A Fuller Definition of Shelter
by Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer | photos by Brett Schreckengost
Jun 01, 2012 | 5519 views | 0 0 comments | 20 20 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Of course you would have a stage in your house,” Claire said at the topping-off party. Though it had not occurred to me or my husband Eric that the spacious curved landing in the entry of our home was a stage, Claire was right. And indeed in the last 12 years, there have been many house concerts and poetry readings on that Placerville “stage,” with the audience watching from the living room two steps below.

The opportunity to bring music and poetry into the home had perhaps occurred to our architect Eric Doud, who later said to me, “Any house should respond to its place – not only the environmental setting, but also the cultural setting, and it should also respond to the personalities going into it.”

This is, perhaps, what makes Eric Doud such a fine architect to work with. Beyond practicality and direction from his clients, his designs are driven by two main considerations: what the land needs and what the soul needs. He’s spent a lifetime exploring these two notions.

To understand what motivates Doud is, in a way, to better understand what it is that thrills us when we think about shelter and its possibilities. How does a structure inform our relationship to the land? And how might it lead us into a deeper experience of what it means to be alive?

The Man Behind the Plans: A Long Telluride Connection

Doud moved to Telluride in 1971, the year before the ski area opened, and was a founding member of Telluride Designworks, along with John Herndon, Dean Randle, Tim Erdman and Kimble Hobbs. Since that beginning, he has continued to return to Telluride, while earning degrees: an undergraduate from CU Boulder, a master’s from the University of Notre Dame, teaching at the University of California at Davis, and working as an architect in the small town of Winters, Calif. He’s remained intimately tied to Telluride, however, through friends and work, and there are dozens of Doud homes in the region that span his 40-year history here.

One afternoon this winter, we walked together on the north side of town, and on almost every block he pointed out at least one house he’s designed or remodeled. Most of these homes fit comfortably into Telluride’s Victorian vernacular – Doud has a great passion for history and maintaining the integrity of an architectural period. He even served on Telluride’s original Historic Preservation Commission, now HARC (Historic Architectural Review Committee). “It’s an honor to do straight replication work,” he says, “an homage to the past. A lot can be learned from that.”

An example of his reproduction work includes 316 North Oak, which in 1982 he helped to completely renovate with the addition of a sympathetic carriage house. To best do this kind of work, he says, the architect needs to get out of the way. “A lot of times the ego does not want to take a back seat and honor the bones that are there,” he says. “But there is a lot of satisfaction when you can do that – the bones have a soul that a new structure can’t replicate.”

Other Doud houses stand apart as unique architectural expressions that show off his talent for making the most out of very little – very little space, that is. One of these is Fago Towers, nestled into the Ice House on East Pacific Avenue. This unusual building configuration is composed of a small footprint and seven living levels, all within the square footage of 2,500 square feet. Doud also designed and lived in the smallest primary house in Telluride. Located on the corner of Columbia and Alder, it has a 12 x 20-foot footprint, with a bath, kitchen, living room and loft bedroom, all built of recycled material.  

“Small has its place,” he says. “Though I like big, too, as long as it’s good. As Voltaire says, ‘Nothing’s learned through moderation.’ It’s the extremes that capture the imagination and where the learning occurs.”

Speaking of extremes: Telluride skiers are familiar with two of his best-known local structures – Doud was the architect for both homes atop the double black diamond slopes of Gold Hill. In the early 90s he designed The Mountain House, now Alpino Vino, located at the edge of timberline, and a few years later The Tempter House, perched on the radical edge of the release point of a 3,000-foot avalanche chute.  

Though located on the same ridge, the homes feel very different – one visibly solid and tucked into the trees, and the other highly exposed. This difference shows off Doud’s range, his ability to respond to the personalities moving into the homes, and also his willingness, as he says, “to be a steward for what wants to be. “

Part of his process involves asking. “And you ask not yourself, but the trustees of the higher powers, for lack of a better term, to connect to underlying, deeper truths to inform what the structure will be.”

For seven years, I lived in the “The Mountain House” on Gold Hill. My husband had just finished building it the month that we met. During that time, I came to appreciate the way the home responded to the land – how even in the wildest winter storms, Eric and I felt at home and safe snuggled into our shelter of stone and heavy timber trusses. I came to appreciate the spaciousness inside – how even though the house was hunkered in, there was an interior sense of lightness and generosity. But this was an experience with “a finished product.” When Eric and I built our home in Placerville in 2000, I had a chance to experience Doud in process – to see how he integrated our direction, a sensitivity to the land, and an intuitive wisdom about beauty and proportion.  

Consider: What the Land Needs

Shortly after we purchased our six acres of the historical Lafayette Placer on the San Miguel River, Eric and I invited Doud to walk the property with us. He had his ever-present clipboard and pencil with him, drawing the lines of the landscape onto a blank 8 ½ x 11-inch sheet of white paper.

“What happened with your house on an intuitive level is that it mimics the hills behind it,” he says. “And as the hills behind embrace that meadow, the house embraces those decks. It is a pure reflection of and a response to the land form.”

This kind of intuitive response to the land stems, in part, from Doud’s childhood in Deckers, Colo., where he grew up on his grandfather’s ranch and spent much of his time outdoors.

“My father in particular had great respect for Native American wisdom,” he says, “and helped distill that in me. To the Native Americans, all landscape is sacred and that is how you approach landscape – as a holy thing. And we are blessed to walk on it, for heaven’s sakes. But we have a society now that, because of its transportation and housing and our physical setup, has divorced itself from that relationship.”

People who grow up in a landscape, he says, tend to have a better understanding of it, and thus build in sympathy with the land. “For instance the oldtimers would find the sweet spot for the homestead. They didn’t bulldoze off the top of the hill. They knew a fuller definition of shelter that included the seasonal cycles that a structure needs.”

He continues, “A structure is a support system and should be responsive to the season and the cycles of your lifestyle. And it should enhance and support those cycles, not be an impediment or a barrier. Like a flower, it should open in the spring and suck in all that great spring solar energy and get full of light and life. And in the winter you should be able to really hunker down. The house should in some way reflect those changes. It should look different on the north than the south side – any house that doesn’t shows a fundamental lack of understanding of being on the planet.”

The form of the Placerville house demonstrates how Doud, like “the old timers,” has developed this kind of sympathetic responsiveness. He worked with our initial request for a U-shaped house – we were thinking about privacy and an opening toward the river corridor – and ultimately he created more of a sweeping W-shape.

I remember how he showed me the transformation from our shape to his with his hands. First he made a square U by touching his thumb tips and extending his pointer fingers. Then, keeping his thumbs touching and his fingers in the same position, he pushed the thumbs up to a point and his pointer fingers angled out. Voila. A home with an open center and two wings.

He explains, “The form, the two wings, develops a sense of shelter from wind and provides privacy from the highway. It’s both a physical and a psychological sense of shelter. The best shelter is when you are, in a sense, seeing from a niche, from a protected spot.”

The house also responds to the mining history of the region. When Eric and I said we wanted the house to have a very open feeling – not a traditional, heavy, timber-frame feel, Doud looked to late 19th century timber-framing, where they integrated iron technology and timber technology together. The resulting truss system of solid sawn beams and iron rods creates an evocative and unusual spaciousness in the home. Plus, as Doud says, “Because this is how many of the mining structures were built, it has an inherent correctness for the area.”

Consider: What 
the Soul Needs

The most interesting and most difficult consideration of his job, Doud says, is something seldom talked about in architectural programs or magazines: What does the soul need? And how do you bring that into a space?

“I have been searching for a definition of beauty,” he says. “What an elusive element. It is tragic that in all the formal schooling I had, at least at the undergraduate level, beauty was never mentioned as part of design. Shocking.”

But a search for that deep, internal resonance is part of what has interested Doud since his earliest ventures into architecture. He studied in Crestone at Kairos: The Society for the Remembrance of Ancient Knowledge, under one of his “alltime masters,” Keith Critchlow, a deep scholar of early Christian, Neolithic and Islamic traditions. And for his graduate thesis, Doud focused on myth, meaning and monuments, exploring how ritual informs a building and then, over time, how that building informs ritual.

No surprise, then, that although his local reputation is for residences, his national reputation is for sacred structures, including the St. Francis Retreat Center in San Juan Batista, California, and the work he is presently doing with the Dargah for Sufi Murshid S.A.M., in San Cristobal, N.M.

The feeling that you’re entering a beautiful – and some visitors even say sacred – space is present when you step into the Placerville house. This is despite the fact that it is very much a family home, strewn with dirty socks, Legos and half-read books. And so, after all these years of feeling and hearing this, I finally asked Doud how he did it.

“Form has the power to inspire,” he says, “so that you can walk into a space and go, ‘’Oh my God, this feels amazing.’ A good architect is a good sculptor of light. That is what illuminates the darkness and uplifts the soul. In a home, you sculpt form to accentuate an inspiring view. And in devotional architecture you bring in the high light from the heavens, which gets you looking below and above.”

The Placerville house happens to have both inspiring views and light from above. The W-shape allows for two view axes, that meet at a 90-degree angle. Looking to the outside, this allows for river views of both sunrise and sunset. On the inside, there is a “zipper” line made visible in the wood floor design that is the resolution of the two axes. And a curved upper landing and curved fireplace mantel bring you to those different axes in a graceful way.

As for the light from above, there is a pyramid-shaped skylight that “connects the interior of the home to the night sky and heavens and gives it a center, a vertical axis connecting the ground to the sky,” he says.

Doud explains that he also took full advantage of a “psychological procession of spaces, from outside to threshold to entry to interior.” Here he played with constricting and expansive components, “the result being an ah haa arrival” when you finally step into the center of the home.

But much of what makes the Placerville home, indeed all his work, so beautiful and so unique, comes from Doud’s distinctive sense of proportion – an intuition he’s developed over many years of sketching the works of masters to get their sense of proportion “in his bones,” as he says.

“When you sit and sketch,” he says, “the first line is easy. But the second line… that’s the one that matters. It establishes the relationship to the first. If it is to be more beautiful than less, it needs to be more correct in proportion. If you have studied master work by sketching it, when you come back to a clean sheet of paper after you have put the first line down, it is easier to find the second line. Deep understanding is not just intellectual activity, it is very physical, in the bone activity.”

But beauty is defined not only by knowing the rules, he says, but by knowing when to break them. “Rigidity can’t be part of the component of beauty. The rules need to continue to evolve.”

That is where practice comes in – and as can be seen throughout the Telluride region, Doud has a thriving practice. “Practice,” he says. “I love that term. That’s what we do. We never stop discovering.”

Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer feels very lucky to live in a home built by her husband and designed by their best man.
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