The Elegance of Just Enough

This calming space fits effortlessly into the woods at the edge of the Uncompahgre River

By Kimberly Field | Photography by Barrett Studio

Coming home to this rustic, modern home tucked into the woods along the swiftly flowing Uncompahgre River is instantly calming. It’s a needed respite for Matt Cotham, a busy, young emergency room physician in Montrose, Colorado.

Cotham found the three-acre site in 2011. “It’s very park-like, with cottonwood trees in a sea of grass,” he says. “It was like a cathedral, with the branches like high arches.” He entrusted David Barrett, founding principal of Barrett Studio Architects in Boulder to design a home that fit the rhythm of the land, the river and Cotham’s own sensibilities. Barrett describes his design as “living architecture.”

Cotham, who spent several years working at Mukinge Hospital in Zambia through the NGO Samaritan’s Purse, says, “I liked their ethos,” of Barrett Studio. Cotham frequently returns to serve in Africa and speaks of his time there with the same humility one senses from the design of his home.

“The house is a reflection of Matt. It is calm, present and unpretentious,” Barrett says. Before putting pen to paper, the architects camped on the property, watching the light, listening to the river and feeling the trees swaying in the wind. “Our challenge was slipping this house into a beautiful, wooded setting,” adds Barrett.

The design is informed by qualities Matt grew to love in Africa: openness to nature, sunlight and outdoor walkways. The architects created a “climatic design” that offers a simple way to stay comfortable in a colder climate. At 2,100 square feet, the three-bedroom, two-bath home provides enough space for Matt and his rescue dog Bella and also welcomes guests with comfort and privacy. “Matt is not gluttonous about space,” Barrett says.


An Etsy-found table topped with Douglas fir tucks into the quartz kitchen counter but can be repositioned to provide needed dining space when friends and family visit.


Cotham wanted a “calm, neutral background for important things.” A well-used piano here, a Zimbabwean sculpture there along with batiked pillows and textiles acquired in Africa add warmth, texture and rich color to the soothing interior. A local welder crafted a double-sided fireplace surround of steel finished with a gun-blue patina. It provides a sense of separation without overwhelm- ing the space. “It preserves the sight lines in the house,” he says. A fir table tucked under a sleek, quartz kitchen counter provides a casual eating space and can be repositioned as a dining table. Ceilings of beetle-kill pine and Douglas fir barn doors grace the interior, and wood reclaimed from an antique barn in Virginia clads the exterior. “A palette of imperfect materials shows aliveness and reflects Matt’s humility,” Barrett adds. “Matt was out there nailing up the barn wood with the builders.”

A favorite feature for both the homeowner and architect is the bifold glass wall from Sierra Pacific Windows. “Matt can pull the corner away and enjoy the presence of the river,” says Barrett.

The house lives comfortably. Giant cottonwoods provide shade, movement and the play of green in summer, and the home is flooded with sunlight and warmth in winter. “The hall is like a cloister. The sun through the upper windows warms the entire house,” Cotham says. The design maximizes energy efficiency, Barrett says. South-facing glass in the hallway, with its east–west orientation, captures winter sun for high passive solar gain. The concrete floor acts as a heat sink, and interior transoms share sunlight throughout the rooms. Open windows provide cooling breezes in summer. “I’m continually surprised at how warm it is in winter,” Cotham says. “And the loft feels like I’m up in the treetops in the summer.”


Local cabinetmaker Christopher Pridy, of Christopher’s Kitchen and Bath, crafted the homeowner-designed firebox cabinets of Douglas fir to provide a warm counterpoint to the gunmetal fireplace and concrete floors.


Natural light, neutral colors, simple lines and textures highlighted by colorful objects, including a Moroccan lantern and a Zulu pillow collected in Africa, create a calm aesthetic in the master bedroom.


Kohler Leaf vessel sinks float on a green sandstone counter, and the shower is lined with Rustico, a basalt-colored tile with wood- grain finish from Ann Sacks, which echoes the river and tree-top view from the master bath.


This cozy nook accommodates guests as well as a collection of baskets made in Africa by Tonga, Kaonde, Gikuyu and Nyanja artisans.


Soaring windows open to cooling river breezes. The home’s siding, sourced from a century-old barn in Virginia, shows the holes, knots and repairs of its working past.


A bright curtain surrounds the outdoor shower on the deck as the Uncompahgre River rolls along.



Architect: David Barrett, architect, and Sam Nishek, project architect, Barrett Studio Architects, 1944 20th St., Boulder, 303.449.1141, 

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