by Leslie Vreeland | Photos by Brett Schreckengost Watch Newspapers
Jan 24, 2012
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Artful counters by Distinctive Concrete Designs’ Chris Bolane (from second from top); a three-quarter wall in the master bedroom makes room for the home’s one built-in closet; Bolane’s fireplace-countertop that extends into a corner seat.
Looking across to Mt. Sneffels; an awning, over the second-story deck, deflects late-in-the-day sun; a pop-out wall makes for more space in the kitchen, and a vivid blue detail on the exterior of the house.
When it comes to owning a dream home, some people have a vision, and push to see it through. For Chad Swenka and Amanda Hammond, it was the opposite. “We didn’t even know there was a dream,” Hammond says. More specifically, they didn’t think they could afford to buy property in Ouray County, much less build on it. That was two-and-a-half years ago. Today, here is their home: a contemporary, custom-designed two-story structure overlooking the piñon-and-juniper forest high above Ridgway State Park. The house’s land backs up to the 5,000-acre Billy Creek State Wildlife area, and overlooks the Sneffels Wilderness. The couple’s noisiest neighbors are a flock of migrating Sandhill cranes; soon after moving in, they were investigated by a bobcat, who scurried across the road near their property and then stopped to take a long look at them. “Just checking out the new neighbors, I suppose,” Swenka says. They’ve seen maybe 50 wild turkeys, a herd of 30 elk and even a mountain lion at various times since then, but the inquisitive bobcat has yet to return.
The story of how Swenka and Hammond made their home comes down to being open to what life places in your path – literally. They’d been living in Montrose, and pretty much planned on staying there. The reason was economics. “We knew we couldn’t afford to live in Ridgway, and we knew we couldn’t afford Log Hill,” Hammond says. As a result, building a home in the area “wasn’t something we’d even considered.” Yet Hammond, a public defender, and Swenka, a software engineer, are avid hikers, bikers and climbers, so they often spend weekends in the San Juans. One day, on a trail above Ridgway, they came upon a gorgeous property for sale. When they got home, Hammond began looking into what real estate in the region was going for, and got a shock. “Prices were surprisingly affordable,” she says, “and we realized, ‘this is actually doable.’ That’s when the wheels started turning.”
The first order of business was to find a lot. The couple knew what they wanted: to be able to hike and bike from the house was key. They also knew what they didn’t want: a tract house, and a lot of restrictive homeowners covenants. With the help of a realtor, they soon located what they thought didn’t exist – five acres in a piñon-and-juniper forest overlooking the Sneffels Range, but still only 30 minutes from their jobs in Montrose. Then they hit the internet – as they would do so often in the months ahead – to find a local architect and a builder who shared their vision: a “green,” modern mountain home – on a budget. Far from being daunted by the cost restrictions, the builder, Scott Bridger, and architect Liana Schmidt, both of Ridgway, embraced them. The couple’s priorities dovetailed with Schmidt’s and Bridger’s: they all placed a high value on building something efficient, streamlined and functional, focusing construction dollars “on their priorities, not just square footage for the sake of extravagance,” as Bridger puts it. Liana Schmidt says it more simply. “It’s fun to work with less,” she says. “It makes you focus on what’s really important. We understood each other, and we all just clicked.” Which was good, because there was a lot of work to do.
The first challenge was the lot. Hammond and Swenka now owned five acres, but much of it straddled a steep ravine. That left a very small spot on which the house could perch – on the tall side of the ravine – in order to have a view. “There was absolutely nothing flat on the entire five acres,” Scott Bridger recalls. Forty dump trucks’ worth of dirt had to be poured to shore up the foundation before excavation could begin. The footprint that was left to build on was “like a boxcar,” Hammond says. “We were definitely limited by the rectangular shape.” And there was another problem: while the Sneffels range was, theoretically, “in view,” the house would need to sit up at just the right height for its owners to see the peaks. Which meant some part of it would have to be tall. Scott Bridger pulled a ladder inside one day, for Swenka to climb up on. Here, Bridger said, is where we need the second floor to begin, so you can see Mt. Sneffels. Which meant the ceiling of the first floor would have to be 11 feet high.
Swenka and Hammond were not only amenable to this idea, they understood completely, and were all for making this and other necessary design compromises that needed to be made along the way. For example, Hammond hoped to have a powder room on the first floor. There wasn’t enough space for a separate bathroom, so Schmidt combined it with the master bath. A sliding door separates the bathroom facilities from a walk-in shower, allowing for two uses at the same time. Another way Schmidt economized on space was to install the home’s only built-in closet in the master bedroom, which sits behind a three-quarter wall, just 8 feet long and 3 feet wide. “That’s totally OK,” Hammond says. “We both hate clutter anyway, and the space forces us to be honest about what we really need.” Schmidt employed other techniques to make the 2,300 square-foot home feel spacious and accommodating. The three-quarter wall, a design she also used in the living room, maximized airflow and created visual interest. There wasn’t enough room for a formal dining room, so Schmidt inserted a “pop-out” wall in the kitchen. The pop-out was not part of the original footprint, but it added enough space to define the dining area and create the feel of a separate dining room. She did the same thing in the upstairs office.
The architect also brought in light, through strategically placed, elongated windows in nearly every spot the walls would allow. She even let the starlight in, through a three-by-six-foot window that seems to float above the couple’s bed. “I believe anywhere you can create visual interest with a window is good,” Schmidt says. “It doesn’t have to be facing the trees or the mountains.” Another deft aesthetic touch is a deck – upstairs, where the big view is, facing south to the San Juans – that runs the length of the south side of the house. The living room doors, opening straight out to the deck, showcase the peaks. The deck sits high above the ground; a traditional design could have required extremely tall posts to hold it up. Instead, the architect designed steel support columns, which angled down and back to the foundation. With nothing visible to hold it up, the deck appears to float above the trees, as if suspended in space.
Of course, the goal was not only a stylish home, but to keep the design as ecologically friendly as possible. The start-up costs of traditio