Incited by a seemingly impossible building site in an old railroad town above Vail Valley, Colorado, a Denver architect designs a 15-foot-wide sustainable mountain getaway as a speculative investment for sale. Then his adventurous family falls in love with the home. It was an eyesore. Passersby merely saw a ramshackle trailer overstuffing the 25-by-100-foot (7.5-by-30-m) lot on Main Street in Minturn, Colorado. Yet, André Vite spotted an opportunity.
The campus architect at the University of Colorado Denver and his wife, Ginger Borges, an oncologist at the University’s medical school, have a weakness for obscure properties. That evening three winters ago, however, they maintain they were not scoping out a new venture at all. The couple and their preteen sons, René and Niko, were headed to the old railroad town up Eagle River for dinner after a day of skiing in Vail. “We drove through Main Street Minturn, which is a town we go to all the time, and there was a mobile home for sale that was just totally wedged in and awkward looking,” Vite remembers.
Even though he didn’t know what to do with it at the time, the architect wanted that piece of land. And he got it without difficulty because the city planners had been eager to get that blot off Main Street.
The draftsman went home and started sketching.
S(e)izing the Opportunity
The lot’s appeal was twofold: It was located right on the town’s main stretch and it was zoned for mixed use. “From a planning and zoning standpoint, it was a fantastic opportunity,” says the architect and urban designer, who also heads his own practice, the Vite Collaborative. (Or, as he describes it, “A bunch of friends working on unique projects together.”) If for nothing else, Vite purchased the property at a propitious time. The shops along Main Street had been expanding in that southern direction in recent years. Thus, Vite had originally designed the project as a residential spec home with the option for retail or commercial space on the ground floor.
While the sliver of land overlooks the principal artery of town life on the Main Street side, the opposing end couldn’t have more different surroundings — a quiet residential street with community gardens across the way. “From an architectural design proposition, that was very exciting to see how you could work this with two faces of the building,” Vite recalls. “Both facades relate to the context of the side they are on.”
“From an architectural design proposition, that was very exciting to see how you could work this with two faces of the building.”
Yet another challenge the building site posed was the 10-foot grade change between the two frontages — an entire story difference, front to back. That was not all. The town’s zoning laws required a 5-foot setback from the property line. The house could be only 15 feet wide.
Fortunately, the neighbor’s garden to the south and a driveway next door to the north give the narrow site extra breathing room. “It’s true, it’s a very constricted site, and the response was a very long, narrow building, but it’s still flooded with light,” Vite says.
"It’s true, it’s a very constricted site, and the response was a very long, narrow building, but it’s still flooded with light."
Unconstrained creativity on 15 feet across
The building constraints — the narrowness, the contrasting major facades, the steep slope — only spurred Vite’s imagination and inspired innovative solutions. How did he create a modern living space — an entire three-story house — with 15 feet (4.6 m) across to work with? The architect’s answer was a structural steel frame, an element adopted from commercial construction, which gave him the structural freedom to engineer large open spaces on the inside. “It’s a steel moment frame structure with three beams that go all the way down the building. Then there is a steel beam across the top.”
The steel beams manifested what would become part of the narrow house’s legacy, and with it, a close relationship between Vite and the local builder, Brian Beckett. “When he was erecting the moment frames, Brian called me and said we can’t put the roof on tomorrow,” Vite says. One of the moment frames had been a quarter-inch off plum, which was still well within building tolerances. As might be expected from the sanguine architect, the holdup was anything but a point of contention; on the contrary. “To have a guy who takes this that seriously was just really important to me. I knew I was going to get a great building from him,” says Vite. “The main draw to this project was the relationship I developed with the builder. It became evident early on that he cared about craft. We’ve become great friends.”
“The main draw to this project was the relationship I developed with the builder. It became evident early on that he cared about craft. We’ve become great friends.”
Actually, there was one moment during construction that did stop the architect in his tracks. After Beckett put the roof on the now-perfect steel frame, he took a picture and sent it to his client in Denver. “It looked like a tube; like you wouldn’t ever want to live in anything like it,” Vite remembers his initial reaction. “It wasn’t until we started finishing it out that it turned into what we’ve got. But that was a scary point, because it was so narrow.”
By the time construction was completed, the next ski season was approaching. Vite and his family had frequently driven up from Denver to ski in the Vail Valley during previous winters. “We decided we would use the house for that ski season,” Vite says about the investment property he had just finished. “We spent that ski season there. After that, we didn’t want to lose it.”
“We spent that ski season there. After that, we didn’t want to lose it.”
The unique house itself wasn’t the only reason the family never wanted to move out. “We absolutely fell in love with Minturn. It’s the real authentic mountain community between Beaver Creek and Vail, where you have all these people who are transient and vacationing. The people in Minturn are really the ones who keep that valley going,” says Vite about the mountain town’s thousand or so residents.
What’s more, Borges not once considered her husband crazy for building this improbable house. “We’ve been married for twenty years,” Vite laughs. “She is used to that.” And attuned to narrow dwellings she was. The first home the couple restored and lived in together was a townhouse in Boston’s Beacon Hill neighborhood that was only 14 feet wide. “She’s getting an extra foot,” Vite exclaims, insisting his wife was thrilled about the idea to keep the Minturn house. Now the four escape up here nearly every weekend, year-round, to fish, drive their go-kart, hike — or ski in winter.
Open space to monkey around
Since completion, the house has evolved into a fun destination in its own right for the adventurous family. “The narrowness drove the whole architectural design in choosing a steel frame so that the interior could be completely open,” Vite says. Scarcely any interior walls partition intimate bedrooms and private bathrooms from the open, free-flowing floor plan. At the bottom, the concrete foundation encases a below-grade guest bedroom and bathroom on the dwelling’s Boulder Street side. Because of the steep slope, the opposite end is above ground, where the garage faces Main and can be extended out to the street for a future retail space.
“The narrowness drove the whole architectural design in choosing a steel frame so that the interior could be completely open.”
The ceiling of the modern living room on the second floor rises two stories with an overlooking loft, the parents’ open bedroom. The boys’ west-facing bedroom is tucked behind the “master” (or in front of it, depending on which frontage you interpret as the face of the house).
The family spends most of their time together in the open living space with the curved white couch. “We take this big picture off the wall and project movies onto the wall.” The cork-floored main living area flows outside through a folding glass and steel wall that opens up to the deck. A minimal dining area in the middle transitions into the kitchen, Vite’s favorite spot in the house.
“But what the kids love is this 26-foot space here,” says Vite, pointing at the high living room ceiling, where he mounted a climbing rope. “They get to climb up this wall that’s all blocked with wood, ready to put in finger holes for a climbing wall.” Climbing is indeed the boys’ favorite indoor pastime. “They climb everything they can get to,” their father reveals, pointing to a trolley that runs down the steel beam under the roof above the master loft. “You can strap yourself onto here and then push off.”
In addition to providing a place for the family to escape the city on weekends and holidays, Vite wanted to set the stage in the house for a few cherished vintage pieces he inherited from his late parents. “The interior design was all about finding a home for my father’s old furniture he had bought in the early sixties in New York. It’s all authentic midcentury-modern furniture, and I designed the interior around it.”
Sustainability as style
The LEED-accredited architect is reluctant to categorize the architectural style of his idiosyncratic house. “What they call it up here is a contemporary mountain home, because it very much has the feel of a timber frame, although it is done in steel,” he says. “But rather than talking about a style, the sustainability feature is more important to me.”
From the construction standpoint, the house is based on a standard wood module to limit material waste, which actually got Vite in trouble with one particular Minturn resident. “There is a guy up here who goes around the construction sites, picking up wood waste for his wood-burning stove at home. He would complain that we didn’t have enough wood waste and gave us a hard time.”
The carefully calculated use of exterior wood is to protect the building from driving rain in support of the actual weather barrier behind the wood. “All these gaps are open,” Vite shows. “It’s like the house is wearing this jacket. The wood is there for added protection, and the jacket breathes.” Air exchange is critical for a highly insulated house at this altitude, where the air is extremely dry. “You are living and cooking and doing all these things that increase the humidity inside the house,” he explains. Instead of trapping the warm, very moist air inside, the house can breathe it out. Vite also installed a heat recovery air exchanger that pushes warm, inside-air to heat colder air coming in to ventilate the house, without using the heating system.
“It’s like the house is wearing this jacket. The wood is there for added protection, and the jacket breathes.”
Vite received the 2013 Award of Citation from the American Institute of Architects for this project.
Tight house, tight Community
Being awarded such a significant professional accolade from AIA is nice, sure, but what truly warms the architect’s heart is how the locals perceive the standout structure they’ve come to call the “skinny house.” “We get compliments on it all the time. People are stopping by, saying they’ve watched it go up and want to look at the inside,” he says. “I love that the town loves the house.” △
“I love that the town loves the house.”