Aspen Princess: Go with your gut, not the trends, with a remodel

Alison Berkley Margo
The Aspen Princess

“I want a mine shaft elevator,” Ryan says, animated with excitement. “You know, with the timbers and the tower and the whole thing. It’s going to be awesome.”

Ryan is one of these people who will invent his own terminology to describe the wild thoughts that ping-pong around in his brain. If you think of the mind as a calm lake during meditation, I imagine the inside of Ryan’s head looks more like a pinball machine, with blinking lights and loud noises and lots of dinging sounds.

He thinks it’s funny to purposely misuse certain words or create new ones just because he knows I will correct him. You would think that after almost 10 years together I would know better, but I still fall for it almost every single time. It’s the editor in me. I can’t help it. It’s like a reflex.

Ryan calls the property below our house along Frying Pan Road “The Bottom 40” because it’s kind of just a flat lot with nothing on it, save what we can create in our imagination. (Me: a writing studio and library overlooking the river. Ryan: a motocross track.)

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, then, that the “mine shaft elevator” is the sole item on Ryan’s wish list for our A-Frame remodel. The crazy part is, I think it actually might happen. With our steep lot and a front door that is 17 steps below the driveway, it actually makes sense to install some kind of industrial lift that would make it that much easier to transport people and their stuff up and down. It would require a lot less maintenance than those damn stairs, which are wood and constantly getting hammered by sun and snow. Plus, it would make for a pretty dramatic entrance, one that would either excite our guests or totally freak them out.

Ryan is not at all concerned about the things I lay awake at night thinking about, stuff like countertop materials and kitchen cabinet finishes and creative tile layout for the master bathroom.

It’s just that I’ve been writing a lot about home design lately, covering everything from multi-million-dollar homes in Aspen and big ranches in Old Snowmass to a vintage Airstream. I’ve been able to interview architects, interior designers, general contractors and people who specialize in smart homes and energy efficiency. I even attended a seminar on affordable green building at the site of the new ACES Urban Farmhouse in Carbondale where I learned about shallow slab frost protection foundation and what a HERS rating is. I gotta say, now that I drive a hybrid car and have experienced how fulfilling it is to make that shift toward energy conservation, it makes total sense that you would want to update your house to make it as energy efficient as possible. And, like the people at CORE will tell you, there are a lot of financial incentives as well, which always gets people’s attention.

I’ve also been talking to friends who are in the business of renovating homes and flipping them, so they have an incentive to stay within a budget. My friend Susan wants to get her general contractor’s license even though she is a lawyer and a real estate broker because she said, “I want to learn this and understand it.” I have another girlfriend who has a degree in construction management and has worked in almost every facet of home building there is over the past 20 years. She recently got her real estate license, so she could do her own deals, selling the homes she purchased and renovated herself and making commission to boot. Then I met a woman who general contracted the renovation of her home and learned so much in the process she’s considering starting a consulting business to help people navigate the pitfalls that is home building in this valley. These ladies take DIY to the next level. That really made an impression on me. This stuff isn’t rocket science, and knowledge is power.

One thing I learned writing about all these different properties is that I’m drawn to spaces that have character and projects that were limited to an existing footprint and had to work within certain perimeters as opposed to a home that was built from the ground up on an unlimited budget. At the end of the day, I was more interested in vintage camper than mountain modern. I don’t think it’s that hard to create a beautiful home when you have millions of dollars and a team of top-notch professionals working for you. And those homes, while aesthetically beautiful and impressive, don’t captivate me. Would I want to live in one? Hell yes. But that’s not the point I’m getting at here.

I once interviewed the world-renowned architect Chad Oppenheim about his home in Aspen, a cabin on Red Mountain he’d remodeled. He stuck with the original footprint. The new design, while insanely breathtaking, also yielded unconventional spaces filled with odd angles and funky configurations like a cozy, small kitchen with low wood paneled ceilings and a bunk room with a wall-to-wall mattress and fur blankets. That conversation validated something for me: that I should always follow my instincts and not get sucked into the current trends.

It also made me realize that the handful of professionals we consulted about our house who told us to tear it down and start over were missing that big something; my vision to take these funky spaces and use them as a starting point, not an end point. My goal is to preserve the spirit and history of the A-Frame cabin, for which Ryan’s mine shaft elevator will be just perfect. We have nowhere to go but up.

The Princess misses her pug. Email your love to


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