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Rockin’ a Hard Place

An eco-minded builder thinks inside the box when designing his dream home on a craggy Colorado mountainside



Braden Gunem

Inspiration will strike when you least expect it. For Andrew McMullin, principal of Tiburon Builders in Boulder, Colorado, a fortuitous spark ignited an idea during a road trip to California in 2008. “I saw a train go by and I thought, ‘Shipping containers would be a cool way to build a house,’” he says. In his mind, such an innovative project would explore sustainable living: Retired shipping containers would be repurposed; the footprint of the home, somewhat predestined, would be small; and building materials would be salvaged from his other construction projects. But the revelation didn’t end there. McMullin, an avid rock climber, was determined to build the home on a tiny mountainous parcel of land he owned near the one-horse town of Nederland, Colorado.

Architect Brad Tomecek of Boulder-based Studio HT Architecture doesn’t mince words about the challenges of the site. “It’s basically a big rock,” he says. With no earthly possibility of pouring a traditional concrete foundation, McMullin and Tomecek masterminded a clever system of footers, “fin” walls and 95 steel posts, all anchored two feet into the rock, to provide stability on the steep site. The sturdy base supports an elevated platform for the structure—essentially two 40-foot-long shipping containers flanking a section of COR-TEN steel-clad new construction. “My house isn’t going anywhere,” McMullin says.

The unconventional 1,600-square-foot dwelling is uniquely suited to its alpine surroundings. McMullin cocooned the shipping containers against Colorado’s harsh winters by packing insulation within new exterior walls made of James Hardie plank siding—some leftover from other jobs, some newly purchased—a noncombustible building material that’s practically a requirement in such wildfire-prone environs.

Photovoltaic panels that generate 100 percent of the home’s power also produce extra energy for the electrical grid. Thanks to south-facing garage-style glass doors, solar warmth absorbed into the living room’s concrete floor during the day heats the house at night, and the abundant sunshine cuts daytime light-bulb use to virtually zilch. But such “green” feats seem to pale in comparison to the unobstructed panorama of the Rocky Mountains in the distance—arguably the southern exposure’s greatest contribution to the design. “Even the word ‘amazing’ doesn’t do it justice,” McMullin says.

How it works

Insulation is layered within new exterior walls made of fireproof James Hardie plank siding.
Exterior walls of the center loft are L-shaped to accommodate the shipping containers; the loft’s southern face features two ground-floor glass garage doors that allow sunshine to warm and illuminate the space.

Made of steel and wood, the home’s elevated platform is actually sturdier than a traditional concrete foundation.

Parts of the container walls were cut away to create doorways within the home. traditional concrete foundation. 

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