Working With the Landscape

When looking from an airplane window over the mountainous American West, it doesn't seem as if man has bullied nature into submission; rather, the opposite seems true. Homeowners are clustered in communities, such as Colorado’s Crested Butte, that nestle comfortably into mountainsides. Residential lots can be in difficult or precarious places, creating challenging work for a firm such as Sunlit Architecture.

Crested Butte, which sits south of Aspen along a string of well-known resort towns, has a permanent population of roughly 1,500, but that number swells during ski season. Many of Sunlit Architecture’s clients are individuals looking to build a second home with easy access to the slopes. Jennifer and Gary Hartman, the husband-and-wife principals of the four-employee firm, have therefore adapted to long-distance relationships, providing virtual site walkthroughs and holding Web-based meetings with clients who live elsewhere. Sunlit completed two such second-home projects recently, and both faithfully represent the rustic architecture of the West while delivering high-end elegance.

Crested Butte Residence Reserve

Crested Butte, CO

Started
2006

Completed
2008

Size
8,439 square feet

Building Type
Private residence

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The timber is the most unique and stunning feature in this home commissioned by a Texas family. The white pine and oak in the floors, cabinetry, trim, trusses, siding, doors, and ceilings—as well as the iron washers and turnbuckles—all came from a defunct grain elevator north of Green Bay, Wisconsin. The resulting residence has a dramatic, time-worn feel. “Some of the timbers … were weathered by the corn rushing down the sides, so you have these beautiful, worn-away, eroded areas,” Jennifer says. The bracketed trusses along the home’s 40-foot lower-level hallway were modeled from the elevator’s train tunnel.

Outside, the large home had to contend with snow. Crested Butte might get as much as 350 inches in the winter, all of which has to go somewhere when spring temperatures melt it, and the Residence Reserve stands in the way. The home thus has five specialized drains to divert water rushing down from the mountains. “We stepped back the hill with boulder retaining walls, and behind each of those four walls is an intercept drain,” Jennifer says, adding that there is also a foundation drain. The intercept drains pull water to each side of the house and then along to a natural drainage system; old water rights in Colorado require that any natural rainfall or snowmelt must be allowed to run its course to Los Angeles or the Gulf of Mexico (depending on which side of the Continental Divide the house sits on). Now, the home’s owners enjoy their view of the landscape without having to worry that they’ve overly disrupted it.

Crested Butte Residence Reserve
Crested Butte Residence Reserve

Skyland Residence

Crested Butte, CO

Started
2009

Completed
2011

Size
6,222 square feet

Building Type
Private residence

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The use of iron throughout the interiors of the Skyland Residence is a nod to Green & Green, a California architectural firm from the early 20th century that did really great Craftsman-style houses, Gary says. The large iron straps binding the walls’ narrow oak slats in the circular entryway make guests feel as though they are “walking through a whiskey barrel,” he says. And, the straps also foreshadow the great room’s grand fireplace, which includes a strong, heavy iron mantelpiece and doors done in a delicate framework made from the same metal.

Though the home comprises one of the smaller building envelopes Sunlit has ever worked with, the Hartmans still wanted to capture the horizontality that has classified Colorado architecture for ages; the region’s valley buildings historically crouch nearer to the ground to avoid the harsh westerly winds. So, the architects put stone wing walls on either side of the residence to soften its boxy angles and draw one’s eye more gradually up from the landscape and then back down again.

The Skyland Residence’s landscaping, like that of other Sunlit designs, has little formality, instead slipping back to the wilderness—sage brush, buffalo grass, wildflowers—as soon as possible. Managing a grassy yard requires too much water in Colorado’s arid climate, and the architects don’t want to detract from the ambience of the natural outdoors. “We try to be as light on the landscape as possible,” Gary says. ABQ

Skyland Residence