Rocky Mountain High

March 20th, 2017

Abundant sunshine, fresh air, winding creeks, towering pines, pillows of snow, and jagged peaks are just a few of the many images conjured when daydreaming about the Colorado mountain landscape. Our human desire to be in touch with natural elements contrasts with our need for shelter – especially in such a challenging environment as the mountains. Architecturally, the way we address this dichotomy has culminated into what is known as “mountain vernacular” style.

As settlers, and in particular the early mining industry, began establishing communities in mountainous regions, the isolation created by the landscape necessitated local and readily available building materials. Stone provided sturdy foundations, heavy timbers were made into supporting beams and columns, and walls were typically constructed of brick or wood. Corrugated metal, with its ability to withstand the often-harsh climate, was commonly used for roofing. Wood- burning fireplaces built of stone provided heat, while steeply sloped roofs shed the weight of the mounting snow.

All these elements became part of the mountain vernacular style – and they still hold true today. Even with the advancements in HVAC systems, a fireplace remains a staple in contemporary mountain architecture. The nostalgic smell of burning pine and the cracking of the flames gives us a timeless sense of being in an inviting place. Today’s insulated glazing allows us to visual connect to the landscape without compromising comfort or our relatively recent goal of sustainability. Large roof overhangs help control the solar gain of abundant sunshine while sheltering the outdoor living spaces so desirable to peak-loving residents.

The next wave of development in our Colorado mountains may prove more challenging, as, similar to our urban areas, vacant lots diminish and density becomes the focus. How can we help these towns continue to grow and flourish without losing the charm that makes them so desirable? Much of that responsibility will fall to building and planning departments. Design that respects the scale of a town and its surrounding landscape will be vital to preserving each community’s sense of place.  Likewise, designers and builders must choose appropriate forms and materials that will add to the appeal for generations to come. As we continue to adapt buildings to suit our needs, we need to do so with an understanding of why mountain vernacular style came about and why it will continue to have relevance in the future.

Written by Jeff Leland