Above photo: The open layout and vaulted ceilings create a living room that feels spacious, despite its narrow dimensions. Bold wooden beams create natural frames, and their light tone contrasts with the fireplace surround and dark stone floor tiles. Benches along the wall have storage drawers beneath. “Part of the concept of the ‘Little Ship House’ is that everything ‘stows,’ continuing the nautical theme,” homeowner Andi O’Conor says.

Tragedy sparks lessons in loss, opportunity and the kindness of strangers

By Sara Bruskin
Photos by WeinrauchPhotography.com

Andi O’Conor was 12 years old when her childhood home outside of Chicago burned down. Luckily, she was sleeping over at a friend’s house that night, and the rest of her family managed to escape the blaze. O’Conor says the near-fatal experience left her mother with a great fear of fire. “She would only stay on the first floor of buildings, and she never lit a candle or had a fire in the fireplace. She was terrified. When I started renting apartments, she would give me fire extinguishers as housewarming gifts.”

Unfortunately, lightning does occasionally strike twice, so to speak. O’Conor was living in Colorado in 2010 and owned a house on ­Sugarloaf Mountain when the Fourmile Canyon Fire swept through. Once again, she was away from her home when it burned to the ground.

Dreading the effect this news would have on her already-traumatized mother, O’Conor made the phone call to fill her in. Her mother listened to the tragic tidings and calmly responded, “Honey… you’re going to learn so much from this, and it’s going to be amazing.”

Lesson 1: The Kindness of Strangers

O’Conor knew her mother was right, but she never could have anticipated how generous her community would be. The insurance payout from her old house reflected the retail value, but not the difficulty and cost of rebuilding on a semi-remote mountaintop. “Everyone who worked on the house gave me some kind of break,” O’Conor says. “They helped, they gave me a discount, they put in extra time.”

She hired architect David Barrett of Boulder’s Barrett Studio Architects to design her new home, but O’Conor couldn’t afford to pay him for site visits. She offered to send pictures or video chat with him from the land, but he said, “Well, maybe I’ll just go hiking and I’ll stop by on my own time.”

At one point in their design discussions, O’Conor told Barrett she would like to use some of the sea glass she’d collected over the years to decorate her new bathroom, but she stopped mid-sentence with a sinking realization. She didn’t have any sea glass anymore. It had been destroyed in the fire. O’Conor recounted that sad moment in an interview for The New York Times, and the story made its way to the North American Sea Glass Association.

Heeding the call to action, collectors across the country began sending some of their most precious sea glass to Barrett for him to use in O’Conor’s bathroom. Revealed as a Christmas surprise by the architecture team, the donated sea glass brought O’Conor to tears. “It’s hard to find one piece of sea glass on the beach that’s really nice, but to send me dozens and dozens of the best pieces from their collections was astonishing,” she says.

Lesson 2: Embracing Efficiency

Starting over from scratch gave O’Conor the opportunity to optimize her home’s functionality and passive-solar energy gains. She says, “The first day that I sat down with David, I said, ‘I want to build a machine. That’s the goal, so whatever we do design-wise should always be driven by efficiency.’ He did an astonishing job of making that machine so beautiful, and that’s David’s genius.”

To achieve their goal, Barrett designed the house with a long wall of windows facing south—with a slight eastern tilt—to admit plenty of sunlight in the winter. O’Conor says, “The rooms are deceptively big-looking. They’re actually very narrow so the sun can hit the floor all the way to the back wall, and that’s called one-hundred-percent gain.” Dark floor tiles and granite countertops provide mass to absorb the sun’s heat in wintertime.

The sun passes overhead in the summer, avoiding that warming effect when it’s not wanted. High ceilings compensate for the narrower-than-average rooms, and clerestory windows can be opened to release trapped heat and allow cool air to flow in at night.

The expansive windows and sliding glass doors also create a modern feeling of being connected to the outdoors even when you’re inside. Having worked as a park ranger for eight years, that connection is important to O’Conor.

She and Barrett also designed the bedroom around its windows to capture the stunning vistas offered by the high vantage point. “Before the house burned down, I didn’t have city lights in my view and I always wanted them,” O’Conor says. “To me, that’s like the ocean. So now, I can sit in bed and see the city lights, the back of the Flatirons and the weather moving over the mountains.”

Lesson 3: New Beginnings

O’Conor, an avid reader and professional writer, owned hundreds of books before the fire. For her rebuild, an original sketch of the living room contained a long wall of bookcases because one of the architects assumed O’Conor would want to replace her lost library. She nixed this plan immediately, and not just because she had embraced the convenience of e-books. “I’m not doing anything like I did before,” she says. “We’re not repeating. We’re starting over.” She wanted her new house to be about people, not possessions, so she had the architects replace the bookshelves with storage benches where people could sit and chat during parties.

As for herself, O’Conor channeled the emotional experience of losing two homes into an award-winning blog called “Burning Down the House: Essays on the Poetry of Loss.”
Her mother’s words still resonate with her, and she’s quick to pinpoint the most important thing she learned from this process: “Everyone wanted to help, and that was so profound. That will take me through my lifetime because it teaches you who people really are. It wasn’t just building a beautiful place to live in. It was the experience of a lifetime, and I see all the people who built it in every corner of the house.”

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