Sustainable Retreat on a Fire-Devastated Site in Boulder
Colorado architect Renée del Gaudio and her family were camping when they heard the news: One of the most destructive wildfires in the state’s history was ripping through their property in Boulder. Del Gaudio and her husband, Ross Wehner, had purchased the land just two years earlier, in 2008, with the hope of someday relocating there from Denver with their two small children. In the meantime, they’d leased a tiny cabin on the property to a college student—who was able to escape the blaze—but the structure was destroyed.
In all, 162 homes were wrecked in what came to be known as the Fourmile Canyon Fire. "It looked like the scene of war," Wehner recalls. Equally devastating was the loss of the mature forest of ponderosa pines and Douglas firs, including about 800 trees on the family’s four-and-a-half-acre plot. "Ours was one of the first properties to burn; it was really in the epicenter of the fire," del Gaudio says. "We had this ashen lunar landscape, which was so shocking and so devastating. But how quickly things regenerate is mind-blowing."
With help from friends, del Gaudio and Wehner rehabilitated their Sunshine Canyon property, beginning with the arduous task of clearing the burned trees. About 300 could be salvaged for construction lumber or firewood. The other 500 trees were felled and returned to the soil as a chunky black mulch. "Every time I came to work on the property, I looked like a coal miner," says Wehner.
Because of the intense heat, the soil had become hydrophobic, developing a thick, waxy layer that repelled water. Using rakes, the couple reworked the entire property to break up that layer, spread seed for native grasses and wildflowers, and crossed their fingers. The land proved surprisingly resilient. "It was amazing how quickly the grass came back," says del Gaudio. "It looks like 100 years ago, when it burned regularly." And then, another surprise: The insurance company compensated them for the loss of the cabin and the trees, which put them in a financial position not only to rebuild, but also to move forward with their house plans.
Del Gaudio started by looking at the landscape, now returned to its virgin state, and at the area’s century-old vernacular architecture, dating from an era when Sunshine Canyon was littered with gold mines. "The new house’s facade had to be 100 percent fire-resistant, so I took that cue from mining buildings and chose corrugated metal for the exterior."
By decimating the trees, the fire had created expansive new views from the property. The couple now could see the Boulder Reservoir to the east, while to the south they had a picturesque perspective of Boulder’s signature Flatirons and the peaks of the Front Range. Del Gaudio decided to orient the house in two stacked, cantilevered volumes with an elongated east-west access on top that takes advantage of the views and the south-facing sun.
The upper volume hosts living spaces that are light-filled and naturally ventilated, while shading and insulating the lower volume, where the three bedrooms are located. The two levels contain enough space and privacy to allow del Gaudio and Wehner— founder of the World Leadership School, an educational reform corporation, and former journalist—to work from home for the first time. "For me it provides a great amount of peace to work in such beautiful surroundings, and the fact that Renée and I can work in the same house together," says Wehner. "I feel thankful every day for the opportunity." He can watch from his office as Sebastian and Francesca, now eight and six, arrive on the bus home from school.
To preserve their views and allow solar gain, del Gaudio felt strongly about using lots of glass, which could prove troublesome when heating the house in winter. She chose a low-emission film coating for the Cardinal glass to boost efficiency, and all the windows are double-paned save for the triple-paned south-facing win-dows. The rooms heat well, thanks to Boulder’s annual 300 days of sun. "We hardly ever use mechanical heating," says del Gaudio. "We have a high-efficiency wood-burning stove, and between that and passive solar heating, during the day we only use radiant heating on the bottom floor." Large metal rolling shutters can close over the glass on the bottom floor during the wicked windstorms that sweep in from the north.
The house also performs well when it comes to electricity, thanks to natural light, a 3.6-kilowatt photovoltaic array, and interior LED lighting. "Our electric bill is basically zero," says del Gaudio. "The average bill is $9 a month, which covers fees. We have never needed to purchase our electricity."
High on a ridge laced with mountain biking trails, yet only seven miles from the urban amenities of Boulder, the 2,760-square-foot, open-plan house seems to bridge both worlds. While the interiors offer energy-efficient appliances and clean, modern lines, the steep gabled roof, exposed steel beams, and rugged industrial barn doors knit the house to its place.
Only 40 houses have been rebuilt in the area since the fire. Del Gaudio and Wehner have not only overcome the challenges of rising from the ashes, they’ve also forged a new connection to the property’s past. By creating references to the mines and barns that built the community, they’re reviving its history, says Wehner. "We not only reclaimed the landscape that existed during the 19th century, we also reclaimed the architectural landscape.