As he designed and built an off-grid sustainability compound in the midst of 1.7 million acres of pristine Colorado wilderness, Ron Jones incorporated the art of designing with air.
In 2016, Ron Jones, founder and president of Green Builder Media, embarked on a labor of love when he began the design of Mariposa Meadows, a sustainable event venue and retreat, which will have its grand opening in summer 2023.
The challenges of the nearly seven-year undertaking got Jones thinking about its parallels with the vagaries of the building industry. In a mood to reminisce, he called his good friend and industry leader, Jim Folkman, for a chat.
The conversation recalled their four-plus decades of work in the industry, which they refer to as a “tapestry,” where strength and innovation emerge from the collective experiences of the most engaged and driven members. Many building projects, the two agree, result in unintended consequences—ranging from delightful to bleak. But all projects are subject to dynamics that are hard to discern at the outset.
Following is the edited conversation between these two building sages, in which Folkman’s interest in his friend’s capstone project teases out important issues such as the role of buildings in nature, the challenges of off-grid building, and the curious story of the rock that reburied itself five times.
To hear the full discussion, download Ron’s podcast.
Folkman: The Mariposa Meadows Vision House project is most remarkable. I want to commend you on that. But it brings me to a question about how the building industry is full of unintended consequences. What were your intentions with this project and how do you think those have played out for you?
Jones: The intention of Mariposa Meadows, from the standpoint of Green Builder Media, was to come up with a location or a venue, if you will, where we could host people from inside and outside the industry for workshops, and collegial gatherings where we could ruminate on things and relax without any sort of outside pressure—and really assess some of the important things in the world.
Over the years, we had conducted a number of very successful leadership meetings. Generally, we held them at places like Sundance in Utah or Devil’s Thumb (in Colorado). And we would have industry leaders who would come in from various manufacturers or other segments of the industry, and we would expose them to special thinkers from outside the industry.
We started looking for a special place back in the 2000s. We literally scoured the West. We stumbled upon the place that was perfect and checked all the boxes for us from a builder’s perspective.
Building Mariposa Meadows was an opportunity for me to see if I could really execute something that was unique and difficult in this place, and do it in such a way that it didn’t detract from what was already there. I felt like it was a real obligation to understand all the elements that I could and then try to respect those to the greatest degree.
Folkman: Anything that’s innovative and new, such as what you’re doing at Mariposa, typically evolves. Were there any changes in your vision from point A to point B?
Jones: We were able to see the main focus in the beginning: to harvest the incredible environment there and the natural attributes and the peacefulness of it, the stillness, the quality of that place.
We have stayed on that North Star, if you will, for the entire project. But what we’ve had to do is be extremely flexible in terms of our approach because such a remote and difficult site has provided tremendous challenges—but also satisfaction in being able to solve those problems.
I think that the biggest evolution was in my learning how difficult a remote high-altitude project can actually be, because just the logistics of it are so incredible. The only access road is closed to normal traffic for five or six months a year. We had to find other ways to be able to access the site.
Folkman: As we have frequently discussed, unforeseen obstacles, difficulties, and challenges can frequently be turned into opportunities. Was that your experience at Mariposa?
Jones: Yes. It became bigger than this compound of buildings. I wanted the compound to be in the right relationship with the Aspen forest that it’s tucked into. I wanted it to be not just in the trees, but of the trees.
A lot of the aesthetic options that we chose addressed that very well. But also the siting and the way we responded to the topography and the orientation. Some of the natural elements made decisions for us. I like to joke that we have 122 acres and no place to park. And that’s really true because you’re trying to preserve every single tree.
When you think about the infrastructure for a modern building—we had to provide underground for electrical, wastewater, well water, and every power source. So it became the kind of situation that I was joking about with James (who you know has worked with me for many years) as we were trenching for yet another line. And I said, “Damn, I’ve seen that rock five times. We’ve dug that thing up over and over, and buried it so many times, it’s like an old friend now!”
We had an opportunity to work with a division of the USDA, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, through a program that helped us rebuild and expand our irrigation capabilities. We have water rights off the stream that flows through the property. We were able to take that and appropriately distribute that water in a much better way so that we enhance the quality of the meadows, which had deteriorated over the decades.
That’s just one example of learning the bigger picture and harnessing new ideas, and coming up to speed on processes that we weren’t necessarily familiar with.
Folkman: We’ve talked over the years about a term that I don’t know if you coined, but it certainly is a very appropriate one: architectural air. How was that employed at Mariposa?
Jones: We have to go outside so that we can understand what’s inside. If you step outside at the compound or anywhere on the property, the sky is just immense. We’re about 13 miles from the nearest light bulb, so the night skies are phenomenal. But even in the daytime, the deep density of the blue of the skies and the immensity of the vistas make the atmosphere—make the air—something that you can’t ignore.
So when I was designing the buildings, we had decisions to make regarding some ceiling heights in particular. We could have dropped in ceiling joists and done ceilings that were less expensive and easier to finish. But it would have been a tremendous waste because that architectural air that’s on the inside is a reflection of all of that immensity on the outside.
When you lie down in the bed and look up at the ceilings in the bedrooms, for example, you get this magical play of light—and it doesn’t matter what time of day it is—but because of the light in the shadow and because of its depth, it’s something that’s very pleasing.
When people go into that space, they almost gasp when they realize the height. The elevation, in a very small way, is akin to what the architects of the cathedrals intended when they would have these incredible vaults and ceilings that would inspire people and make them feel closer to heaven.
Folkman: You mentioned how your priorities inform the design and system decisions of the project. Did that evolve as the project was built?
Jones: In terms of aesthetics, I’ve always been taken with the Scandinavian feel. That genre seems to embrace a difficult environment in a way that still makes a statement.
It was important to reduce the amount of square footage as much as possible and to still demonstrate comfort and amenities. And if I could even say the word luxury—I want people to feel like they haven’t had to sacrifice anything in order to enjoy our compound.
We needed to go two-story, and I was all about that anyway because I love that verticality. It allowed us to shrink the footprint. We’re slab on grade because we are aficionados of radiant heat.
And we addressed that with the difficulties of excavation that we have here. (They aren’t called the Rocky Mountains for nothing!) The small footprints took tremendous effort to excavate, to do the rough-ins, and so forth, to create something that was permanent and lasting and that satisfied all of our needs. But it’s important to note that concrete is 80 miles from me over an 11,000-foot-high pass.
And because of the topography we needed to use a pump at all times, so by the time we place a yard of concrete, and before anybody touches a shovel, I’ve got $400 invested in every yard, between the ready mix and the pump. It was important to us to keep that as compact as possible.
The other issue is that we’re in the middle of a natural forest. We have the blessing of it being an aspen forest, which reduces our fire risk. But as you know, fire mitigation is one of the most important things that you have to consider here in the West.
It was necessary for us to make selections on the products, especially those for the building envelope. So, for example, from the top down, a standing seam steel roof with no penetrations so there’s no way that any embers or anything could get into the structure.
We have fiber cement siding, soffit, and fascias, and every bit of the exterior is fire resistant. We also used a decorative element in the form of stone cladding for the wainscot. Our window package is triple-glazed. And it really helps reduce the spread of fire from the outside to the inside.
Most people don’t realize that in a situation like this, many times the heat from the outside ends up igniting the furnishings or other items on the inside. A house will burn down from the inside out. And then the last item that I would mention is that our exterior doors are all steel, three-hour fire doors.
Folkman: I understand your intentions in regard to verticality. But I think one of the more interesting features you and I have talked about is a horizontal surface, and that’s the hospitality deck and how important that is to what you’re trying to accomplish at Mariposa.
Jones: The deck is almost the crown jewel of the building effort. But I’d have to start way down at the Forest Road below and turn up the driveway that rises about 120 feet over a 900-foot span, and has two hairpin turns in it. And when you make that last hairpin turn, the compound unfolds in front of you.
The forest has obscured it all the way up, and you don’t see it from the road at all. But when you make that last turn, all of a sudden you see these three buildings in there—all different—but they have the same features in the same architectural style, and they have some of the same elements. You know immediately they are siblings.
They were built together and they were intended to be together, even though they’re different sizes and they are at different elevations. But the unifying factor is really the hospitality deck, which is at the far end of that vista as you come in and you’re immediately drawn visually to that deck, and to me, there’s something implied there that says this is the place for everybody.
It’s for people to gather and to be together, and to socialize and to be able to communicate and just breathe. It was important to me that we didn’t remove all the trees at once. We took the trees only as necessary to create room for this 1,400-square-foot hospitality deck.
And it’s literally in the tree canopy because of the topography and the way that the land slopes away from the front of it. So you can be out there on that deck and you’re midway up these tall aspen trees and you are eye-to-eye with the birds and the beautiful foliage. The whole idea behind the deck is to create a common space where people can get together regardless of where they happen to be staying in the compound.
Folkman: Well, in the end, it is a way for people to have the important conversations that you want them to have about sustainability and seeing the built environment in a different way. Was that part of your intent?
Jones: Yeah, but I hope it’s subtle enough. I don’t think people could avoid recognizing the orientation of the buildings and the orientation of the deck to the views, the vistas, the forest and how we embrace the trees. It feels like they welcomed us there, Jim. And so I want people to use that as a fulcrum point to have discussions that go into even more difficult sorts of areas, whether they’re social or political or whatever they happen to be.
It’s much like sitting down to a communal dinner. When you break bread, and you share a meal, that sort of sets the level differently than just about anything you can do. And so the outdoor kitchen, which is a big part of the hospitality play there, will be very much that place where everybody gathers.
We’ve seen that shift in residential architecture to make it a much more inviting and welcoming space for guests and family. It’s not off to the side where you just have the function of cooking and cleaning.
We want very much for that to be the result on the outside, where people come and they get involved in the preparation and in the execution of creating some meals that we would share, and thereby sort of open a dialog that we might otherwise have difficulty with.
Folkman: Yeah, I can imagine. So what are your immediate intentions in terms of the future?
Jones: Well, we want to make sure that we’ve succeeded in the reliability of all of the systems that we’ve put in place and that there’s no guesswork for anybody who happens to be fortunate enough to visit or stay there.
Once that happens, we’ll start to bring in some of our supporters and friends and family, and have small gatherings and some intimate workshops, and use it for demonstration purposes, maybe with some of the colleges in the region and other educational groups and so forth.
Ultimately, we are looking down the road. We have our sights on a different corner of the property where we would like to put a lodge. We’ve talked a great deal about it, (my wife) Sara and I. We have walked it, dreamed it, chewed on it, and kicked it around quite a bit.
In my mind’s eye I can see it, and I think we could probably do a 20- to 24-room facility there, with full food service and that kind of thing, so that we can accommodate larger groups and hold corporate retreats. That will expand beyond our current capability.
We’d like to keep it with people that have a purpose. And whether that’s birders or night sky people or folks in the industry, whatever the case might be…to be able to bring people in who have a common purpose, and who want to think about things and want to perhaps come up with ideas and even possibly solutions to some of the concerns that we have in the world. That would be our largest dream.
Folkman: This is sort of the classic question: What would you do differently given what you know today?
Jones: I would have gotten there sooner! Jim, I built my last project for a client in 2005. That culminated more than two decades of custom building for a variety of clients. And then I went into seclusion.
I actually escaped to the Pacific Northwest and hid out on a couple of islands there for eight years. I wanted to be someplace where nobody knew my name, and that worked out perfectly because we could take advantage of that buffer, that separation. But we also began the search for our ideal location back in the Rockies.
I began to know that I needed to get a hammer in my hands again. I mean, it’s like my right arm would itch all the way down to my fingers, and I felt the need to build something. And so it was important for me to embrace this project. I think what I would do differently has not really anything to do with the design or the product selections.
It had to do with understanding that I was no longer a prominent builder in the market. Nobody knew me here, and I didn’t have any history with anybody and it was difficult to line up help. It was like starting over completely and sifting through the available human resources in order to get the help that we needed at the time when we needed it.
And so it was humbling. I was no longer one of the known high-end builders in the market like I had been. All of a sudden I’m just Joe Homeowner, and I don’t represent any value beyond that.
And so we had to re-establish ourselves through our ethics and through our participation, and that probably could have been more streamlined and seamless if I had thought it through better in the beginning.
We’re on Mountain Time here, which means that while there are a lot of skilled people that we can call on in the wider market, they pretty much call their own shots. They work when they want to; they ski when they want to; they hunt when they want to; they fish when they want to. And so you have to learn to massage that a little bit, especially when you can only get to the site six or seven months a year.
Folkman: I can only imagine the challenges. The construction industry, of course, is always a challenge. But you were faced with some particularly interesting and difficult challenges that required innovation and a new way of thinking; a new way of doing things. And I have to say that I think you’ve pulled it off, my friend.