a house lost to fire

A weekend of working through a lot of drawings has put me hopelessly behind on the Reverb 10 project.  Catching up may not be possible, but in the midst of many studio hours logged over the last few days, I have been thinking about Friday’s prompt:

Pick one moment during which you felt most alive this year

I am working on a design for a house for a couple who lost their house in the recent Fourmile Fire west of Boulder.  The first time I was going to meet them at their burned-out house, in that devastated landscape, I went up a bit early to give myself some time to react to the aftereffects of the fire without embarassing myself, without letting the sadness of the scene overwhelm me.

Looking at these now, I can still vividly recall the dry, blowing ash, the snow-crunch under foot of glass, embers and debris.  And of course the somber black of the trees and landscape and the desiccated whiteness of hard-baked drywall.  But most of all, the smell of smoke that lingered in my car for week.  I have a small piece of broken, melted glass from the fire in my office and just looking at it recalls that smoke, acrid and merciless.



barn, Sunshine Canyon

Along with 170 or so houses, there was at least one barn lost in the recent Fourmile Fire.  It was not remarkable or even functional, with walls falling apart and a partial roof.  It stood by its self in a little field right along Sunshine Canyon Drive, a visible and much loved signpost along the road.

The fire burned up from Fourmile Canyon to the north and east, over the ridge that is Sunshine Canyon Drive and partially down the other side.  There was a very controlled line just west of the Bald Mountain parking area but this barn was lost on the east side of that.  I don’t know exactly how it happened but the burn immediately around barn indicates that a few embers probably caught the old, dry wood of the barn and the flames were contained.

This barn marked the turnoff from Sunshine Canyon Drive that was the access road to a project I designed and that I visited frequently during construction.  A couple times a week for about three years, I watched this barn slowly, almost imperceptibly, fall down while our project was building up.  And, like many architects, the barn held a fascination for me that took me into the falling structure to poke around and take dozens of photos.  The beautiful, simply structure housed a couple of old rotten-stuffing upholstered chairs, a stove, and a whole army of rusty cans and pails.

And now, the site holds only the memory of that old barn.  No one will rebuild it, or ever could recreate the strange and intriguing air that floats around inside abandoned buildings.


clustered development

There has been a lot written about clustered design vs. conventional zoning and house placement, but much of it focuses on suburban lot development, not the large parcels of rural lands.  However, some of the issues are the same and worth taking a look at like the EPA Stormwater paper on clustered development (that speaks to much wider issues than stormwater).

Bear Tooth Ranch site plan with bldg envelopes in red and view corridors shown

More applicable to the situation up on Sunshine Canyon and Fourmile, may be the excellent clustered development plan developed for Bear Tooth Ranch outside of Golden, Colorado.  Each of these lots are 35 acres, but the building envelopes, the area allowed for house construction, within each lot is significantly smaller and clustered with the same of other parcels.  As you can see from the site plan, three or so houses are relatively close to each other but that placement has been very carefully designed such that each house looks away from each other with its own view corridor.  Very careful study of the land, on foot, with great sensitivity and thoughtfulness is required to pull this off successfully.  At Bear Tooth Ranch, the result is very large swaths of open space, much larger than if every house was placed without thought of its neighbors.  I use this example because I think it is quite well executed but also because the situation out there – large, treeless areas, is similar to the post-fire landscape in rural Boulder. No longer are those houses up in Sunshine and Fourmile canyons nestled amongst stands of trees, visually isolated from each other.  Each house will have to look at their neighbors for quite some time unless the placement of the rebuilds is considered and careful.  I am not suggesting some kind of County-imposed zoning but rather a community effort, neighbor to neighbor engaging with each other to benefit each other.  Maybe the cohesiveness that has been formed from this common tragedy can extend for at least a few months more to forge this kind of cooperation.  It certainly is in everyone’s best interest to volunterily work together, like the firefighters did, to retain and engender community.


more info on post Fourmile Fire rebuilding

Boulder County Land Use department, along with other County resources, just held a informational/brainstorming session with members of the local building and architect community.  The County staff was soliciting ideas from those of us who have been through the permitting process, what steps might be useful to streamline or refine to help fire victims in the rebuilding process.  This was not a meeting were the County dictated the new rules of the road, but rather was a great outreach to genuinely engage the building community about how to make the prospect of rebuilding after the Fourmile Fire less daunting.

foundations first

A couple of dozen architects and builders were in attendence and a lot of really good suggestions were bandied about.  Here is some of what was discussed:


  • Create a streamlined Site Plan Review process for those projects that want to rebuild at a different size or location
  • Resolve coordination conflicts for questions concerning site access with Transportation, Land Use and local fire officials
  • Reduce or eliminate permitting fees
  • Study the Ignition Resistant Construction guidelines and Wildfire Mitigation regulations to determine their relative effectiveness
  • Investigate the vesting of rebuilding rights and their transferability
  • Investigate the use of TDRs (Transferable Development Rights) and how they apply in this instance
  • Relaxed regulations regarding the use of temporary structures on a property for owner’s use


  • Create a faster review and turnaround time on the issuance of Demolition Permits, especially with regard to house debris and trees
  • Review the Build Smart energy requirements to see if all or portions of this can be vacated or relaxed for fire damaged properties
  • Coordinating with the County Health department on the condition of existing septic systems and their re-use
  • Reviewing the documentation requirements for building approval
  • Reviewing the inspection process and timing for sequenced building processes


  • Coordinating the building and design communities to provide clear and effective information to the public
  • Warning the public about the inevitable influx of possibly unqualified and unlicensed contractors taking advantage of the tragedy
  • Creating a database of local professionals – builders and architects and others – available to assist in rebuilding efforts
then framing

The immediate plans for the County are largely focused on providing adequate staff to answer questions and issuing a packet to each effected property owner outlining the known facts about the property and existing buildings – existing house size, access, height, etc.  I think this is a particularly useful project – every homeowner will have a base line package of information clearly detailing the various options for rebuilding approval process and how they impact their specific properties.

Inevitably some of the concerns raised were of a primarily territorial commercial nature.  Architects and builders have been hit particularly hard in this recession and everyone would like more work.  This was far from rallying around this tragedy as a golden goose opportunity, but there is real concern out there that the local building and design community see its far share of the work that will take place.  And to especially the builder’s credit, there is serious concern about unscrupulous and shady builders sweeping in with low prices and crappy workmanship only to pack up and exit town leaving the community to fix and repair shoddy work over the next decade.

plumbing and electrical

The Boulder Green Building Guild is pooling efforts in response and I am sure their website will soon have such information available.  The Land Use Department of Boulder County is doing a superb job in trying to be as responsive as they can and their website will soon have links available as well.  Or drop me a line if you have questions – if I can’t answer it I will point you in the right direction (you can see some of my previous posts on rebuilding requirements by the County)

carpentry and cabinets, more to come...