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Photography by Emily Minton Redfield

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A Modern House in Boulder, Built From Scratch

In order to get the look they wanted, the Hess family started with a blank slate

Chris and Denise Hess were locked, loaded, and ready to pull the trigger on the remodel of their 1940s era home in Boulder, Colorado. Plans had been drawn, permits had been pulled, and a rental was secured for the duration of the project. However, Chris couldn't stop thinking about an empty lot that was for sale by owner just a few blocks away. He considered it too expensive, but on a whim, he decided to call the seller before the hammers started swinging, just to check again. Surprisingly, he was able to negotiate the price down. Now, he just had to sell his wife on the idea.

"I had been walking past this lot for years, and I used to stand on it, look at the views and dream about living here," Chris says. By views, he means the sight of the stunning Flatirons mountains, one of the defining geographic features of the area. As he and Denise worked through the remodel process with architect EJ Meade, principal at Arch 11, Chris kept thinking that for the money, they could start from scratch and get precisely what they wanted, rather than work around an existing house. That's when he picked up the phone.

Denise allows that she was not initially thrilled by the idea. "At first, I was shocked. We had put a lot of time and energy into those plans," she says. "But once I took a breath, I was excited. It made sense, because the new location was fabulous, and we could make it completely modern."

This is the view that inspired the Hess family to bring their planned remodel to screeching halt and go back to the drawing board. Architect EJ Meade designed the slender support columns (you see a glimpse here) at the entry to mimic the forests in the surrounding parks.

In part, it was a quest for a new, modern way of living that had brought the couple to Boulder. They had been living in Louisville, Colorado, in what they describe as a "typical suburban house." Denise says, "We had always wanted to live in Boulder and in a modern house, but we sacrificed that in order to have more space for our kids."

But with one son in college and the other poised to follow him out the door, suddenly the idea of a modern house just for them seemed attainable. "People use the term 'empty-nesters' like it's a sad thing," says Denise. "But for us, this project made the prospect very exciting." And, although the couple clearly love their kids and made room for them to stay during visits, Chris informed boys, "No boomerangs allowed here."

With a clean slate, the design possibilities seemed endless. The realities were not. The lot was narrow, and the building requirements from the city of Boulder are intense. "In this city, the rules are such that when you get done with a project, you have an LEED Gold building—and I'm not kidding," Meade says. "In addition to the energy requirements, you need to worry about shadows you are casting on your neighbor's property."

"I love being able to sit in the living room and have the mountains right there," says Chris Hess. The Eames lounge chair and ottoman are accented by a tongue-in-cheek "WTF" pillow by Alexandra Ferguson. A similarly cheeky painting by Jermaine Rogers shows Andy Warhol kissing Vincent van Gogh.

Marry these facts with the desire of the couple to fully embrace the mountains to the front of the lot, and you have the set up for some intense architectural gymnastics. Meade dealt with it using the age-old folding technique known as origami. Meade admits he isn't an expert in the art of creasing paper (the only origami creation he ever perfected is a balloon). But when it comes to building materials, he can twist, bend, and manipulate like nobody's business. According to the owners, the zone where Meade's design aesthetic and city restrictions collide is where the magic happens.

Left: Chris and Denise Hess (seen here with Edna the bulldog) are not your stereotypical empty nesters ("We started young," says Chris). Denise says that, since moving to Boulder and closer to the mountains, they hike and bike more than ever. Right: The open nature of the house allows people in the kitchen to look out to the view at the front of the house.

Meade compares the house to two bars that are pulling away from each other. "One bar pulls up and away toward the view, and that holds the master suite and the study. The other bar holds the public spaces, the living room, dining room, and kitchen," Meade says.

What Meade finds interesting is the give and take between the public and private zones. Many traditional homes have the master bedroom at the back of the house, allowing for privacy from the street. In this house, the room is front and center over the entry (perched on second floor above it) in order to provide a front seat for mountain views. Similarly, the living room and its floor-to-ceiling windows are also at the front of the house. A narrow skylight runs along the center of the roof like the San Andreas fault traverses California (Meade calls the feature a "rift"). In order to share the light streaming in from above, the backside of the master bedroom shower is clad in glass (frosted to shoulder height). Anyone going up the stairs can see a person in shower and vice versa.

As Meade says, "The view drove everything about this project." In the master bedroom, the Flatiron mountains and Chautauqua Park are the focal point.
Left: In this house, portions of the walls and ceilings are transparent. The skylight, likened to a "rift" in the ceiling by Meade, is broken by asymmetrical mullions. A clerestory window, which acts as a sort of a modern day transom window here, tops the bedroom door. The master bedroom shower is backed by glass that's frosted up to the neck (seen to the right of the door). Right: The master tub (Barcelona from Victoria + Albert) relies on large windows and a clerestory window that spans the master bedroom wall at left for views and sunlight.

Referencing the give and take of the spaces Meade says, "As the owner of Mondo Robot, a creative digital agency, Chris is at the intersection of where public realm meets the private realm on the Internet. When we can tap into what a person carries through the world and translate it into their home, that's when things get exciting."

For Denise, the blurring of public and private, indoors and out is a function of having a home tailored just for her and Chris. "Would I have this kind of home if we were still sharing it with a couple of teenage boys and all their friends? Probably not. But this house is just for us," she says. For her, part of the joy of it is the ability to roll open the large, glass doors and make the kitchen one with the patio. "I love to come home, open the doors and go outside with a glass of wine and a book," she says. "Edna, our bulldog, also loves to wander in and out."

The addition of a roof deck on the garage was a last minute idea from Meade. During the framing, he stood atop the structure and realized there was a great opportunity there, and hurriedly called the couple to come and look. When they saw the mountain from this perspective, they agreed.

Four years after the home is complete, Chris has no regrets about his change of heart and impulse buy. Nor has the beauty of the view dimmed for him. "Looking at the mountains still inspires me, every day." he says.

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