The story of how Swenka and Hammond made their home comes down to being open to what life places in your path – literally. They’d been living in Montrose, and pretty much planned on staying there. The reason was economics. “We knew we couldn’t afford to live in Ridgway, and we knew we couldn’t afford Log Hill,” Hammond says. As a result, building a home in the area “wasn’t something we’d even considered.” Yet Hammond, a public defender, and Swenka, a software engineer, are avid hikers, bikers and climbers, so they often spend weekends in the San Juans. One day, on a trail above Ridgway, they came upon a gorgeous property for sale. When they got home, Hammond began looking into what real estate in the region was going for, and got a shock. “Prices were surprisingly affordable,” she says, “and we realized, ‘this is actually doable.’ That’s when the wheels started turning.”
The first order of business was to find a lot. The couple knew what they wanted: to be able to hike and bike from the house was key. They also knew what they didn’t want: a tract house, and a lot of restrictive homeowners covenants. With the help of a realtor, they soon located what they thought didn’t exist – five acres in a piñon-and-juniper forest overlooking the Sneffels Range, but still only 30 minutes from their jobs in Montrose. Then they hit the internet – as they would do so often in the months ahead – to find a local architect and a builder who shared their vision: a “green,” modern mountain home – on a budget. Far from being daunted by the cost restrictions, the builder, Scott Bridger, and architect Liana Schmidt, both of Ridgway, embraced them. The couple’s priorities dovetailed with Schmidt’s and Bridger’s: they all placed a high value on building something efficient, streamlined and functional, focusing construction dollars “on their priorities, not just square footage for the sake of extravagance,” as Bridger puts it. Liana Schmidt says it more simply. “It’s fun to work with less,” she says. “It makes you focus on what’s really important. We understood each other, and we all just clicked.” Which was good, because there was a lot of work to do.
The first challenge was the lot. Hammond and Swenka now owned five acres, but much of it straddled a steep ravine. That left a very small spot on which the house could perch – on the tall side of the ravine – in order to have a view. “There was absolutely nothing flat on the entire five acres,” Scott Bridger recalls. Forty dump trucks’ worth of dirt had to be poured to shore up the foundation before excavation could begin. The footprint that was left to build on was “like a boxcar,” Hammond says. “We were definitely limited by the rectangular shape.” And there was another problem: while the Sneffels range was, theoretically, “in view,” the house would need to sit up at just the right height for its owners to see the peaks. Which meant some part of it would have to be tall. Scott Bridger pulled a ladder inside one day, for Swenka to climb up on. Here, Bridger said, is where we need the second floor to begin, so you can see Mt. Sneffels. Which meant the ceiling of the first floor would have to be 11 feet high.
Swenka and Hammond were not only amenable to this idea, they understood completely, and were all for making this and other necessary design compromises that needed to be made along the way. For example, Hammond hoped to have a powder room on the first floor. There wasn’t enough space for a separate bathroom, so Schmidt combined it with the master bath. A sliding door separates the bathroom facilities from a walk-in shower, allowing for two uses at the same time. Another way Schmidt economized on space was to install the home’s only built-in closet in the master bedroom, which sits behind a three-quarter wall, just 8 feet long and 3 feet wide. “That’s totally OK,” Hammond says. “We both hate clutter anyway, and the space forces us to be honest about what we really need.” Schmidt employed other techniques to make the 2,300 square-foot home feel spacious and accommodating. The three-quarter wall, a design she also used in the living room, maximized airflow and created visual interest. There wasn’t enough room for a formal dining room, so Schmidt inserted a “pop-out” wall in the kitchen. The pop-out was not part of the original footprint, but it added enough space to define the dining area and create the feel of a separate dining room. She did the same thing in the upstairs office.
The architect also brought in light, through strategically placed, elongated windows in nearly every spot the walls would allow. She even let the starlight in, through a three-by-six-foot window that seems to float above the couple’s bed. “I believe anywhere you can create visual interest with a window is good,” Schmidt says. “It doesn’t have to be facing the trees or the mountains.” Another deft aesthetic touch is a deck – upstairs, where the big view is, facing south to the San Juans – that runs the length of the south side of the house. The living room doors, opening straight out to the deck, showcase the peaks. The deck sits high above the ground; a traditional design could have required extremely tall posts to hold it up. Instead, the architect designed steel support columns, which angled down and back to the foundation. With nothing visible to hold it up, the deck appears to float above the trees, as if suspended in space.
Of course, the goal was not only a stylish home, but to keep the design as ecologically friendly as possible. The start-up costs of traditional solar heating would have been too much, but an awning on the south side of the home allows in low winter sun, and provides plenty of passive solar heat. It also keeps the high summer sun out, and prevents the place from getting too warm. The blonde-bamboo floors of the home are beautiful and strong as well as sustainable. Swenka and Hammond admired the beetle kill wood-sided exterior of the United Church of the San Juans in Ridgway, so Bridger called the church, got the name of the supplier, and procured some for his clients. On another aspect of the house, the material is blue metal; in one of their drives around the area, Swenka and Hammond were inspired by a house in light-blue and silver, which they spied off U.S. Hwy. 550 between Ridgway and Ouray. To find their own blue siding, they used the internet (“It was as simple as googling ‘blue siding,’” Swenka says) and selected shades and textures.
The result of all the home’s components is a soaring space that maximizes light and loftiness, but not at the expense of visible aesthetics or craftsmanship. When money got tight towards the end of the project, Swenka and Hammond economized by framing the basement themselves. “It’s not that complicated, as long as you’re patient and you’ve done your research,” Hammond says. “You can mess up on framing, and no one will see it.” The project “involved a lot of big, loud tools, so Chad was really into it.” In places where the design and details would stand out, Swenka and Hammond made every penny count. They were intrigued by the concrete designs of Chris Bolane; Bridger, who had worked with Bolane, introduced them to the concrete artist, a Ridgway resident. Though Bolane can dye concrete most any color, or make it in many textures, they deliberately chose muted tones. “Our house in Montrose was full of bright colors,” Swenka says. “I think we sort of burned out on that. We wanted something quiet and neutral.”
Swenka and Hammond were so delighted with Chris Bolane’s work on and around the kitchen sink, they collaborated with him on bathroom fixtures and the fireplace. The fireplace itself is simple: a low-lying rectangle. Simple designs are not only modern and beautiful, “They’re less costly to build,” Bridger notes. Color around the edge of the fireplace, and a pop-out detail in the drywall, emphasize the shape of the fireplace, and its modernity. “Another choice might have been marble” for the trim, Bridger notes. This is just as beautiful, and more interesting.
Swenka and Hammond have lived in the house for nearly two years, and have welcomed a daughter, 18-month-old Pearl, in it. There will be more changes soon. They will plant a plot of grass for kids to play on (Hammond is pregnant again), and are thinking of adding some more pieces of art, and some color. They wanted to live with the house for a while, before they decided what direction to take the white interior. “I think maybe we needed a break from making choices,” Hammond says. “It’s all the little things,” Swenka adds. “Your mindset is, ‘We’ll build a house; how hard can it be? We’ll just have to pick stuff out.’ It’s more complicated than that.” As it is, the only color in their home is a vibrant green mosaic backsplash in the kitchen, designed to look like reeds of bamboo and echo the bamboo on the floor. With these projects in mind, Hammond and Swenka are taking things as they can afford them. What they already have, and what they will give their children – stars overhead, the scent of piñon and juniper, elk and wild turkeys for neighbors – is priceless.