When attorney Ashlie Beringer and her husband Marcus began hunting for property in Grand County, they were looking for a place to build a yurt. Something off the grid, perhaps.
"When we lived in Denver, we wished that we could spend 100 percent of our time up here," Beringer says. "Every chance we had, we would come to Grand County. We love the open space. We love skiing."
Beringer and her husband weren't interested in "posh Aspen" or other mountain communities that were more "built up." To them, Grand County felt "less affected by money." Little did they know they'd end up spending more than a million dollars building their ideal mountain home. Yet, they remained true to their pristine mountain vision.
"We like the old authentic feel to Grand County," Beringer says. "It doesn't feel spoiled to us."
They started talking to real estate agent Denise O'Connell (now with RE/MAX Peak to Peak Reality), and the first thing they discovered was that most subdivisions in Grand County have codes and covenants that would make building a yurt impossible. But the young couple was determined, and they set out with O'Connell to seek properties that would allow for something unconventional.
The first lot they visited was located in a small mountain valley west of Tabernash. It was a narrow, 10-acre parcel that climbed up a steep, rocky slope to the top of a ridge. "We basically started hiking up a cliff through deep snow," Beringer recalls. "We got to a spot that had gorgeous views of Byers Peak, and we fell in love with the property right there. We weren't even sure we could build on it."
O'Connell took the couple to see many other properties in the following months, but they kept returning to the lot in the little valley, bringing along builders and architects to weigh-in on whether the lot was buildable.
Scott Munn, of Munn Architecture, saw the potential in their beloved piece of property. "He wasn't daunted by the challenges," Beringer says.
Three years later, the $1.3 million, three-bedroom home that occupies the south-facing end of the valley pays homage to Colorado's mining history ... and it is a far cry from the yurt the couple initially envisioned.
"I was trying to figure out what type of structure wants to climb up a hill," Munn says. "And then I was driving through Idaho Springs, and when I looked over at the Argo and Stanley mines, I had my answer."
Building a house that crawls up a rocky cliff is an enormous feat for any architect or builder. The project spent nearly two years in the design process, and Munn had to seek a zoning variance from the county that allowed the building to exceed height restrictions.
From bottom to top, the house is 78 feet tall, although it doesn't seem like it from the outside because it is tiered and nestled into the hillside. Specialists were called in at every step of the project, from the geologists who surveyed the hillside and blasted any unstable rock, to the surveyors who returned to shoot lines at each new level.
The house was constructed from the top down on steel piers that are sunk deep into the bedrock, says Jamie Smith, of Cabin Creek Carpentry, who joined the team from the beginning as the project contractor. There was no step in the process that didn't prove to be a challenge. "Just setting the ladders to do the siding was challenging. I didn't want anyone to get hurt," Smith says.
In order to set the main beam on the uppermost story of the house, the team built a platform to bring the crane as far up the hillside as possible. "The crane was extended as far as it could go and the beam was still an inch away from where it needed to be," Smith says. "All the alarms on the crane were going off, and we were screaming, 'Just a little bit more!' It was scary."
But Smith embraces challenges on the job, saying, "Why would I want to build something on a flat piece of ground when I can build this?"
The only portion of the house that sits at street level is the two-car garage. From there, 76 stairs climb up through the interior of the house, pausing at three different landings.
One landing serves as a mudroom with cubbies and railroad-tie coat hooks. The next landing has a gear closet with a shed roof. The third landing hosts a pair of comfy chairs—because after climbing nearly 40 stairs at 8,000 feet, a little break is necessary.
"We wanted the house to have a sense of discovery," Beringer says. "There's a lot of little mini adventures inside the house."
The first living area—52 stairs up—has two small bedrooms and a bathroom, in addition to the main entry to the house, which will someday be accessed from a winding, native-landscaped trail up the slope side. Up yet another flight of stairs is the master bedroom and master bath, complete with steam shower, heated towel bars and a deep soaking tub that fills from overhead. "It's my getaway from reality," Beringer says. A small entertainment room and laundry closet complete the second level.
The third level—located at about the same point on the cliff where the couple stood on the day they first discovered the property—contains the main living area with an open modern kitchen, a small library nook at the top of the stairs and a glass-encased office. "The study was important, and I spent a lot of time focusing on that. I work a lot, and I knew it was the only way I was going to get to enjoy the house. It turned out to be one of our favorite rooms, which is surprising. It's surrounded by glass, and sits up against the rocks," Beringer says.
An enormous picture window in the main living area perfectly frames Byers Peak. "It's like sitting in a treehouse that's tucked into side of rocky cliff," she says.
The exterior of the 3,500-square-foot house is sided entirely with locally milled beetle kill wood and is finished with a lifetime product used by the Canadian Park Service that will add patina to the house as it ages. "The wood on the outside of this house is always going to evolve and change," Smith says. "This house will be a living part of this site."
The roof, made of recycled corrugated metal, will also change as it rusts over time, giving the structure that old mine look. "I was totally enchanted by Jamie's use of old materials in his other projects," Beringer says. "The use of old reclaimed materials was something we wanted from the get go ... a modern rustic blend ... something that felt old and new at same time."
Inside, an enormous beam reclaimed from a barn in Iowa spans the main living area. Salvaged Wyoming snow fencing finishes the ceiling in the kitchen. Reclaimed timber lines the floor.
Almost all of the interior trim and flooring has a minimal, clear, no-VOC finish, providing the look it would have in its most natural state. Recycled steel ski lift cables create the handrails on the stairways, and raw steel beams with the yellow serial numbers still showing add a modern touch to the wood-burning fireplace.
The kitchen proved to be one of the greatest challenges for Beringer, who started out trying to design the finishes herself. "I ended up redesigning the kitchen several times," she says. "Fairly late in process, I met David Roecker at EKD in Denver. I literally walked in right before we ordered cabinets from another place. I just wasn't feeling comfortable. David immediately wowed me with his insights on how to redo things in a way that would make that space feel special. I ended up hiring him, and he was amazing. He became our interior designer as well."
The final result is a kitchen finished with European-style "larch wood" cabinets, slate slab countertops and a granite subway tile backsplash. In retrospect, Beringer says she wishes she'd sought out somebody like Roecker sooner to help with the "constant decisions ... what door finishes do you want, countertops, backsplashes ... the architect and builder don't really play that role, and you need somebody who understands your vision."
The interior lighting—which adds a minimal, modern touch to the sun-filled house—was designed by Tim Moreland of Power to the People, in Tabernash. While the couple didn't end up building an off-the-grid house, most of the inner workings of the dwelling are environmentally friendly, from the in-floor radiant heating and dual-flush toilets to the 96 percent efficient gas boiler and the Hoot septic system that acts as its own water treatment plant.
Score One for the Team
This wasn't the first collective effort by the Smith-Munn team. "They complement each other well," Beringer says. "They knew throughout the project that we were doing something very different."
It took five times longer to build than a regular house, but once this house was complete in December 2010—and the furniture craned in through the windows—it was time for Munn and Smith to sit down, take a deep breath and soak in the cascading cliff-side retreat they had created together.
"I couldn't be happier with way things turned out," Munn says. "And, I couldn't have had anybody better as a partner through this process. "
Cabin Creek Carpentry, Ltd.
Winter Park, Colo.
Munn Architecture, LLC
Power to the People, Inc.
EKD Exquisite Kitchen Design
Wyoming Snow Fencing
Centennial Woods Headquarters
Lifetime Wood Treatment
New Denver, British Columbia
Recycled Metal Roofing
Recla Metals, LLLC
Locally milled beetle kill siding
Hesters Log and Lumber