This gorgeous house, designed by MQ Architecture & Design, was built in a very tight space on a steep slope.
The water feature alone is a remarkable feat of engineering, with 20-ton boulders that beautifully mimic the Flatirons.
By Lisa Marshall
Close your eyes as you step inside Bruce and Becky Gamble’s newly built dream home, and the roar of a 30-foot-tall backyard waterfall makes you feel as if you’ve stumbled into a wilderness oasis. Open your eyes, and you still feel that way.
Carved into an impossibly steep, wildflower-studded hillside with sweeping views of the Flatirons and a towering back-patio rock wall that impressively mimics them, the 5,300-square-foot architectural wonder beneath the Flatirons perfectly mirrors the outdoorsy “Boulder lifestyle” of the longtime locals who dreamed it up.
“We wanted a home that really reflected the environment it was sitting in—the base of the majestic Flatirons,” says Becky Callan Gamble, president of Dean Callan and Co., the Boulder-based commercial real estate firm her family founded in 1963. “We wanted it to blend in.”
A simple vision, but in reality “blending” required 1,200 tons of moss rock, a 100-ton crane, and nine months of arduous site work in a tight space on a slippery slope. Then, the Gambles could start to build the house.
“Once you built the house into the hillside it would be so tight, there would be no physical way to get back there and do the landscaping. So we had to build the waterfall and do all the landscaping first,” says Longmont landscaper Steve Ward, president of SJ Ward Landscapes Inc., who was called in to complete the job after the original landscaper couldn’t meet the challenge. “It was crazy. There were times I didn’t know if the owners could pull off their vision,” Ward says. A simple vision, but in reality “blending” required 1,200-tons of moss rock, a 100-ton crane, and nine months of arduous site work in a tight space on a slippery slope. Then, the Gambles could start to build the house that was designed by Boulder’s MQ Architecture & Design.
A Long Time Comin’ Bruce Gamble, a former All-American ski racer from the University of Colorado, and Becky, a former All-American tennis player for the University of Texas, began married life in a small Chautauqua-area home in the 1980s. It was just steps from the trails Bruce loved to hike, and the roads Becky loved to ride.
But once she became pregnant with her first of two children, they decided to move to a more “kid-friendly” neighborhood with a large yard and a swimming pool in east Boulder’s suburbs.
“We always knew that when our kids got older we would be back here,” says Bruce, director of acquisitions for Dean Callan and Co.
After three years of searching, he was touring another house in the Bellevue Heights neighborhood near Chautauqua Park when he saw a “For Sale by Owner” sign pop up across the street. The 1957 house was boxy and small, with few windows and little landscaping. But the views left Bruce speechless. He called his wife, and within hours they were sketching out plans.
“We had in our mind exactly what we wanted, and we stood right on the property and mapped it all out,” he says.
The Gambles turned to longtime friend and Sopris Homes owner John Stevens (whom Bruce worked with 23 years ago at Bolle Sunglasses) to build it. After leveling the existing house, they broke ground in 2008 to create the home’s signature rock wall and water feature.
“It was fun and rewarding to create a rock wall that blends so well with the Flatirons, and in fact, resembles them so well,” Stevens says.
But just months into the project, the Gambles had to switch landscapers midstream, when it became apparent that the one they’d chosen was not up to the task.
Once Ward stepped in, he had his work cut out for him.
To create a retaining wall that not only held back the mountain but also looked like it belonged there, the team hauled in truckload after truckload of automobile-sized 20-ton moss rocks from Wyoming—each flatbed truck only able to carry three or four rocks at a time. Then a crane would sling them up the hillside, where Ward and his crew would painstakingly place each one, aiming to create an angular wall that mirrored the Flatirons, but was also structurally bulletproof.
Setting one 20-ton stone could take all day.
Then came the glorious sandstone staircase—21 steps that lead to a built-in eight-person spa with dizzying mountain views—the gas fire pit, the towering water feature (one of Boulder’s largest), and a color explosion of vivid native perennials.
No Room for Error
Once the landscaping was done and Stevens was able to break ground on the house, it became clear just how tight a space the landscapers had been working in: “Literally, from the back of the house to the base of the waterfall is 12 feet. That’s it,” Ward says. There had been no room for error.
In the end, the home fit together like a jigsaw puzzle, both literally and aesthetically.
The Gambles chose a two-story L-shape to help maximize the southwestern Flatirons views, with one wing dedicated to a large master suite and the other arm of the “L” featuring a great room, dining room and kitchen. The downstairs is largely the haven of their equally athletic kids (son Beau, 20, plays basketball for CU; daughter Berkley, 17, will play soccer for the University of Washington).
In keeping with the surrounding open space, the main floor features a wide-open floor plan, with exposed fir beams that were blasted with eco-friendly, ground-up corn cobs to remove any discoloration and create a smoother, more uniform color. Half walls separate the dining room, kitchen and great room, and earthen finishes abound, from the authentic stone fireplace to the hand-scraped hickory flooring, distressed alder cabinetry and forged iron doorknobs.
Becky’s favorite spot in the house is the master bathtub, a luxurious soaking tub with direct views of the faint reddish “CU” letters on the third Flatiron. For Bruce, it’s the master sitting room, a cozy spot outside the bedroom complete with a fireplace and equally stunning views of the towering sandstone slabs.
“You can sit almost anywhere in this house and see the Flatirons and hear the water feature,” Bruce notes.
Reflective of their outdoor lifestyle, the downstairs features a spacious workout room and an 8-by-16-foot mudroom, where the family can pile in after a day of play and throw their clothes into one of two large stackable washing machines.
Then there’s the front entryway, which features a meandering 70-foot sandstone walkway with heat coils underneath to melt snow and ice during winter months. From the front porch, Boulder’s city lights glow warmly at night.
The house was ultimately completed in July 2009. But in the end, the wait and the investment were well worth it, Bruce says.
“You could go hiking around in open space right now and this is what you would be walking through,” he says, shouting over the tumbling backyard cataract. “We didn’t just roll out a half-acre of sod and call it good. This is art. It is really is one of a kind.”