where miles of Rocky Mountains descend into flat plains that stretch all the way to the Appalachians. With four picture-perfect seasons and more sunny days per year than Miami, the little university town has become a big draw for young families seeking an idyllic place to raise their kids.
Architect Rob Pyatt's box-shaped addition is the modern kid on the block, with distinctive corrugated-metal and wide-plank cladding. Behind the facade, uncommon materials share a common story with the neighborhood: Of design decisions driven by a desire t

Architect Rob Pyatt's box-shaped addition is the modern kid on the block, with distinctive corrugated-metal and wide-plank cladding. Behind the facade, uncommon materials share a common story with the neighborhood: Of design decisions driven by a desire to keep the next generation—and the planet—healthy and safe.

Photo by 
1 / 9
In the kitchen, a window over the stovetop lets daylight in, framing the front yard while keeping the neighboring house out of the picture.

In the kitchen, a window over the stovetop lets daylight in, framing the front yard while keeping the neighboring house out of the picture.

Photo by 
2 / 9
To detail to the kitchen cabinetry and shelving, plywood sheets were turned on their sides to expose multi-toned striations.

To detail to the kitchen cabinetry and shelving, plywood sheets were turned on their sides to expose multi-toned striations.

Photo by 
3 / 9
Kahn's painting studio is attached to the original garage.

Kahn's painting studio is attached to the original garage.

Photo by 
4 / 9
Pyatt's office is the sparest room in the house, with the straw panels "left raw to give a sense of the monolithic nature of those walls," according to Pyatt.

Pyatt's office is the sparest room in the house, with the straw panels "left raw to give a sense of the monolithic nature of those walls," according to Pyatt.

Photo by 
5 / 9
The home's heat comes from a highly efficient wood-burning stove from Rais. Though wood burning is banned in Boulder, the sealed firebox can be used year-round, with combustion technology so effective it's said to release less carbon dioxide than decompos

The home's heat comes from a highly efficient wood-burning stove from Rais. Though wood burning is banned in Boulder, the sealed firebox can be used year-round, with combustion technology so effective it's said to release less carbon dioxide than decomposing wood. After logs burn down to embers, the stove continues to radiate heat for hours, reducing the amount of kindling required to keep the place warm.

Photo by 
6 / 9
The Pyatt/Kahn family's 1940s cottage hadn't seen significant updates in its six decades.

The Pyatt/Kahn family's 1940s cottage hadn't seen significant updates in its six decades.

Photo by 
7 / 9
Walking in the front door it's hard to miss the square chunk of compressed-straw paneling—a building material-cum-sculpture that allows visitors to see what the house is made from. Kahn's paintings hang throughout the house, and several of the rugs are he

Walking in the front door it's hard to miss the square chunk of compressed-straw paneling—a building material-cum-sculpture that allows visitors to see what the house is made from. Kahn's paintings hang throughout the house, and several of the rugs are her original designs.

Photo by 
8 / 9
Out back, the paved patio serves as the family's main dining room. Though occasionally snow and cold keep them inside, family dinners can often be enjoyed outdoors.

Out back, the paved patio serves as the family's main dining room. Though occasionally snow and cold keep them inside, family dinners can often be enjoyed outdoors.

Photo by 
9 / 9
Architect Rob Pyatt's box-shaped addition is the modern kid on the block, with distinctive corrugated-metal and wide-plank cladding. Behind the facade, uncommon materials share a common story with the neighborhood: Of design decisions driven by a desire t

Architect Rob Pyatt's box-shaped addition is the modern kid on the block, with distinctive corrugated-metal and wide-plank cladding. Behind the facade, uncommon materials share a common story with the neighborhood: Of design decisions driven by a desire to keep the next generation—and the planet—healthy and safe.

Project 
Pyatt-Kahn Residence
Architect 

A few miles outside Boulder, Colorado, in the tiny town of Nederland, it’s still common to hear bluegrass wafting down streets that have changed little since their settlement in the silver-mining era. It’s a place where building a house can be an all-hands community effort, using materials supplied by the surrounding land, and the imperfections of a human touch are a value-added proposition.

Rob Pyatt and Heather Kahn met while working on such a project in 2000. Kahn, an artist, hired Pyatt, a builder with an art degree, when she was managing the construction of a straw-bale house in Nederland. The home was designed using traditional straw-building techniques: stacking thick bales into walls, then coating them in stucco. The result was smooth and earthy, with soft corners and hand-molded window frames. “It turned out well,” says Kahn, “all things considered. You have to go into it knowing that it’s a different type of work.”

Over the course of the project, Pyatt and Kahn began dating, and the job culminated with their engagement, which Pyatt proclaims was the best thing to emerge from the endeavor. They combined two households into Kahn’s 900-square-foot bungalow in Boulder and were married in 2002. Soon after, Pyatt entered the University of Colorado, completing an undergraduate degree in environmental design, followed by a master’s in architecture.

To detail to the kitchen cabinetry and shelving, plywood sheets were turned on their sides to expose multi-toned striations.

To detail to the kitchen cabinetry and shelving, plywood sheets were turned on their sides to expose multi-toned striations.



Compact living suited the couple—until the prospect of starting a family began to make things look smaller. With a limited budget and Boulder housing prices booming, a self-designed addition seemed like the only realistic option. But a repeat performance of the folksy Nederland project was not in the cards. Though just 15 miles away, it’s a cultural leap from sleepy “Ned” to the lively neighborhoods of Boulder, where an infusion of tech start-up chic gives the town a semi-urban flavor.

The house would be decidedly modern, they agreed. But they weren’t starting from scratch. Their tiny 1940s cottage hadn’t seen significant updates in its six decades, and the home’s age, combined with the duo’s strong commitment to executing the project sustainably, meant preserving as much of the existing structure as possible. “The foundation is such that we really couldn’t go up without doing work down there, so we just adapted what we had,” Pyatt explains.

On their larger-than-average lot, they had ample space to construct a sizable wing, but they chose instead to preserve the backyard and build a compact addition that would take full advantage of indoor/outdoor living in a region renowned for its nearly year-round sun. Inspired by traditional Southwestern courtyard houses, Pyatt designed a simple box that would attach to the original entryway, creating a partially enclosed concrete patio and outdoor dining area at the rear of the house.

With their first child on the way, the clock was ticking, but Pyatt isn’t one to cut corners. As he neared the end of architecture school, instead of trying to juggle his home-building project with coursework, he wised up and turned the former into the latter. Encouraged by his advisor, Rick Sommerfeld, Pyatt created an independent study that would earn him school credit for designing and building his family’s home. This afforded him the flexibility to research and experiment with materials and systems in order to push the envelope on sustainability.

Construction began in 2005, just after Pyatt finished advising a team of designers from the University of Colorado on its submission to the Solar Decathlon, the U.S. Department of Energy’s biennial architecture contest held on the National Mall in Washington, DC. The team took first place, winning with a design that focused on modularity and natural materials, a perfect prelude to Pyatt’s own project in progress. The small Decathlon house was made with specialized bio-based lightweight structural insulated panels (BIO-SIPS), invented by one of the team’s supervising professors, architect Julee Herdt. Working with the prefab panels was an inspiring shift from Pyatt’s early straw-bale projects toward more industrial uses of recycled agricultural by-products. He and the team further embraced the potential of farm waste by carting their creation to and from DC on trucks fueled by biodiesel.

The Pyatt/Kahn family's 1940s cottage hadn't seen significant updates in its six decades.

The Pyatt/Kahn family's 1940s cottage hadn't seen significant updates in its six decades.


Back in Boulder, Pyatt merged his love of straw construction with his interest in prefab systems by going to the compressed straw–panel manufacturer Agriboard Industries. “They didn’t have a thick enough panel for Colorado, so I worked with the engineers to make a prototype,” he recounts. “It’s 12 inches thick, with a higher R-value (resistance
to heat)—more similar to straw bale. Our working model is an R-38, whereas the more popular six-inch is much lower.” The efficiency of the envelope  was then reinforced with recycled-cotton insulation from Bonded Logic Inc., a company known for its innovative reappropriation of discarded denim. Pyatt replaced the windows throughout the house with superinsulated panes from Alpen Energy Group, a company that produces a low-emissivity coated glass called Heat Mirror, which reflects heat back toward its source—away from the house in warm weather and into the heated interior during winter months. Alpen Energy’s glazings are customized according to the orientation of each window, notes Pyatt, “so if you have a south-facing wall, you’d want passive solar glass that lets in radiation, while western-facing glass blocks the radiation.”

The more immediate needs of the couple’s kids played a big part in considering indoor air quality. They chose low- or no-formaldehyde plywood, nontoxic adhesives, and zero-VOC paint, and staunchly avoided materials that are known to off-gas or contain toxic compounds, including carpeting on which the kids would inevitably roll around and kick up particulates. “In every instance where we had to make a decision on a product,” says Pyatt, “we would evaluate that product and look at alternatives and figure out how it would work from a conventional construction standpoint and how it would look for a new way of construction with prefab.”

On a street dominated by conventional residences, the family’s deviations from the norm attracted attention, not all of it supportive. The corrugated-metal cladding that covers a portion of the exterior stands out against the warmer wood-plank facade and in the beginning stirred some rumblings among the neighbors. “Nobody raised hell, but through the grapevine we heard that people were saying, ‘What on earth are they doing?’” Kahn recalls. “But over time it seems like the reaction is really good. And as soon as somebody walks in, they’re just in love.”

Nearly doubled in area, the 1,700-square-foot home still uses space efficiently and conservatively, accommodating Pyatt’s office and Kahn’s studio, in addition to three bedrooms and two bathrooms. There’s even room for Pyatt’s brother, Kirk, who helped build the house and moved in afterwards. “This little house feels big and open,” Kahn muses. “I wanted to be able to be in the kitchen and hear what my kids were doing, or see them outside, and just have it feel very functional and natural and cozy.”

As their two young sons get bigger, there will surely be times when cozy verges on crowded, but with luck (and a yard big enough to burn off excess energy), the boys will take as much pleasure growing up in this house as their father did in building it. “It was definitely a labor of love, and as an artist turned builder the creative aspect of design-build was a joy,” says Pyatt. “Some of my best memories will be of having a beer with my brother after a successful day building the house together.”

Join the Discussion

Loading comments...

Latest Articles

abc malacari marwick stair 01 0
A simple set of stairs is a remodel’s backbone.
June 28, 2016
Design Award of Excellence winner Mellon Square.
Docomomo US announces the winners of this year's Modernism in America Awards. Each project showcases exemplary modern restoration techniques, practices, and ideas.
June 27, 2016
monogram dwell sf 039 1
After last year’s collaboration, we were excited to team up with Monogram again for the 2016 Monogram Modern Home Tour.
June 27, 2016
switch over chicago smart renovation penthouse deck smar green ball lamps quinze milan lounge furniture garapa hardwood
A strategic rewire enhances a spec house’s gut renovation.
June 26, 2016
young guns 2016 emerging talent coralie gourguechon treviso italy cphotos by coralie gourguechon co produced by isdat planche anatomique de haut parleur1
Coralie Gourguechon's paper objects will make you see technology in a whole new way.
June 26, 2016
green machine smart home aspen colorado facade yard bocci deck patio savant
Smart technology helps a house in Aspen, Colorado, stay on its sustainable course.
June 25, 2016
Compact Aglol 11 television plastic brionvega.
The aesthetic appeal of personal electronics has long fueled consumer interest. A new industrial design book celebrates devices that broke the mold.
June 25, 2016
modern backyard deck ipe wood
An angled deck transforms a backyard in Menlo Park, California, into a welcoming gathering spot.
June 24, 2016
dscf5485 1
Today, we kicked off this year’s annual Dwell on Design at the LA Convention Center, which will continue through Sunday, June 26th. Though we’ve been hosting this extensive event for years, this time around is particularly special.
June 24, 2016
under the radar renovation napa
Two designers restore a low-slung midcentury gem in Napa, California, by an unsung Bay Area modernist.
June 24, 2016
Exterior of Huneeus/Sugar Bowl Home.
San Francisco–based designer Maca Huneeus created her family’s weekend retreat near Lake Tahoe with a relaxed, sophisticated sensibility.
June 24, 2016
light and shadow bathroom walnut storage units corian counter vola faucet
A Toronto couple remodel their home with a special emphasis on a spacious kitchen and a material-rich bathroom.
June 24, 2016
Affordable home in Kansas City living room
In Kansas City, an architecture studio designs an adaptable house for a musician on a budget.
June 23, 2016
modern lycabettus penthouse apartment oak vertical slats office
By straightening angles, installing windows, and adding vertical accents, architect Aaron Ritenour brought light and order to an irregularly shaped apartment in the heart of Athens, Greece.
June 23, 2016
kitchen confidential tiles custom cabinetry oak veneer timber house
A modest kitchen addition to a couple’s cottage outside of Brisbane proves that one 376-square-foot room can revive an entire home.
June 23, 2016
feldman architecture 0
Each week, we tap into Dwell's Instagram community to bring you the most captivating design and architecture shots of the week.
June 22, 2016
Blackened timber Dutch home
A modern dwelling replaces a fallen farmhouse.
June 22, 2016
hillcrest house interior kitchen 3
Seeking an escape from bustling city life, a Manhattan couple embarks on a renovation in the verdant Hudson Valley.
June 22, 2016
angular
Atelier Moderno renovated an old industrial building to create a luminous, modern home.
June 21, 2016
San Francisco floating home exterior
Anchored in a small San Francisco canal, this floating home takes its cues from a classic city habitat.
June 21, 2016
modern renovation addition solar powered scotland facade steel balcony
From the bones of a neglected farmstead in rural Scotland emerges a low-impact, solar-powered home that’s all about working with what was already there.
June 21, 2016
up in the air small space new zealand facade corrugated metal cladding
An architect with a taste for unconventional living spaces creates a small house at lofty heights with a starring view.
June 21, 2016
young guns 2016 emerging talent marjan van aubel london cwai ming ng current window
Marjan Van Aubel makes technology a little more natural.
June 21, 2016
urban pastoral brooklyn family home facade steel cypress double
Building on the site of a former one-car garage, an architect creates his family’s home in an evolving neighborhood of Brooklyn.
June 20, 2016
Modern Brooklyn backyard studio with plexiglass skylight, green roof, and cedar cladding facade
In a Brooklyn backyard, an off-duty architect builds a structure that tests his attention to the little things.
June 20, 2016
the outer limits paris prefab home living area vertigo lamp constance guisset gijs bakker strip tablemetal panels
In the suburbs of Paris, an architect with an eco-friendly practice doesn’t let tradition stand in the way of innovation.
June 20, 2016
amaroso40040
When a garage damaged by termites had to go, a studio emerges.
June 19, 2016
the blue lagoon iceland geothermal spa hotel water visitors
The famed geothermal spa outside Reykjavík, Iceland, is entering a major new phase—paving the way for the area’s first five-star hotel.
June 19, 2016
heaven on earth maya lin topography what is missing california academy sciences wood video
A new monograph by Rizzoli explores the memorial project by the renowned artist.
June 19, 2016
gable game austin texas cantilevered home facade windows upper level car port
For Dwell's annual issue dedicated to indoor/outdoor living. Here, we introduce you to the photographers and writers who made it happen.
June 18, 2016