The phrase “home on the range” once conjured thoughts of rickety, wind-blown ranches that sizzled in the summer sun and shivered in winter storms. But no more. The architectural landscape has matured, and homes on the Front Range now vary from weighty Colonials and bungalows to acres of traditional suburban split levels. While Colorado has never been a mecca for brilliant architecture, these days high-quality modern design is finding its footing on the Rocky Mountain terrain. Here, we explore what it means to be contemporary in Colorado.
They talk about collisions. They talk about freedom of space. They talk about sense of possibility, reach and the seed.
Maggie Flickinger, business director, and David Barrett, owner principal, are earnestly exchanging abstract thoughts about design and materials and space and walls. It becomes apparent that, here, in this office, a home is not just a home. A building is not four walls and a roof. A window is rarely something that simply lets light in. Architecture and design seem poetic, emotional and metaphorical while remaining tangible and functional, informed by landscape, location and client and reined in—or occasionally inspired—by technology, design limits and reality.
“You look for a feeling. You solve a problem. You end up with something unique,” Barrett says. “Modern can be technical and austere, but we like modern that has heart and feeling.”
Their poetic seed very often comes from nature and setting. But it’s not always literal: Each home is a grand realization of a specialized vision, no matter how simple the seed might be. Barrett’s “Home on the Range” (below) is subtly influenced by the barns, silos and sheds that sit near the property. For another home, the design discussion ended with the client saying he saw his home as his final resting place—“We talked about him dying there,” Barrett says. It triggered the idea of a fallen leaf that laying peacefully on a hillside. In other home designs, they have mimicked the flow and ease of a wispy, white lenticular cloud and the craggy points and edges of a rocky peak.
They call it living architectureand they think about the homes they design as “being in tune with nature,” Barrett says.
Contemporary design is about freshness: A process of creating something clean, light, inspired and unique. Still, even though each home is splendid, Barrett’s team often emphasize the rawness of a building, leaving beams exposed or materials unfinished. Walls or structures are built knowing they’ll rust, with corrosion becoming a design feature. It’s beat-to-hell sophistication that balances, warms and brings a handmade quality to these splendid, dynamic homes.
Walking through the houses that Matt McMullen has designed is like witnessing a structural evolution or exponential growth of architecture—each design building on the last.
Every home has momentum, a sense of intention and progression. Each has an identity and a connection to its setting. And together, there is a philosophy.
Over the past 10 years, McMullen has designed homes that balance a bit of eccentricity with impervious refinement, blurring the lines between outside and inside and creating substantial spaces with a delicate touch. Yet, they are livable.
McMullen says much of his inspiration comes from working in California with groundbreaking designers, where he learned to break from the traditional and embrace the freedom of contemporary design.
“There was a real conservatism about Colorado architecture and when I went to LA, that’s what really changed me,” he said. “…That’s where I learned that things really don’t have to look the same.”
But with his education came an appreciation for developing a sense of place and an appreciation for bringing the Colorado sun and the mountain views into a home.
“Colorado certainly has a lot of things that you really have to celebrate,” he says. “And you also have to celebrate people’s lifestyles: how they live, what’s important to them, their pasts.”
His homes bring that modern aesthetic—the clean lines, the individuality, the functionality—but often have a earthy, organic feel. One of mountain home (right) McMullen designed, for example, has an incredible concrete wall cutting through the main space. It’s made to look rock-like, and it picks up the richness of the wood ceiling and the dark granite countertops in the kitchen to inspire a sophisticated, rustic quality. In the living room, a small rocky creek flows down into a cozy refuge known as “the pit,” which includes a sitting area, pillows, bookshelves and a fireplace. The upstairs was designed to feel like a ranger’s station; this masculine, knotty pine-covered office has spectacular views of the Indian Peaks. The cathedral ceiling in the kitchen pulls the eye out onto a deck and down the canyon and onto the Boulder Valley.
In the home McMullen designed for Sylvia and Alan Bernstein in North Boulder, (bottom right) the focus is on the view of the Flatirons. It’s a remodel, and the Bernsteins purchased the house because of McMullen’s vision of transformation.
“He walked in and said, ‘I can work with this,’” Alan Bernstein says, after expounding on the cave-like aesthetics of the pre-remodeled home. McMullen walked right by the unsightly visuals within the house and saw the view. He saw the potential of turning the home from something dark and difficult to a contemporary, Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired space with an ethereal quality.
“It had good bones,” McMullen says.
As you walk through the front door, there is a tenuous progression westward, over a hill, through the city and toward the mountain peaks. The window-lined living room, kitchen and dining room merge together into one big living and entertainment space. McMullen also worked to bring sunlight through the top of the house down, creating a buoyancy even in the basement. With blown glass features, stained concrete countertops and soft blue glass tiles in the kitchen, there is a linearity and lightness to this tremendous house.
“It’s really all about the view,” McMullen says simply.
Real estate tip:
Don’t be afraid of architects or designers. The expertise is usually worth the investment, says Mod Boulder Realtor Sean McIllwain—whether you are looking to sell a home, buy a home or just revamp.
There are no “rooms” in Michael Folwell’s very own Boulder home. There are spaces. In fact, the entire contemporary two-story is a series of spaces—intimate and grand; new, retro and timeless; filled with sunlight, textures and color. They feel at once connected with each other and connected with the outside while still seeming warm and private.
Much of Folwell’s philosophy on contemporary design focuses on bringing context to a home. In each of his projects, Folwell’s impetus—and challenge—is grounding a home in the site, “on a physical and contextual level, and even on a psychological level.” It sounds overly cerebral, but walking through Folwell’s home, it’s at once clear what he means by “grounding.”
“It’s an awareness of where you are,” he says. “It depends on the site and the client. We talk with the client about the site and what specifically they want the house to feel like. …We are working with a client now on a home inspired by the mid-century modern style and it’s near the hills, so we just worked on bringing the hills into the design. It feels like they really come into the house and flow through the house.”
Folwell designed his home so that sunlight would move through it as the sun moves through the sky. In the house’s second story, you peer out a soaring window to see just the tops of trees while sunlight pours through a nearby skylight. In Folwell’s downstairs office, wall-spanning windows frame different sections in their backyard. He even takes structures like benches or cabinet tops and extends their form through windows and doors, developing an extension from inside to out.
Having worked in architecture for 20 years, Folwell says he’s drawn to the modern aesthetic. Though, he would not consider himself a modernist.
“I’ve always been attracted to contemporary design,” he says. “It’s of the moment, it’s of the time, but it’s influenced by those who have come before. …With the advent of computer technology in architecture, anything goes. The technology exists and if the client has the budget, anything is possible.
“Within the architecture that I enjoy, there is a sense of perspective and history,” he continues. “There is an homage to the masters, to the greats. There is context. …Architecture does not happen in a vacuum.”
One section near the back of his house—a heavy concrete wall—is inspired by ancient ruins. There are Asian design influences here and there. There is even an extraordinary, ornate sliding door across a simple half-bathroom. Yet it all works together to become timeless and aesthetically balanced.
“It’s just about not being afraid to do something different,” Folwell says.
Real estate tip:
Even if your home is a far cry from modern, Michael Folwell says there are always opportunities to “lighten up” the home by adding windows or skylights. Think strategically: Look for opportunities to create a connection with nature. “Is there a tree or rock outcropping that can help you establish that indoor-outdoor connection?” he says.
Beauty, to Brandy LeMae and Joseph Vigil, is a house that satisfies the client’s wants and puts more energy onto the grid than it consumes. So, at their boutique architecture and design firm, success is finding common ground between aesthetics and sustainability.
“There are times when a client really wants to have incredible views of the mountains, but if you turn the entire west side of the house into glazing, the house is going to turn into a sauna in the summer. They will have to pump up the air conditioning to keep it tolerable,” she says. “I think we are good at saying, ‘Yes, we could do that, but here is what we are sacrificing. And if we do it this way, here is what you will be saving.’”
Vast has made a name for itself in green modern architecture; their website even features a photo of the couple in embrace, wearing nothing but a small swatch of natural cotton fiber insulation. The houses they design are filled with clean lines and open spaces, inspired by contemporary design trends of Southern California, where both grew up, and mid-century modern architecture. Their real passion lies within working for clients who have a limited budget and who are looking to meet efficiency goals.
“It’s easy to build an amazing house with an unlimited budget, but we love the challenge of working on a modest budget and making something that’s really cool,” LeMae says.
And even more so, the challenge of being an architect, they posit, is the responsibility to the planet—not just the client. She says environmental mindfulness will continue to be a trend in modern architecture and design: incorporating sustainable materials and using techniques, technologies and materials to increase efficiency.
“Architecture really does have an impact on the environment. We don’t just have an opportunity to be efficient, we have a responsibility,” she says. “We really do have to pay attention to every aspect.”
Europe has progressed in green building, yet the U.S. still seems to be playing catch up. Passivhaus—or Passive House—is an ultra meticulous standard in Germany for building efficient homes. It far exceeds current U.S. building codes. It’s the type of standard LeMae hopes to see adopted on this side of the Atlantic.
“I think, soon enough, we will have a mandate for green building,” she says. “Efficiency should not be something that’s special in a home or building. It should be the standard.”
While Vast usually attracts clients who are more green-minded, their emphasis and focus on efficiency and sustainability often means working to change expectations of what is beautiful, what is luxurious and what is homey. Take carpet, for example.
“You really do want to avoid carpet. It’s petroleum based and usually beige, and it’s going to get trashed and end up in the landfill in just a few years,” LeMae says. “But it’s cheap, and a lot of families will look at us like we are crazy when we talk to them about not putting carpet in. They think you can’t raise a child in a house without carpet. But really, you don’t have to have carpet for kids or for your house to feel like a home. It’s a lot about people’s preconceived notions about comfort.”
Instead, if one must have carpet, she suggests using carpet tiles, which allow people to pull away one or two tiles when there is damage. LeMae’s own floor is concrete and she uses rugs to add color and a sense of cozy.
Real estate tip:
Don’t just focus on internal and external home cosmetics—but invest in your house’s energy efficiency. Brandy LeMae of Vast Architecture says if you make one green investment in your home, it should be beefing up your insulation. “It’s really the best bang for your buck,” she says.