The Hand of Man

A forever home is more than the first reaction to ‘Curb appeal.’

The International Space Station has been in orbit for almost a quarter century. NASA is making plans to construct units for human habitation on the moon, followed by expansion on to Mars. There are “permanent” shelters and facilities atop both poles of our home planet. Entire communities can be water around the world. There is no apparent limit to our reach as we construct the built environment.

Yet, contact with the landmarks is the first step necessary to initiate the built environment as we know it. To know and respond to a “place” takes time, patience, and attention. It’s not all about the first reaction we call “curb appeal.” It requires collaboration, compromise, a series of adjustments. 

Mariposa - mountains

The land offers vistas of imposing mountain peaks, approachable forested hillsides and varieties of geologic formations.

The first impression of the Mariposa Meadows home’s long initial incline of its gravel driveway is that, while it is generally straight, it looks like a pretty steep climb. The thought occurs that it might be a little scary coming back down when it is covered with ice or snow, a condition not uncommon this far above sea level. But the driveway faces due south, maximizing the opportunity for the sun to melt and drain snow quickly, and helping to dry any moisture that remains. Of course, a little caution is always recommended.

The remainder of the drive, which totals about 900 feet and features an elevation gain of 100 feet, consists of a couple gently sloped runs divided by a pair of hairpin turns. Such is the price exacted for vehicle access in the mountains, but the resulting sense of misdirection is quite intentional and intriguing. After that final turn, the compound unfolds ahead, vertically and laterally, in the midst of the aspen forest that has so perfectly screened its presence from the public roadway below.  

Private Persona

All of the buildings and constructed elements attempt to reflect and complement the natural composition that informs them. The verticality of the architecture is in response to the soaring aspens. The color palette borrows from their light bark and dark “eyes,” as well as the soils and rocks where they are anchored. The topography and geology have combined to instruct us as to the siting limitations of each structure.

Mariposa - drone overhead

All three buildings and constructed elements attempt to reflect and complement the natural composition that informs them. Photo Credit: Samantha Carlin/Green Builder Media

This can be a place of extreme weather, especially in winter, when snow is often measured in feet, not inches. Summer storms can be violent, with explosions of thunder and powerful winds that batter and drive the rain. The thinner atmosphere means especially high levels of damaging ultraviolet (UV) radiation that must be taken into consideration. 

Still, no concern is as great as the potential threat of wildfire. Nothing else commands our attention and vigilance to the same degree. We know well our place as mere visitors here.

A U.S. Forest Service road, occasionally “maintained” by the county, bisects the property, a private holding that exists, in fact, by virtue of its having been homesteaded in the 1800s. Per an historic Federal program, the quarter section (160 acres) was deeded when this part of the young state of Colorado came under the jurisdiction of the government. 

Decades later, the almost 1.7 million acres of national forest that now surrounds it were designated as such, leaving small parcels of private property (like this one), known as “inholdings,” to capture the imaginations of individuals for whom there is never too much elbow room.

Mother Nature’s Lessons

The magic ingredient in all of this is, of course, water. Without it there would be little or no chance of long-term human occupation—for better or worse, depending upon who you ask. At Mariposa Meadows, a substantial perennial creek meanders through the property and is the lifeblood for an environment that allows a rich diversity of flora and fauna to thrive here. 

Additionally, another somewhat smaller stream, much of which flows unseen beneath layers of rough rock, cuts through the landscape on a tangent to join the larger creek farther downstream. The two riparian zones are quite distinct but essential to the overall ecosystem. Finally, there are two live springs from which cold, pristine water from somewhere deep in the mountainside bubbles to the surface year-round.

Mariposa - pond

Natural water sources in the form of creeks and springs are a lifeblood for a rich diversity of flora and fauna. Photo Credit: Samantha Carlin/Green Builder Media

The State has granted surface water rights to the property, amounting to three cubic feet per second, which we divert through a series of mostly hand-dug irrigation ditches and gated turnouts. These allow us to efficiently gravity feed water to where it is most needed during the summer growing season. 

In the beginning, we had to wrestle with determined native hydrologists—a family of beavers—who would plug our flume every night with tree branches, mud and rocks. Each morning, our first task was to unplug the obstruction so we could access water for another day. Eventually, the beavers consumed too much of the edible vegetation in the immediate area and, as is their habit, relocated to another section of the creek to erect a new dam and lodge.  

Beaver - Larry Lamsa

At first, a family of beavers seemed like a nuisance with their natural dams. But later it became clear that the dams helped maintain a water source for irrigation.
Photo Credit: Larry Lamsa/Creative Commons 2.0

At first, we were relieved by this development. But we later learned a hard lesson when high water runoff washed out what remained of the beavers’ old dam, which they no longer maintained. This left a much-diminished pool that was too shallow to supply our ditches. Now we will need to resort to manmade structures and systems to replace what we had previously taken for granted. We now realize that nature will never run out of lessons for us, as long as we’re willing to pay attention.

Mariposa - Mama and baby moose Use this one

Resident moose roam the meadows and luxuriously dine in the stream that passes through the property. Photo Credit: Sara Gutterman/Green Builder Media

Wooded Wonderland

This land offers vistas of imposing mountain peaks, approachable forested hillsides and varieties of geologic formations. But the defining feature is the extensive mountain meadow, within the quintessential Colorado high country, at its center. 

The amazingly diverse mixture of grasses and other plant species were surely what attracted the homesteader to begin with. Combined with the aforementioned luxury of plentiful water, it was ideal for livestock grazing and afforded some opportunities for haying.

Today, grazing is incidental. It occurs when trespassing cattle, who summer in the high parks in the surrounding national forest on grazing leases, are driven down for the winter, with many headed to market. 

They are present sporadically for only a few weeks in the late summer and early fall. Ironically, the property has long been fenced to restrict their access, although the old fences are in disrepair and exist nowhere near the actual boundaries of the private ownership. 

Over time, we have removed much of the derelict barbed wire and rotted posts, replacing them with more accurately located, wildlife-friendly fencing as part of ongoing efforts to preserve the nutritional value of the meadows for the indigenous species.

This is what is known in the West as “open range,” which means that it is our responsibility to fence the cattle out, not the task of the rancher who owns the herd to stay away. Part of our primary long-term objective is to benefit the area’s wild species through constant improvement of growing conditions, soil, irrigation and plant mixture to maximize the land’s value for the moose, elk, and mule deer that are the ecosystem’s primary herbivores. 

Predator species and a wide range of smaller mammals, birds, and a myriad of insects and invertebrates enjoy the ideal conditions as well. So, paradoxically we erect and tend fences to protect wild land and animals.

Still, our presence and activities must be taken into account as part of the overall calculations. By its very nature, construction is invasive and disruptive. The excavation of the driveway came first, then the drilling of a domestic water well, followed by careful siting of the building footprints aimed at minimizing the inevitable impact on the landform and forest that dominates this part of the acreage. 

We deliberately and patiently considered the location and condition of each tree, rock formation and boulder with an eye toward preserving the natural integrity of the site to the best of our ability, while pursuing maximum utility and enjoyment of such a beautiful and remote natural environment.

Mariposa - Solar

Mariposa Meadows is entirely off grid, so all electrical power generation takes place onsite via solar panels. Buildings have very small environmental footprints.
Photo Credit: Samantha Carlin/Green Builder Media

A Powerful Lesson

We are entirely off grid, so all electrical power generation takes place onsite. By necessity, we kept the building sizes compact with small footprints and held to very disciplined square footage. The total conditioned space in the three buildings (which provide four dwelling units and include a heated garage/workshop), has been limited to 4,000 square feet. Only 60 percent of that total is at ground level, with the balance in second-story spaces. 

Generous outdoor living areas and amenities add to the livability and enjoyment of this remarkable setting; they are intended to keep occupants in constant connection with as much nature as possible.

We have only begun to unlock the secrets that surround us here. We have already come to know that our ongoing presence is not guaranteed and that it requires a commitment to stewardship and protection of the matrix of natural systems that combine to create a place of such serene natural wonder. 

We also recognize that the bounty surrounding us does not exist for our benefit alone and that it belongs to, and must be shared with, many species.

To imagine, to create, to build are all irrepressible parts of who we are. But the privilege of working here requires the maintaining of balance; of respect for what awaited us when we arrived. Our handprints must be tempered with humility. An acceptable reconciliation of the built environment and nature is our ultimate objective.

Only time will reveal whether we have achieved the harmony we endeavor to compose. Read all about the Mariposa Meadows project here

Mariposa - Iris studio kitchen with windows Use this one

Mariposa Meadows merges modern technology with classic design for a “home sweet home” feel. Photo Credit: Sara Gutterman/Green Builder Media