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Caron and Bennett Robinson’s house sports shed and butterfly roofs, as well as a beautiful green roof. The architect chose Super Emperor-size brick siding to blend with the native grasses that are golden toned most of the year. Photo: Rosemary Fivian Architect Inc.

Energy-efficient modern design turned this couple’s nearly empty nest into a dream retirement home.

By Lisa Marshall

With her two teenage sons growing older, her job as a middle-school math teacher in Texas winding down and her husband Bennett free to work from anywhere, Caron Robinson visualized her future life as an empty nester with both excitement and trepidation.

When the front door is open, a simple entry bridge on a north-south axis leads the eye from the driveway all the way through the house to the landscape beyond on a carefully planned procession. Photo by Rosemary Fivian Architect Inc.
When the front door is open, a simple entry bridge on a north-south axis leads the eye from the driveway all the way through the house to the landscape beyond on a carefully planned procession. Photo by Rosemary Fivian Architect Inc.

She dreaded the day her boys would go off to college, but she longed to leave the heat and crowded freeways of Dallas for a mountain home. It would be surrounded by natural beauty, but close enough to a city to feed Caron and Bennett’s appetite for arts and culture. It would be net-zero (using only as much energy as it generated), and feature plenty of her own space, something Caron lacked as a mom living in a house with three males. But most importantly, this empty nest wouldn’t feel empty.

“A huge part of our design was to make sure our kids loved it too—to create a special, comfortable place they would want to come visit for years to come,” Caron says.

Family and friends visited the studio of Gerhard Oehrlich Concrete Design to select and scatter the glass in the kitchen’s concrete countertops. The cabinets are made from recycled paper. Photo by Rosemary Fivian Architect Inc.
Family and friends visited the studio of Gerhard Oehrlich Concrete Design to select and scatter the glass in the kitchen’s concrete countertops. The cabinets are made from recycled paper. Photo by Rosemary Fivian Architect Inc.

With the help of Boulder architect Rosemary Fivian and a host of other local contractors, the Robinsons have done just that, transforming a wooded, steeply sloped 1-acre lot in Pinebrook Hills into a model of forward-thinking design and cutting-edge energy efficiency.

Completed in late 2014 and featured on the 2015 Boulder Green Home Tour, the 3,200-square-foot home boasts a solar hot-water system, a 10.4 kWh photovoltaic solar system installed by Boulder-based Namaste, and loads of passive-solar features that take it beyond net zero by generating slightly more energy than the Robinsons use. Ninety-nine percent of the lights are eco-friendly LEDs from Boulder-based Splashlight, and underfoot is fumed-oak flooring made from post-industrial waste. Even the roof is green—-literally. Look out the windows in the upstairs foyer and you’ll see a “living roof” (from LiveRoof LLC) bursting with colorful sedums and dianthus in springtime.

Among the many other benefits it provides, the green roof serves to visually tie the distant landscape to the home. Photo by Rosemary Fivian Architect Inc.
Among the many other benefits it provides, the green roof serves to visually tie the distant landscape to the home. Photo by Rosemary Fivian Architect Inc.

“Green homes can vary from lime green to forest green,” says Fivian, who worked closely with Caron for more than a year while she was still in Dallas to help plan and execute her dream home. “This home is off-the-charts green.”

It’s also off-the-charts beautiful.

Nature, Reflection, Peace and Privacy

Walk through the front door and sweeping Flatirons views greet you, along with a warm glow from the gargantuan two-story wall of glass that constitutes the home’s southern face. No facility in the United States makes glass so big, so the thick, triple-glazed Loewen windows had to be shipped from Canada and lifted into place with a crane. Outside, carefully designed roof overhangs block out excess sun on hot summer days. Inside, stout concrete floors serve as a heat sink on cold winter nights.

Photo by Rosemary Fivian Architect Inc.
Photo by Rosemary Fivian Architect Inc.

In a departure from typical home design, Fivian placed the kitchen and living space in the subterranean level, partially dug into the hillside, where the earth—at a constant 55 degrees—folds around the northern wall to further stabilize the temperature. To the south, the towering glass slides away on warm days, opening onto a spectacular patio shaded with removable fabric sails. The design seamlessly blends the inside with the outside.

The interior finishes mimic the light and dark materials on the exterior to seamlessly blend the home inside and out. Photo by Rosemary Fivian Architect Inc.
The interior finishes mimic the light and dark materials on the exterior to seamlessly blend the home inside and out. Photo by Rosemary Fivian Architect Inc.

Energy efficiency aside, Caron also had other items on her wish list. Aesthetically, the house would be modern and clean, but also warm and inviting. And at just over 5 feet tall, Caron is an avid chef who wanted cabinets she could comfortably open and close. Fivian obliged, installing automated overhead cabinets made of recycled paper that open at the touch of a button.

To craft the custom center kitchen island that was also right-sized for Caron, the family called in Berthoud-based artisan Gerhard Oehrlich of Concrete Design LLC. He gathered the entire family together to participate in its creation, each member placing bits of colored glass and tile in the frame before he poured the concrete. They loved the unique personal touch so much they had him construct their bathroom counters and water feature too. “His work is amazing,” Caron says. “He added so much to our home.”

A woman of devout Jewish faith, Caron also requested a kosher kitchen, with two dishwashers for keeping plates exposed to animal products away from other plates. And she dreamed of having a sukkah, a separate open-air sanctuary reserved for Jewish spiritual practice and celebration of the Jewish holiday Sukkot. It sits in the yard beneath a towering stand of evergreens.

A 10-by-18-foot triple-glazed lift-slide door creates a seamless flow from the home’s interior to the semiprivate courtyard outside. Photo by Rosemary Fivian Architect Inc.
A 10-by-18-foot triple-glazed lift-slide door creates a seamless flow from the home’s interior to the semiprivate courtyard outside. Photo by Rosemary Fivian Architect Inc.

One item notably absent from the Robinsons’ main living space is a television. “We spent the first 25 years of our marriage with the TV in the main room of our house. The second 25 years, I figure Bennett can have it in his space,” Caron jokes. On that note, the home features a yoga/meditation room for her and office/TV space for him, plus “his-and-her” closets and bathrooms. “When you’re a mom, sharing a home with sons and a husband, sometimes you feel like you never have any of your own space,” she says. “I wanted some places that were just mine for my female energy.”

Photo by Rosemary Fivian Architect Inc.
Photo by Rosemary Fivian Architect Inc.
Caron’s bath features an outdoor shower and roof deck, as well as framed forest views from the tub inside. The tub “floats” on a bed of black river pebbles, surrounded by natural stone tile. Photo by Rosemary Fivian Architect Inc.
Caron’s bath features an outdoor shower and roof deck, as well as framed forest views from the tub inside. The tub “floats” on a bed of black river pebbles, surrounded by natural stone tile. Photo by Rosemary Fivian Architect Inc.

With the master bedroom, complete with a private outdoor shower, upstairs and two guest bedrooms downstairs, there’s plenty of space for their sons (ages 16 and 19) to return to after they both leave for college, and later on perhaps, with families of their own.

To plan for their own aging, or the days when they arrive home with armloads of groceries, the Robinsons installed an elevator that goes directly from the garage to the downstairs kitchen, bypassing the potentially treacherous staircase. “Down the line, when they come to visit with families of their own, they can just come downstairs and have their privacy without us all being on top of each other,” Caron says.

For now, with one son off to college and one heading off soon, she’s just glad the years-long project is complete. And she couldn’t be happier with the end result.

“There is just an amazing peace about this place,” she says. “This is it. I’ll never build another house.”