From the western patio of Puesta del Sol, a striking contemporary house in Avon’s Mountain Star neighborhood, you can see a 200-degree sweep of sky that includes the Beaver Creek ski area almost in its entirety. The owners—a couple we’ll call Steve and Elinor Johnson—are third-generation Coloradans who both grew up in Denver and love to ski. Steve had skied Vail with his family almost since he could walk. Elinor had taken a ski club bus to the mountains on weekends since she was 12. Both wanted their children to cherish the sport as much as they did.
Work kept the family in Denver, but the Johnson children started skiing when they were 3, first with Ski Club Vail’s development team, which they eventually outgrew, and later with the club’s racing program. The kids skied every weekend and every day of winter break. The family first rented seasonally, but as the kids became more involved with racing they bought a duplex in Singletree, which they thought was great for young families. But as their kids grew older and land became scarcer in the Vail Valley, the Johnsons decided to buy a two-acre lot in Mountain Star. They knew their children would eventually go away for school and work, and they intended to build a mountain house the kids would return to as adults, first with friends and later, they hoped, with their families. What drew them to Mountain Star were a light-filled aspen forest, where highway noise is nonexistent, and a western exposure that offers a long view of incoming storms and spectacular sunsets.
For years, as the kids raced and freestyle skied and taught skiing, and as the oldest went to college and then law school, the family held the lot. When Tucker, their middle child, approached high school graduation and talked about taking a couple of years off to race more intensely before college, the time seemed right to build. Steve thought post-2008 construction prices might be lower; Elinor saw no reason to wait.
They’d built a house in Denver and had time to think about what they wanted in the mountains. They chose Jack Snow and Sally Brainerd of RKD Architects for their contemporary, open, often sculptural designs that integrate inside and outside. Brainerd and Snow, who met in architecture school at CU, understood skiers (establishing a practice in Vail instead of Denver) and, after decades in the valley, understood mountain living.
The Johnsons defined the primary spaces and functions: A great room, where family and friends could gather and be surrounded by the views. A kitchen where the cooking and social spaces would be seamless so that Elinor, who is a serious cook and wanted the dining area to comfortably seat 45 or 5 (without seeming cramped or cavernous), would not be cut off from family or friends. A library with a desk for Steve. And areas that offered both privacy and togetherness, with a master suite for Steve and Elinor, bedrooms for each of the children (with shared common spaces), and quarters for multiple guests that would be fun for children and adults. They also wanted an outdoor pizza oven and a hot tub. The topography of the site, Mountain Star’s design requirements—gabled roofs and no more than 8,500 square feet—and Snow and Brainerd’s creative sensibilities determined the rest.
The design challenge, Snow says, was “how to take three simple gabled forms and make them sculptural and interesting and something no one had ever seen before. Which led to the cascading columns and steel connections.”
Puesta del Sol (Spanish for “sunset”) is elegant and whimsical, simple and subtly surprising, “an indoor-outdoor abstraction of ... traditional mountain forms,” Snow says. It’s a Rocky Mountain contemporary with abundant glass, dry-stacked sandstone, lacquered steel, and horizontal cedar siding intentionally attached so that the boards appear to hover over the wall surface. To the right of the front door, five structural timbers attached to steel joints seem likewise to float above the concrete deck as they fan out almost to the prow of the gable that shelters the entry and defines the home’s east-west volume, which includes the master bedroom. The second gable intersects perpendicularly and defines the longer horizontal volume that contains the main living areas of the house, with windows on all sides. Some of the windows cant outward—not just for the aesthetics, Snow says, or the gravity-defying engineering challenge, but to frame a view into the forest, down the hill as well as across and up. The third gable shelters the children’s and guests’ areas.
As a whole, the home’s scale is grand, the sandstone, steel, and concrete richly textured. The dimensions and number of windows and transparent doors combine with the height and lightness of the ceilings against dark supporting beams to lend a palpable airiness throughout. The effect is intensified by what Snow calls the “no-touch” details: the drywall does not quite meet the floor, the stair rail elements seem to float unattached, and vertical steel panels drift in front of the space between them and the structural walls behind.
While the aesthetic is sophisticated, the place feels warm and thoughtfully homey. Tucker’s room has towers of books. Every berth in the bunkroom has a reading light and ports for iPods and iPads. The open kitchen is a gastronomic temple, with soaring glass that peaks in a shape that mimics the mountains beyond; Elinor chose the barn-red 70-inch Lacanche range, the black granite counters, the subtle red in the woven-textured wallpaper, and the brighter red of the espresso machine. The great-room doors open to the patio, including a sheltered seating area next to the wood-fired pizza oven.
In the garage, a tuning bench shares space with the cars, an artifact from the two years between high school and college when Tucker and a couple of friends and a private coach from Ski Club Vail lived at the house and trained every day. They skied gates, watched video after the lifts shut down, and tuned their skis at night.
“It’s not just about having fun on the hill,” says Elinor, who notes that other than family, Tucker’s Ski Club Vail experience was among the most important of his life. “You do it over and over until you get it right.”
The Johnsons got Puesta del Sol right. As they envisioned, their children are now grown and spend most of their time elsewhere: the youngest is an Ivy League undergraduate; the oldest works for a consulting firm in Manhattan; and Tucker, who walked on to his college team, made All-American, graduated summa cum laude, and raced in Europe, also lives in New York, where for the first winter in a long time he isn’t racing. And Elinor and Steve look forward to this time of year, when their children typically return with their friends, and the family once again skis together.
RKD Architects, Edwards
Shaeffer Hyde Construction, Vail
RMS Concrete, Glenwood Springs
Castlewood Doors Millwork, Castle Rock
Peak Interiors, Gypsum
Guthrie Electric, Kremmling
Home & Hearth Outfitters, Denver
Xssentials Vail, Avon
Heartwood Custom Woodworks, Eagle
Upper Crust Landscaping, Gypsum
186 Lighting Design Group, Denver
Rader Engineering, Vail
Skyline Mechanical, Gypsum
Living Design Studios, Lafayette
Swanepoel Painting, Gypsum
Monarch Pools, Denver
Alpine Meadow Masonry, Wolcott
Gallegos Corp., Wolcott
Ryan & Co., Parker
Vail Alpine Construction, Vail
Sierra Pacific, Broomfield
Speciality Wood Products, Aurora
Spearhead, Nelson, B.C.
Plath Construction, Eagle