A Boulder County couple who lost their home in the Fourmile Fire a year ago is now building a new house on a local farm — using materials salvaged from their burned house and logs charred by the fire.
The distinctive home of Karel and Alice Starek was on the cover of Boulder County Home and Garden in 2006. It was a work of art in many ways, with a copper roof, stone archways and a comet sculpture encircling the kitchen.
Now that it’s gone, the Stareks are creating a new work of art, albeit a simpler, more sustainable one. In addition to re-using cobblestone and other rock from their old house for their new flooring, they are milling logs from the burn area for the posts and beams of their new home.
And they are making the entire house out of materials that can be either composted or recycled.
Leaf Running-rabbit, the builder who constructed their former home in the Gold Hill area, is now working on their new house on a farm that the couple bought on 75th Street, just north of Valmont.
On a recent tour of the farm, he points to the dead walnut trees that will be used to make the wood cabinets and the large, tarp-covered shipment of straw bales from a nearby farm that will be used as insulation in the 16-inch thick walls of the new home. The straw will be about three times more effective at insulating than traditional insulation, he says.
Running-rabbit explains that instead of using rubber on the roof or plastic for things like electric-box components, he is using steel and aluminum, which are more easily recyclable.
“We’re trying to extend the meaning of the term ‘green’,” he says, adding that the entire construction process will be zero-waste, right down to the screws and nails.
According to Running-rabbit, the Stareks did a similar “green” renovation to an old farmhouse they bought at Arapahoe Avenue and Old Tale Road — just not to this extent.
“Anybody else would have torn it to the ground, and they’ll put $300,000 into re-doing it,” he says. “They’re unyielding about reclaiming, salvaging and re-using.”
Alice Starek is an architect, and she designed her old house in Gold Hill, Running-rabbit’s Ward home and three small structures for the farm: a main house, an ag house and a studio house. She says that Running-rabbit used recycled Styrofoam and other reusable materials in their Gold Hill house, but after it burned, the couple came to the realization that more compostable materials would be preferable.
“I would have felt so much better about it if it had been a straw-bale wall,” Starek says.
She hopes to use as many locally sourced materials as possible in the new construction — maybe even sheep wool for the roof insulation.
“We’re raising sheep on the farm — how cool would it be to use sheep wool from the farm?” Starek says.
They’re even re-using the existing farmhouse on their property — the plan is to relocate it.
Karel Starek says that while a building may get LEED certification from the U.S. Green Building Council, that doesn’t mean the structure is eventually going to decompose back into the earth, as a compostable building would. He says he hopes their new home can be a model for others to emulate.
As for their loss, Alice Starek says the things she misses most from her old home are the artwork and the photos of her children.
“But I have those photos in my mind, so they’re not really gone,” she says. “And I have my kids. I have everything that really matters to me. The fire helped me realize how I want to live my life. Now I look back on it, and it was a pretty small event when you look at what else goes on in the world.”
She says the fire also taught her that the American way — the amassing of wealth and material possessions — takes a lot of time away from connecting with the people you care about. So the Stareks decided to downsize.
“It’s about having a simpler life and having more time for the things that matter,” she says. “That was my big lesson out of the fire. It gave me a big kick in the butt.”
Karel Starek agrees. “It was kind of freeing to not have all that stuff to take care of anymore,” he says.