John McNamee and Rae Moody joke that they “try to live on the smell of an oily rag.” That’s a Kiwi phrase for frugality, and for the married expats from New Zealand, you could argue no ideal played a greater role in the design of their new green home on Highfield Trail, north of Breckenridge.
McNamee and Moody, who are in their mid-50s, spent most of their lives saving up for the 3,562-square-foot, three-bedroom, four-bathroom house, which sits on an acre just above the Colorado Trail and Swan River. They moved in full time last fall after a three-and-a-half-year design and build process, which included more than a year of preliminary research on green building techniques. The result, built by New West Partners, is one of the most efficient and environmentally sophisticated homes to be erected in the Breckenridge area in years—and, not coincidentally, winner of the prestigious Summit County Parade of Homes Energy Conservation Award for 2016.
The smell of an oily rag notwithstanding, the home fits McNamee and Moody’s lifestyle. Before they noticed the for-sale sign on the vacant lot that would one day become theirs, the couple lived in Littleton and spent nine years retreating to an 800-square-foot weekend cabin at Tiger Run. They had never needed much. McNamee is a retired international mountain guide–turned–IT guy; he and Moody used to ogle Mount Cook from their kitchen window on New Zealand’s South Island. He guided clients on the country’s tallest peak 23 times, made multiple first winter ascents, and went on to guide heli-ski trips and work in Antarctica for NASA. But after surviving three helicopter crashes in two years, he and Moody agreed it was time for him to find a new career. “I didn’t want to guide until I was old and broken,” McNamee says with a smirk.
Moody had long worked as an international travel nurse, which is how, once McNamee graduated from IT school, they ended up in Colorado. Moody took a 20-month nursing post in Denver a decade ago, and they never left. Because they do not have kids, the couple’s long-term planning always revolved around their retirement—specifically, building a nest where they could “age in place” comfortably.
During a tour of the home in March, this aim is immediately apparent. Everything they need exists on the main level: the master bedroom, kitchen, living room, laundry/mud room (complete with an energy-saving clothes-drying rack and sign that reads, “Old skiers don’t die, they just go downhill”), and two-car garage. The below-grade level includes two guest suites and a partial kitchen with everything but a range oven, which keeps it legal, as well as various utility rooms and storage space. The guest suites come in handy when friends and family visit from New Zealand, but the rooms’ long-range purpose is to house a potential caregiver—or two—in the future. Every detail within the home was conceived to make growing older easier.
“We wanted a retirement home,” Moody says, “and we also wanted as few ongoing expenses as possible once we retired.”
To analyze their options, they subscribed to Green Builder magazine and researched how to minimize their environmental impact, where to find the greenest materials, and how to achieve the most efficient function. They hired Matt Wright of Deeper Green Consulting, who helped them make sense of rabbit holes like which plumbing fittings and insulation were best. Eventually they met with Michael F. Gallagher, a noted green-build architect who has designed more than 60 homes in his 25 years in Breckenridge. Gallagher drew up plans for a home that skewed smaller and more contemporary than others in the neighborhood, which is what the couple envisioned from the start.
“Because there are so many oversized, inefficient homes in the Breckenridge area, we wanted to push the envelope a little more,” Moody says. For instance, instead of vaulted ceilings up to 25 feet, McNamee and Moody opted for 9-foot ceilings through most of their home, with a maximum height of 13 feet in the living area. They asked Gallagher for such a cozy bedroom that eventually he drew a line. “I’m not going to let you have a master bedroom any smaller than this,” he said one day while explaining his latest blueprint, “especially in this neighborhood.”
The aesthetic was important to both architect and owners. If traditionally rustic homes sit on one end of the mountain spectrum (think: log lodge-style vacation homes with antler chandeliers) and flat-roofed, glass-and-metal modern builds occupy the other end (think: 20,000-square-foot Dwell trophy homes where celebrities and titans of commerce vacation in Aspen or Vail), the McNamee-Moody residence occupies a sweet spot somewhere in between—but closer to modern than rustic. “People often associate mountain architecture with big timbers and structure expressed in elements like steel plates and a lot of rough rock,” Gallagher says, “whereas in this house we have a more refined-finish type of stone veneer; the timbers are milled and cleaner. And this seems to be a trend. It’s been slow to get to Breckenridge, but we’re seeing more people interested in it.”
McNamee and Moody had to revise their solar-energy plan due to neighborhood covenants, but they still installed 24 rooftop photovoltaic panels. They also selected under-slab and foam insulation; LED lights that use about one-tenth the energy as standard bulbs; a superefficient wood-burning Jotul stove next to the kitchen with fuel sourced from their land (“It heats the whole house in an hour and doesn’t produce more than four grams of carbon in that time,” Moody says); an ERV Quattro 2.4 ventilation system that prewarms the air coming in; a hot-water heater that uses warmth from already-hot copper pipes before drawing electric heat; and taps, showers, toilets, a washing machine, and dishwasher that produce no more than the necessary amount of water. Even the irrigation system is automated to know when its services are not needed.
They sourced recycled beetle-kill siding from Montana, gaining “a barnwood look at a third of the price,” McNamee says; hand-hewed hickory floors that were conditioned with pecan shells; maple cabinets made from reclaimed wood riddled with worm holes; and corrugated steel siding around their kitchen island, a la what you might find in New Zealand. “Just light and bright with good views” is how Moody explains the interior motif.
McNamee and Moody did one other thing unique to the area: They went out of their way to comply with the Red, White & Blue (RWB) Fire Protection District’s best practices for fire mitigation. The couple landscaped to limit fuels near the structure and made sure their home was at least 70 feet away from any downslope tree, since fires travel uphill, and 30 feet from trees on either side. Their efforts halved the lowest, a.k.a. best, score RWB had ever awarded. “If there’s a fire in the neighborhood, they said they’re going to ignore us and go to the next house,” Moody laughs.
She and McNamee are reclined on their couch, looking out toward the Tenmile Range on a gray afternoon. Moody’s only regret with the project, she says, is that they didn’t end up off the municipal power grid. They produce more energy than they use 10 months out of the year, but she would just as soon unplug entirely. The problem is solar batteries aren’t efficient enough for off-grid living to be worth it—yet.
“We’ll be off the grid for our next house,” Moody deadpans, glancing over at McNamee, the couple sharing a moment of pride in what it took to build this one.
Michael F. Gallagher, Breckenridge
Audio Video Solutions, Breckenridge
New West Partners, Breckenridge
Cutting Edge Woodworking, Leadville
Front Range Stone, Englewood
Energy Efficiency Consultant
Deeper Green Consulting, Dillon
Trim Works, Denver
Carpet Direct, Colorado Springs
Neils Lunceford, Silverthorne
DR Custom Painting, Dillon
Grizzly Plumbing & Heating,
Active Energies, Minturn
Sierra Pacific Windows, Broomfield
The Fire Place, Breckenridge