House made of tires, pop cans a dream house for two artists
By SHEBA R. WHEELER The Denver Post | January 28,2006
Julie Burnham points out the only tires that are still visible on the side of the master bedroom patio.
hile most boys nursed imaginations by building forts, treehouses and sand castles, Ron Burnham dreamed of living inside a sculpture.
His make-believe world was filled with curved lines, funky colors and cool textures that tickled his fingers. It took only five decades before Burnham got his childhood wish.
Burnham and his wife, Julie, live in an "earthship," a house aptly named for the 300 pounds of dirt rammed inside each of 2,000 stacked tires used as the structural backbone.
The circular surface of the tires outlined beneath stucco created the curved walls and lumpy texture that intrigued Burnham as a child. But his adult passion for artwork also extends into the interior of his home.
From the Burnhams' handmade ceramic bathroom that shimmers from a unique glaze used by artist Maxine Green to the stoneware dish set created by Tony Heslop in the kitchen, the Burnhams' earthship has become the ultimate studio showcasing some of the best of what southern Colorado artisans have to offer.
Each piece captures a moment in time in the development of that artist's craft and tells a tale about friendships fostered through the years.
"It adds emotion to the house, it speaks of the people who made them and the relationships we've shared," says Julie Burnham.
The Burnhams are artists themselves. Ron Burnham creates jewelry made from metal and organic materials such as fossilized dinosaur, while Julie Burnham's metal wind catchers can dance in the gale of a 60 mph wind without tipping over. There's no way this creative pair could have settled for a tract home.
So when the Burnhams bought some 35 acres south of Colorado Springs where the Sangre de Cristo mountains loom in the distance, they decided to try an experiment that has become the greatest piece of artwork they have made so far.
A seminar that Burnham attended nearly 10 years ago about the earthships trademarked by Taos, N.M., architect Michael Reynolds intrigued him and tapped into his desire to build an alternative home that was unique, functional and energy-efficient.
Earthships are homes usually bermed into a hillside and constructed out of natural and recycled materials, usually automobile tires, bottles, cans and dirt. This kind of structure suited Burnham's need for a functional, energy-efficient home mainly because it uses the sun's energy and the thermal mass of their walls for heating and cooling.
More than 1,000 of these homes were built around the world. Actor Dennis Weaver of "Gunsmoke" and "McCloud" fame sparked more interest in alternative home construction when he and his wife built a luxurious 10,000-square-foot earthship near Ridgway in southwestern Colorado in 1989. The house, constructed of car tires, pop cans and other recycled materials, is on the market for $3.75 million.
"But we certainly didn't have resale in mind when we decided to create this," says Julie Burnham. "It's a working home."
She and her husband dallied over the design, spending five years perfecting and building the home that catered to their needs.
The 6,000-square-foot structure is set into a hill where rows of stacked tires serve as walls, branching out of the hillside like fingers in a stucco glove.
The tallest wall of tires is nearly 14 feet in the back of their master bedroom closet.
The home doesn't have central air or heat, so the couple and other earthship builders have to rely on some unconventional technology to supply energy to the house.
Special features include angled windows that let in enough sunlight to heat the home at no cost. The tires soak up the sun's energy during the day, then release it during the cold nights, keeping the house at a constant temperature during the winter.
In the summer, special solar cloth shades block out the sun, while breezes from the windows, the open patio door in the master bedroom and the operable skylights in nearly every room of the house create a cooling air flow.
The house includes two work studios where the artists ply their craft. Some of their handiwork can be seen in the kitchen cabinets and the rustic wood front door they built themselves, as well as a handmade metal screen that highlights the distinctive southwestern arch of the Kiva-Rumford fireplace in the living room.
The Burnhams take pride in their use of salvaged materials.
The handles on the kitchen cabinetry are special woods purchased in Africa that was left over from picture frame molding. The fireplace, for instance, was constructed from rows of aluminum pop cans set atop pads of cement, mimicking the strength and design of a bee's hexagonal honeycomb.
The pop cans also were used to build a retaining wall behind the fireplace and numerous curved planter walls where succulents bask in the sunlight.
Most find it hard to believe the Burnhams built their house from such materials. But the "truth wall" on the patio off their master bedroom shows tires peeking through the stucco where the builders intentionally left a telltale sign of the innovation used to create the house.
"Everybody thought we were crazy, from the contractors to our neighbors," Burnham says. "One guy who helped us with our water softener admitted that he really felt sorry for us because we had to build a house out of tires instead of wood. Now, when we throw parties, people are amazed it actually works."
Even if you didn't know how the Burnhams constructed their home, the open, gallery-like atmosphere they've fostered would pull you in. Their collection of artwork could leave you wandering from room to room for hours.
The living room boasts a Rumford-Kiva style firplace and grill.