Rustic Cabin Renovation: Reclaiming a Fishing Ranch
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Rustic Cabin Renovation: Reclaiming a Fishing Ranch

This cabin was transformed from dilapidated and dreary to downright dreamy.

When it was found, this ranch house was sagging off a loose stone foundation. Most of the original flooring, installed when the ranch was built in the early 1900s, was gone. Doors were missing. Windows were broken. Trees had fallen on the roof, leaving sunlight streaming through the ceiling. Rodents had moved in. Delicately put, “It was in a difficult state,” says Bill Coburn, owner of Coburn Development Inc. and lead visionary on the restoration team that brought the building back to life in 2001.

If the ranch’s age was a liability to its last residents, a family of cattle ranchers who moved out in the 1960s, it would become the building’s lifeline to rescuers Coburn and team, who had cut their teeth renovating structures that were just as dilapidated in Boulder, Colo. “Our background was having the vision to look at something in that incredible state of disrepair and see a way to make it work,” says Coburn. He was intent on preserving the building’s history, and since it’s nestled in a picturesque spot right next to the Gunnison River on the 300-acre Gunnison River Ranch development near Gunnison, Colo., he knew the old place would make an ideal guesthouse and fly-fishing hub for the development’s residents.


Like Stepping Back in Time

Fun, thoughtful amenities, a clubhouse feel for fly-fishermen, and historic preservation were high on the list of priorities for the ranch’s renovation. Not only would it be a place where guests could relax, have fun with friends and prep their fishing gear, it would also be a bit like stepping back in time. Old barns, fence posts, outhouses, ranching implements and even a retired railroad bridge over the river are scattered throughout the acreage surrounding the ranch house. Coburn wanted to restore these elements in the name of cultural preservation. “We fixed everything up to a certain level where it would sustain itself, but we tried to not take anything past what it used to be,” he says.

As much as possible, updates to the 1,100-square-foot ranch house, which includes a great room, two bedrooms, two bathrooms, and a laundry room, followed the same idea. Initially, the team talked about expanding the guesthouse’s footprint or adding a second story to accommodate a game room, more bedrooms or bigger bathrooms. But, Coburn says, the ranch’s spot on the river made it “really sweet and quaint,” and the team ultimately decided against a major addition. “It would’ve been a disservice to try to make the ranch house more than it was – it would’ve been changing its feel,” he says.

One Strategic Addition

For starters, the team raised the structure up to install a pressure-treated-wood foundation – an ideal solution because it would hold up well to the area’s fairly wet conditions and also because they didn’t have to bring in a lot of heavy excavation equipment and concrete trucks. After getting the ranch back on solid footing, they did make one strategic addition: the wraparound porch. This single feature offers multiple solutions: It creates an outdoor living space that unites indoor and outdoor relaxation, it helps keep the ranch cool, and it offers a prep area for fly-fishermen. Coburn, an avid fly-fisherman himself, says the ranch is “all set up for showing up and preparing to go fish and then lightly entertaining before, during and after.” (For tips on great amenities for fishermen, scroll down to read “How to Make Your Cabin Angler-Friendly.”)

The porch’s outdoor fireplace and tin roof provide ambiance for entertaining. “You can look up and actually see the tin,” says Coburn. “So it’s really nice when you stand out there and it’s raining and you get that little pitter-patter – that’s by design.” A nearby cookhouse offers a smoker and charcoal and gas grills. Guests can also enjoy a fire pit or play horseshoes. And though the game room didn’t make it into the ranch itself, the team relocated an old cabin to the area and converted it into a game house with darts, foosball, Ping-Pong, and poker and pool tables. Coburn says the options are intentional; one of the ways the team likes to create spaces that feel good is to include a series of places for people to hang out.

Solutions That Add Character

The interior of the ranch house owes much of its rich character to what Coburn says was the team’s most controversial decision. Coburn wanted to keep the original interior walls so the 2x4s would remain exposed. To do this, they used 2x6s to build a shell around the exterior and ran plumbing, wiring, and batt insulation in between the layers. Lap cedar siding was added to the new exterior framing. To maintain most of the original ceilings, the team used a similar technique; they removed the original roof and overframed the existing ceilings with 2x10 joists and tucked insulation between the layers.

In the great room, Coburn says, they did some “selective truss work” to vault the ceiling over the living, dining and kitchen areas. The ceiling now stands 15 feet tall. Collar ties had been holding the original roof-framing together. For the vault upgrade, they wanted to forego using very large timbers. Instead, they used thin iron so the trusses are more airy. “We don’t have a ton of volume and we don’t have a ton of space,” says Coburn of the 25x18-foot room. “So we wanted to create trusses that weren’t overbearing, so what you’re really experiencing is just the volume.”

The centerpiece of the great room is the corner fireplace, which stands back to back with the outdoor fireplace on the porch. The two have individual fireboxes and chimneys, but look as though they’re joined. Neither fireplace is original to the ranch, but they’re constructed of red sandstone cobbles that look as though they could have been gathered from the river right outside the door. When there’s no fire roaring, a forced-air furnace keeps the ranch cozy.
To allow more light inside, new windows were cut into the walls, and some were positioned in enlarged openings at original locations. Wherever walls and ceilings couldn’t be preserved, new lumber was added and whitewashed to maintain the rustic feel while brightening up the spaces. This technique was particularly effective in the kitchen area, which is tucked behind a low partition wall. Its oven, stove top, and under-counter refrigerator are intended for “light cooking use,” says Coburn. In here, whitewash gives the space a clean feel.

The ranch’s flooring was not salvageable, so the team put in a new manufactured pine floor, then used chain and bags of rocks to make marks and dents in it. “When you walk into this building, you have all these old walls. The material’s very tactile … it just feels and looks super vintage and rustic, so we didn’t want a big new shiny floor to dominate the feeling of the room,” says Coburn. He says distressing the flooring helps it take on its own patina when the floor is finished. Instead of being a big, shiny surface, it takes the stain differently and the floor becomes multicolored with lots of pattern. While craftsmen “blind-nailed” the floor to hide the nails, as they would for a typical installation, they also drove in nails that had rustic-looking square heads to maintain an aged look. And in keeping with the ranch theme, they even branded the floor with a horseshoe in select areas. “You really would have to look hard to realize that it’s supposed to look like a horse somehow walked through the house and left its mark with the horseshoes,” says Coburn. “It was a fun little goofy addition.”

Coburn and his wife, Annie, spearheaded the interior design of the cozy ranch. Most of the rustic furniture came from two local companies (see “Design Resources,” below). The large brown trout mounted on the fireplace is a wood carving Coburn commissioned from a local artist. For mood lighting, the Coburns opted for a minimalist approach. Aside from sconces in the bedrooms, the Coburns de-emphasized the lighting by hiding small monopoint fixtures in the ceiling.

All this attention to detail has made the guesthouse a beloved place for entertaining and relaxing. Coburn says visitors often reserve it for dinner parties, cookouts, and, of course, fly-fishing trips. The surrounding land is still operating as a cattle ranch. Given the work that Coburn and his team have already put into the place, let’s hope the steers don’t develop a hankerin’ to play foosball.

The Lowdown on Building With Reclaimed Materials

With 27 years of tackling rustic renovation projects under their belts, Bill Coburn’s team knows a few things about using reclaimed materials. On the Gunnison ranch house, the exterior posts and columns as well as the cookhouse and a footbridge are all indigenous Douglas fir pieces from a cattle stockyard in Pueblo, Colo., that was being demolished. Coburn says that using reclaimed materials is very environmentally friendly, because you’re reusing a resource.
But, he says, “People should be aware that it doesn’t cost less to use reclaimed materials.” That’s because there’s more labor involved at multiple stages. Reclaimed materials usually need to be cleaned and sanded, and often, old nails need to be removed. Even after the material is cleaned up, there may be a lot of waste. Frequently, the material may not be able to be used structurally, because there’s no way to rate it to determine if it’s up to code. “Building codes require that structural members have a rating to them,” says Coburn. “So you can imagine that a lot of old product doesn’t have a structural rating – there’s no way to rate it.”
Coburn also points out that craftsmen have to be more creative when working with reclaimed materials. “There’s a lot more work in fitting twisted and bent old pieces together.” And that’s not just for the framing crew. Plumbers, electricians, trimmers, HVAC installers and other tradesmen will likely have to figure out how to hide their handiwork in ways they don’t with typical construction techniques. “A lot of times with this old material, you’re purposely, obviously exposing it because that’s the beauty of it,” says Coburn.
If you want to use reclaimed material in your next project, Coburn recommends finding contractors who have worked with reclaimed materials. And even though an online search will turn up several companies who gather and store reclaimed material, it may take some time to source the material, especially if you want to use indigenous material.

How to Make Your Cabin Angler-Friendly

  • Bill Coburn's visits to several fishing lodges inspired the amenities for the ranch. He says the large wraparound porch offers anglers a sheltered place to sort their gear, get ready and rig their rods before heading to the river. “You want to be out of the elements to do a lot of this,” he says.

  •  When you get back from the day’s adventure, you can hang your waders on the porch to dry. The ranch’s outdoor sink is handy for cleaning boots, gear or fish, and its dog-wash area is great for bathing your dog before it hops back in the car. It also works for cleaning muddy boots or coolers. Having all of these amenities outside means the mess stays outside.

  •     The ranch house is also stocked with extra gear in case guests forget anything. On hand are extra flies, wading boots, fishing rods and more. Members and guests at the ranch typically catch and release rainbow, cutthroat and brown trout.

  •     If you’re not into fishing but your guests are, Coburn suggests visiting your local fishing shops to get the best recommendations for where your guests can get their waders wet.

Design Resources

  • Architect: Peter Weber, Coburn Development Inc.,
  • General Contractor: Mountain Home Construction, Crested Butte, Colo., (970) 209-5913
  • Back at the Ranch Home Furnishings, Gunnison, Colo.,
  • Princess Western Design Company, Crested Butte, Colo., (970) 349-0210

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