Features & Essays

We Don’t Live Here Anymore

How a Fort Collins couple built their dream house — and let it go.

For nearly two years, Brian and Hannah Brooks and their daughter Harper lived in a 600-square-foot guest house and slept in one queen-sized bed together while building their family home.

“It took a year and seven months, and we watched all the seasons go by,” Brian says.

They had positioned the house toward the south and west, facing a 90-year-old cottonwood tree that was planted when the original farm’s homestead was built.

“We specifically picked this spot because of the tree,” Hannah says. “In the winter time, the sun comes through the branches and heats the home, and then in the summertime, the tree is full of leaves and it shades the home.”

“There wasn’t a rush,” Brian adds. Paying attention to the seasons and to the light, they rearranged the layout, they added walls, then took them down.

“Except there was a rush,” Hannah says, “because Harper was a baby literally sleeping in bed next to us. I was getting really antsy to push the house to be done so that we didn’t have to sleep with a 2-year-old.”

“It’s funny, people said, ‘Oh [building the house] could end your relationship,’” Brian says.

“That didn’t end our relationship,” Hannah says, laughing.

“No, it was the opposite,” he says, laughing too.

Brian and Hannah are sitting on the southwest deck in their last weeks as the home’s owners, facing a late-winter sun and the snow-capped mountains. Harper, almost 7, is playing on a tire swing, and a house guest is walking in the distance. From the vantage point of the deck, the guest is the only thing moving between here and the Front Range.

Six years after they built their dream house on 50 acres in North Fort Collins, the Brooks have parceled the property and sold the home to another family. Inside, the rooms have been deconstructed, first by Hannah, then Brian. Harper is now leaving a Hansel and Gretel-esque trail of Play-Doh from the main living space to the main hallway—a Southern entry—and the big central stairs.

“The downstairs was built and designed with entertaining in mind,” Hannah says. “Brian is so outgoing and social, and I think I had elements of that, too, at the time.”

When they built this house, Hannah and Brian were transitioning, from Christianity to a broader form of spirituality, from one to two to three. Now they’re counting back down.

“I think that this home, it was fully authentic for those five years,” Hannah says. “I feel like our house represented exactly who we were as individuals in that season. And for me, it felt really correct to who we were at the time and authentic to ourselves and to our relationship.

It had a lot of our essence in it. And I think it did start to change toward the very end, as we, or, I guess, as I started to change. And then the house no longer became the representation of us.”

Along with selling their home, Hannah and Brian are in the process of divorce, of eventually moving to two separate cities, finding a new school for their daughter, all the while keeping the family intact. They’re looking for a “third way” in all of this—not a happy marriage and not an unhappy separation, either. For a while, they even debated keeping the house, too—as a third space, for events, weddings or retreats. “Because it was this labor and creation of love in the same way that a child would be, but because it’s not a living child, we don’t have to actually keep it,” Hannah says now.

She comes from a family of craftsmen and restorers. Generations ago, they founded what is now Buena Vista as Mahonville. By the time she was born, they had migrated to Greeley. Brian, meanwhile, is from Lafayette, Louisiana. He grew up with shotgun homes and fire and brimstone preaching. Hannah’s upbringing was equally religious, but favors a barn aesthetic.

“Coming from where we come from, you don’t get divorced, no matter what’s going on in your marriage,” she says. “It’s never OK to separate, ever.”

Soon after Harper was born, they came from Denver and drove around Fort Collins looking for land. There was a sign out front on the old Boettcher property, and a cluster of near century-old trees marking the former homestead.

“We bought in 2011 when no one was really building,” Brian said. “It wasn’t even on the MLS. When we heard the price, we didn’t realize it was for the whole [property].”

They purchased 50 acres at a “laughable” cost now, according to Hannah. They worked with a Denver architect to build a 600-square-foot studio that would become their temporary home. It was oriented towards the south and west as well, with a butterfly roof opening to the mountains.

Brian, a self-taught graphic designer, had always been interested in architecture, and Hannah, a photographer, began hand-drawing the plans for the main home. They moved the driveway to the other side of the lot, between a row of canopy trees and positioned the house slightly behind the original foundation, before the cottonwood tree. They penciled in more than 30 windows.

“When we came together to build this house, it was an interesting blend of Brian’s super intense love of modern architecture and then my love of old-world, antique and vintage,” Hannah explains. “I wanted it to look like a barn. Brian wanted to have a barn with a big cube on the side of it.”

“With a Southern [-style] hallway,” he says.

“And a Southern driveway,” she adds.

The couple hired a freelance drafter and a general contractor. They convinced the builders to hang a lofted office space above the kitchen by a suspension cord (that they knew would hold). Hannah filled a spray bottle with salt, vinegar, and water and weathered the steel siding to a vibrant rust-red.

“Brian is this abnormally, naturally patient human,” Hannah says. “And I love this about him. And I think that’s the reason why [we work well together]. Because in this process, I was the driver. I drove a lot of it. I was this 26-year-old female telling these 50-year-old contractors what I wanted them to do. And they did not like it at all.”

“But you knew what you wanted,” Brian says. “This was possible. We’ve seen it done.”

They moved into the house in 2012 and saw it as an evolving “piece,” the components of which changed along with the seasons of its owners—a secluded but open office space, framed photos hanging in the gallery, vinyl records accumulated and played during house parties, quiet Sunday baths, soon-to-be planted garden beds, the studio furnished for renters and vacationers, the house now readied for their move out of it.

“With this view and with this space … the energy is different, the calmness, it’s an escape,” Brian says. “That’s what it was for us for so many years. We could go hammer out work and come home and this was an escape. And then it gradually got [to be] obviously something different.”

Like many people, Brian first learned about marriage from influences like religion, music and movies. “We got married in that filter, thinking that one person was going to fulfill everything,” he says. “You’ve got to be extreme lovers and everything to the other [person], and it’s just impossible.”

Because he put so much pressure on their union, Brian says he stopped cultivating other friendships and support systems. When the marriage faced roadblocks, they were magnified as a result. “What we built our relationship on before was just a skewed view of what marriage is. It wasn’t sustainable.”

— — — — —

Hannah moved out in 2017. She says she doesn’t dwell on why it happened. Instead, she asks, “How can we respond?”

Around the time of their split, Brian was on the road most weekdays for a work project. He spent his evenings alone enjoying solitude and food in restaurants. A friend encouraged him to find a “medium” to work through the separation, and he looked to something bigger than just a journal or a canvas; he started to see the house as a space for destruction and then rejuvenation.

Inside of it, he began to host community dinners and company retreats, photo shoots and weekend getaways for couples in crisis. To “create an environment for people to hit the pause button for a night,” in the former home of his own family, he now invited new and old friends to cook and dine together, to ask tough questions, and discuss their passions or relationships. Then “the response was up to them,” he says.

“I was surprised when he decided to use the house as this ministry to marriage,” Hannah says. But she also understood the appeal of it. “Here’s a space where you can just get away. Sit on the deck without hearing a baby crying or without getting a phone call from work.”

“This is what this place represents for me, is space and tone to figure out what you need,” Brian adds. “It’s a place of healing; you can go either direction, you can split, you can stay together, you can quit your job, it doesn’t matter to me.” He says all too often our culture focuses on the object: “ ‘Oh you’re separated? You’re done.’”

“Everybody, let’s pause for a second,” he says. “It’s not just the house. It’s not just having land. It’s not just the beautiful family. There’s so much more going on.”

A year after they had moved in, Hannah and Brian were talking to a neighbor who helped them cut their alfalfa grass and sell it to a farmer down the road. The neighbor pointed to an old cattle corral that now barely separates theirs from the property next door, and he told them that he and his wife had their first kiss there as teenagers. He told them he looks at it when he cuts the grass. And then he thanked them for leaving it there, for not tearing it down.

Back on the deck and just before spring, the weather changes and the wind picks up quickly. It blows through the fence and around the cottonwood and stops at the house. So it’s inside for Harper, and Hannah eventually should be going, but Brian stays put. The view to the west is mesmerizing, and in the wind, a few glass doors close, while others stay open facing the sun, the storm and the mountains in the horizon.      

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