A Telluride Couple’s High Desert Retreat

09/15/14 | By | 281 More
Sitting tall amongst the juniper and piñon trees, the home’s 360-degree views stretch 50 miles in every direction. (Photo by Brett Schreckengost)

Sitting tall amongst the juniper and
piñon trees, the home’s 360-degree views stretch 50 miles in every direction. (Photo by Brett Schreckengost)

Perched high amongst the sagebrush, junipers and piñons that color the rural Western Colorado landscape surrounding Redvale is a unique metal-and-glass structure that serves as a second home to one longtime Telluride couple. Completely off the grid and with 360-degree views toward the La Sal Mountains, the Colorado Plateau, and the Wilsons and Sneffels ranges, this high desert retreat receives near constant use by its owners, architect Cal Wilbourne and his wife, interior-designer Martha Gearty, who would perhaps make it their full time residence if they weren’t such avid skiers.

Over a five-year period starting in 1995, Wilbourne and Gearty built the house completely on their own, using little more than their own manpower and two boat winches.

“We did everything but the sheetrock,” says Wilbourne. “I refuse to do sheetrock.”

It was after a river trip on the Dolores River that the couple first thought about purchasing land in the area. The pristine red-rock beauty of the Dolores was still fresh in their thoughts as they drove home through Big Gypsum Valley, admiring the sunset and views into Disappointment Valley.

“That was literally the first time I was out that far West,” recalls Gearty, who had moved to Telluride just a few years before. “We looked at the property for the fun of it,” after seeing an advertisement in a Norwood realty office. “We wanted a place where we could see the sunset, but also afford.”

Although they snatched up the 40 acres almost impulsively, the property’s isolation would complicate their building process. There are no nearby power lines, so solar power was the only option. They learned from neighbors that wells in the area were not good, so hauling and storing water would be required. And Montrose County would neither allow compost toilets nor a grey-water system on the property, necessitating the installation of a septic system and leach field.

“It was a big decision,” says Wilbourne, but they went for it nonetheless.

Using an old Airstream trailer as interim living quarters, the couple got to work installing the infrastructure for the property, including a 2,100 gallon underground cistern, a shed to house equipment and batteries and a large solar panel.

“This is when solar power was still in its infancy,” says Wilbourne. “I did all the wiring – lightning rods and everything. We had horrendous thunderstorms back when we were building,” and even lost some electrical equipment after a direct strike to the shed.

When it came time to start building the house, it was clear that the couple should capitalize on the views. So Wilbourne designed a tall structure on a modest footprint – 1,250 square feet of living space on three stories, with two bedrooms, a bathroom and a laundry room on the ground floor; an open living room, kitchen and covered deck on the second floor; and a master bedroom, half bath and open deck on the top floor.

Six eight-by-eight Douglas fir columns set on concrete piers form the structure’s first and second floors. Above that, beams set atop the columns create the foundation for the third floor. “The configuration allows the second floor to be completely open on all sides, where there are essentially walls of glass from floor to ceiling,” says Wilbourne.

In place of windows, Wilbourne used Low-E sliding glass doors – a more economical way to incorporate as much glass as possible and establish unobstructed views of Lone Cone and the San Juan Mountains to the south and east, and Mt. Peale and the Uncompahgre Plateau to the north and west. “We wanted as much view and openness as possible,” says Gearty. “We see 50 miles in all directions. On a really clear day, in the morning, you can actually see the Cimarrons.”

What’s especially impressive about Wilbourne’s and Gearty’s home is that they built it with almost no help from other people, and few outside resources. “The fun part was how we took boat winches and moved them up the house as we built it. We used them to move materials and raise up the walls and trusses,” explains Wilbourne. “Nobody fell,” he adds.  “That was the good thing.”

The house was designed so the couple could easily shut off the power and walk away until their next visit. “Basically, we built in a lot of redundancy” into the home’s systems, says Wilbourne. Propane heaters in several rooms have their own pilot lights and thermostats, acting as a safety measure during the cold winter months. A gas-powered Thelin stove in the living room has a manual ignition. And the refrigerator is propane, as is the converted stock tank-turned-hot tub on the deck.

To cool the house during the hot summer months, Wilbourne developed a convection system to keep air moving up through the house like a chimney. Upper windows contain removable screened louvers that, when left open, draw air up through the house and to the outside. “It’s a way of cooling the house without fans,” says Wilbourne. “It works perfectly.”

Other details of the house reveal thriftiness and a clean and simple sensibility. The flooring is cork; the vertical grain fir cabinets in the kitchen and master bedroom are a design leftover from one of Gearty’s kitchen design projects, built using leftover wood; and the two recycled plywood decks are lined with pig fencing from a farm and supply store. Wilbourne made the recycled Douglas fir kitchen counter top, and also designed the staircase, which is made from angle iron, pipe railing and wire mesh fabricated by Telluride Gravel. The siding on the house is corrugated metal, requiring no maintenance and excellent weather protection.
“We’re very happy we made the building out of metal,” says Wilbourne.

Scattered throughout the home are antiques from Gearty’s ancestors; plus a 1950s-era oak parquet dining set that once belonged to her parents. One of the downstairs bedroom walls displays a collection of large radio-controlled planes assembled by Wilbourne – a hobby left over from his childhood.

Thunderstorms, Drought and Bounty

Between 1995 and 2000, working every weekend between ski seasons, the couple toiled through rainstorms, wind and hot sun to finish the house. As they observed thunderstorms, they grew to understand their patterns. “The storm always had to come through one little notch in the southwest horizon” to become a threat, explains Wilbourne. When that occurred, they knew they needed to quickly cover things up and head inside.

Around the time the couple finished the house in 2000, a serious drought set in. Gone were the rains that had once led them to consider constructing a rain catchment system. In 2002, the Burn Canyon Fire became a serious threat to their home. “It ran six miles in one hour, directly at us,” remembers Wilbourne. They watched the fire as it grew, witnessing trees explode and huge plumes of smoke until they were told to evacuate. The two recall how odd it felt to drive east toward their condo in Telluride amidst the chaos of horse trailers and pickup trucks heading west to Naturita, where an evacuation center was set up.
In more recent years, “the summers haven’t been quite so hot,” says Wilbourne. “It’s been very tolerable.”

In the beginning, they tried to grow native grasses, but found too much water was required for the plants to take root. Over time, they re-vegetated areas damaged during construction with small native trees, bushes and flowering plants.

During the growing season, with a 400-gallon water tank on his truck, Wilbourne makes three or four trips to a local water filling station each month to top off his cistern. The couple’s water demand increased six years ago, when he decided to attempt a garden. Wilbourne now maintains a large vegetable garden in several raised beds, which, even during the couple’s absence, maintains itself quite successfully, thanks to shade cloth, drip tape and timers.
Reflecting on their past 22 years cultivating this desert home away from home, Wilbourne recalls a bad dream he once had. “I woke up in the middle of the night with a nightmare that we had built the house on the wrong lot,” he says. Startled, all he could think at the time was, “Oh, I can’t possibly do it all over again!”

“It was tough,” says Wilbourne of their long and ambitious undertaking. “But it was a really great experience.”



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