On August 4th of this year we lost a long time client, mentor and good friend, F. Lee Robinson. Lee and I first met in 2003 when he asked me to join him at his recently purchased mining claim, The Tempest Lode, just past Montezuma and above Saints John in Summit County, Colorado. While admiring the spectacular vistas from the 11,200-foot elevation of the historic site, I asked Lee what he was building for – his answer was simple, “For a thousand years.” Thus began our friendship.
Little did I know that after three years of planning, design, meetings and approvals as well as over fifteen years of construction, the “Avalanche House” would still not be finished. I should have known, given the steep historic site, poor access, wetlands, water issues, mine runoff concerns and the biggest impact – avalanches.
Through it all Lee was methodical, persistent and not averse to risk. We’d meet just about every year at the site – we would inspect the progress and Lee would treat me to his favorite lunch, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
His breadth and depth of knowledge in virtually any subject always made him a pleasure to talk with, and the Avalanche House possible.
How do you design a house in an avalanche zone? First, you hire “the avalanche dude” Art Mears, a Gunnison based avalanche expert and consultant. Art proceeded to give me his Avalanche 101 lecture while we skied to the site in mid-winter of 2004.
During that ski, Art described the force that an avalanche, even a smallish one, has on a structure. The individual chunks of ice, rock and debris can hit a house like a cannonball. This simple description inspired my imagining of the roof as the inverted hull of an 18th century man-of-war or sailing ship.
The concrete foundation of the house steps up and into the steep slope, leaving only the roof exposed to the uphill. All the windows, doors and walls face downhill. The structure is heavy timber bolted to the concrete. The timber roof rafters act like the braces of a wooden ship’s hull, narrowly spaced. The roof or hull is 2×6 tongue and groove decking covered with two layers of 1” plywood, for 3 ½” of thickness.