Story by Joy Overbeck
A private courtyard in this central Denver home provides a serene oasis in the city.
Sears Barrett believes it’s the architect’s responsibility to encourage the client to think intelligently about such issues as building size and environmental sustainability. And it’s about more than being politically correct. He tells people that building a home is an opportunity to be conscious of what’s going on in the world. Not only is it something you can be proud of, it also makes for a better investment.
The range of architectural styles and innovative ideas evident in Sears Barrett Architects’ work seems too vast to come from one firm, but this range is probably because Barrett himself has led a remarkable variety-pack of a life. Few architects have the perspective gleaned from his experience across a wide social spectrum as well as a background that extends from fine art, to construction, to the latest concepts in enviro-conscious and sustainable design. His wide-ranging back-story allows him to bring a wealth of skills to the table.
After obtaining his architecture degree from the University of Oregon, Barrett began his career as a Vista volunteer with the Community Design Center, working to help poor neighborhoods improve their health clinics and other facilities. He was then offered a top position at Denver Free University, where he coordinated the education program of the nation’s largest community-based free school.
Deep overhangs supported on Texas Cream Limestone columns extend the living space to shady outdoor patios.
In the late 1970s, as energy-saving concepts were gaining traction, Barrett’s interest in solar design inspired a career shift, and he founded one of the first design-build firms specializing in passive solar. His earth-integrated, passive solar homes soon caught the attention of the Solar Energy Research Institute based in Golden, (now the National Renewable Energy Institute), where he joined the staff to create and manage research programs gauging the performance of passive solar designs.
In 1984 Barrett opened his architectural firm with the goal of melding the technical lessons he had learned working at SERI with an aesthetic of elegant, site-sensitive design to serve residential clients. In the decades since, he and his staff of architects have built a reputation for originality and a willingness to embrace a versatility that answers the stylistic tastes of the high-end home owner, be it Craftsman, English Tudor, Tuscan, farmhouse, contemporary or traditional mountain post-and-beam.
This Castle Pines residence employs a unique blend of rough sawn beamed ceilings with highly detailed painted trim and custom stained glass.
“Everything I’ve done in life has made me a better architect,” Barrett explains. “I learned through those jobs to really enjoy all kinds of people and relish knowing and understanding them. That’s a large part of what residential architecture is all about; so much of it is interpersonal. You have to go into it from a fairly no judgmental position, or you’ll have difficulty communicating with your client.”
At the same time, Barrett believes it’s the architect’s responsibility to encourage the client to think intelligently about such issues as building size and environmental sustainability. He finds that the notions of lower energy costs, less space, and simpler and recycled materials are all experiencing a comeback as eco-awareness spreads. Though these concepts were making some advances during the energy crisis of the 70s, they were all but forgotten when cheap fuel returned. Now that energy worries are once again in the spotlight, these issues have come roaring back, according to Barrett.
A stately Italian villa set on rolling terrain south of Denver employs the finest craftsmanship in cut limestone columns and archways, hand carved mahogany doors and Kansas sandstone masonry.
Once a sensibility accepted only by the few, today it seems everyone wants to join in the eco-fervor. And it’s about more than being politically correct. “I tell people that building a home in an opportunity to be conscious of what’s going on in the world, “Barrett explains. “Not only is it something you can be proud of, it also makes for a better investment. Ten years down the road, a house whose energy bill is a couple of hundred dollars a year will be worth a lot more than one whose owners pay a couple of thousand a month.”
To that end, Barrett and his associates are constantly adding to their expertise in the latest cutting-edge energy-saving measures to benefit their clients. Recently, the firm designed two different homes that use innovative solar systems to create a zero carbon footprint: that is, a combination of active and passive solar plus photovoltaic that returns more electricity to the grid than it takes out. Instead of ugly solar panels and the boxy look that scream “solar house” artful design and more compact technology result in a beautifully crafted residence that a passerby would never guess manufactures all its energy needs all by itself.
Barrett has noticed other recent tendencies in residential design as well. Today’s clients are reaching the time in life when they want to build a custom home at a younger age, starting in their thirties. Perhaps because often they’ve been living in a modern loft downtown, they seem to be more partial to contemporary design than to traditional styles, the architect observes.
“Another thing we’ve had some fun with recently is courtyard designs,” notes Barrett. Whether a semi-enclosed space at the center of the house, or a cloistered water garden with an almost oriental air, people are seeking a way to connect with the spectacular Colorado outdoors throughout the day in spaces that can be either sheltered or open to the sky.
Barrett’s easy attitude and admitted “semi-hippie” personality, along with his considerable talents, are a winning combination for his firm’s clients. “This is a major creative experience, and it should be a lot of fun, though it’s always stressful when people used to being captains of industry are spending a lot of money doing something of which they have little knowledge,” he admits. “The challenge is to cultivate a sense of trust and enjoyment in a stressful environment, and I think there’s nothing better than laughter to relieve anxiety.”