Published: Dec. 21, 2023 By

Matt Morris and the two students who helped build his home in front of his newly-built home
From left: Matt Morris, George Kurtz and Daniel Donado Quintero stand in front of Morris's new home, which the three built together. Photo Credit: Jesse Morgan Petersen

George Kurtz witnessed the destructive flames of the Marshall Fire as they torched hundreds of houses across Louisville and Superior, Colorado, causing more $2 billion in damages.

As the son of a carpenter and a senior in architectural engineering at CU Boulder, Kurtz possessed the skills to aid families in rebuilding after the Dec. 30, 2021 disaster, but never imagined he would end up assisting one of his favorite professors in rebuilding his home.

Daniel Donado Quintero, a first-year civil engineering PhD student, also saw the flames, but did not know he’d also play a crucial role in the same project.

Their professor, Matt Morris, in CU Boulder’s Department of Civil, Environmental and Architectural Engineering, and his family lost everything in the fire. With the support of numerous volunteers, Morris and his two students constructed more than 80 percent of the new house with their own hands, completing the project in 15 months and integrating new technologies and a resilient framework to guard against future environmental threats. 

“I enjoyed every aspect of what we did, how much I learned, and the experience I gained,” Kurtz said.

On Dec. 8, nearly two years after the fire reduced their home to ash, the Morris family reoccupied the same lot and their newly constructed home. For the first time in two years, they will celebrate Christmas in their own home.

”My whole family has had smiles on their faces everyday since we moved in,” Morris said. 

Winds of change

When the fire came, Morris and his family were envisioning the glistening snow in the mountains, along with the promise of blue skies and brilliant sunshine — a perfect start to the upcoming new year. Their skis, poles and parkas piled high in the garage, they had no idea that this moment would be the last time that they would see those items, their Superior home, or their neighborhood.

Within moments, a faint scent of smoke combined with what initially appeared like a distant dust storm swiftly transformed to a roaring inferno. As Morris, his wife, Kate, daughters Evie, then 6, and Penelope, then 13, escaped in their car, their parting image was a fireball engulfing their home. Morris and his wife had lived there 16 years. 

There had been no time to grab their ski gear, their passports or even a small memento. The only thing that survived — a collection of 1999-2008 taxes at the bottom of their safe — Morris later set on fire in frustration that something so useless was all that remained.

That night, sitting on the floor of his brother-in-law’s home, Morris began thinking of the home renovations he and his wife had dreamt about for years. 

“At that moment, we knew we were going to rebuild our home ourselves,” said Morris, who had previously worked as a commercial contractor. “It was an opportunity to get what we wanted in a house and build it more resilient than before.

"And, I always wanted to build a house from scratch.”

Morris and his students outside the house they built in Superior 'Can't thank you enough'

At that decisive moment, Morris had no idea that two of his students, Kurtz, from Morris’ Building Systems and Materials class, and Donado Quintero, from his Intro to Construction class, would play such an integral part in those plans. 

Construction started in August 2022, with Morris alone at the helm. Kurtz heard about Morris' efforts and showed up to help pour the concrete foundation. He kept showing up, and Morris eventually hired him. Donado Quintero joined the project in November 2022. 

“I believe God was asking me to continue to show up,” he said. “The experience changed my character and my understanding of commitment and discipline and accountability. It was a space where I grew a lot.”

The three now share a deep sense of gratitude for the experience and for each other. 

Donado Quintero extended appreciation to Kurtz for his willingness to bring himself and other volunteers onto the project, despite being more experienced.

“He was always very welcoming, not only with me, but with all the volunteers,” Donado Quintero said.” And I want to thank Matt for his willingness to open this space for us to join.”

Kurtz, turning to his mentor, reflected on Morris's daily commitment and resilience.

“Matt’s resilience to get this done was inspiring,” Kurtz said. “Thank you for the opportunity you gave me.”

George showed up every weekend without fail, Morris said. “We experienced a brutally cold and snowy winter, but I could always count on George to be there," he said. "And Daniel was doing this out of the goodness of his heart to get us back into our house.”

Turning to his students, he expressed, “It was for my family, and I can’t thank you enough for that.

“I would never have made it without your help. Only certain things you can do by yourself. The fact that you were there, was one thing, but also that you were dedicated and consistent and just fun to be around.”

Building fortitude

The build’s central focus was on disaster resilience, with Morris choosing insulated concrete forms and steel for structure. The styrofoam forms, which remain in place after the concrete hardens, insulate the house and  fortify it against various threats, such as fires, hurricanes, windstorms and tornadoes, he said. 

Throughout construction, Morris juggled his role as a university professor Monday through Thursday with 14-hour construction days on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. Rising at 3 a.m. each day, he meticulously managed a range of tasks from ordering materials to coordinating subcontractors to preparing drawings for upcoming build days. 

On his way to campus each day, Morris would visit the construction site, tending to duties such as clearing debris after windstorms, shoveling snow, managing materials or checking in with subcontractors. Throughout the summers of 2022 and 2023, he devoted every day to the house project.

Donado Quintero said that watching his professor repeatedly push through obstacles was inspiring, including on stressful days spent pouring concrete for walls, where everything needed to be exactly right before the concrete hardened.

“It’s an example of discipline, watching him show up every day, the same hour,” he said. 

They battled wind gusts and historic cold temperatures throughout much of the rebuild. Then came the time when the concrete forms unexpectedly blew out, sending concrete in all directions. On another occasion, they moved the forms to the second floor. Despite securing hundreds of pounds of rebar on top of them, the wind lifted and scattered the foam products, causing damage. 

Other struggles involved figuring out how to combine technologies. The tight insulation meant a distinct ventilation system needed to be designed specifically for the house. The home’s specialized mechanical system pulls heat from the air and transfers it to water, which supplies radiant heat in the floor. The air-to-water heat pump and ventilation systems are very uncommon as far as Morris knows, and there are very few examples to follow.

“I had a few moments where I thought, why did I do this?” Morris said. “Having to learn every piece took a lot of research and trial and error. There were a few times I wanted to call in for reinforcements, and there just weren't any. 

“It was very hard on my family,” Morris said. “My wife and kids held down the fort while I was building the house with these guys. But now that we’re in, they would agree it was worth it. If you asked a month ago, I’m not sure what they would have said.

“Because we did this alone and there were new technologies, it took us longer than anyone in the neighborhood. We were the first to break ground. There were homes that were started seven months after us, and the owners had already moved in.”

On his university computer, Morris flips through the photos that showed the normalcy of Dec. 30 at 12:01 p.m., followed by a 12:08 video from a neighbor’s house camera as the fireball took out his house.

“It’s good to see it again, because then you don’t forget,” Morris said.”It reminds me of why we built it in concrete and steel, even though it was hard.”

A living classroom

The construction site became a living classroom of sorts, where, for instance, they each calculated the height of a steel column, jotting down calculations on two-by-fours and comparing their answers. Both Donado Quintero and Kurtz were eager to learn, and Morris knew which classes they were taking and tried to enhance their learning.

“One of the classes I took this semester related very closely to this experience, so I was able to visualize things in a way that very few students could for reinforced concrete,” Kurtz said.

Morris said he, too, learned a lot from the experience. 

“What we built was very unique,” Morris said. "Very few homes in the world have this combination of concrete, steel, and the mechanical and ventilations systems. So I learned a ton.

“I have been thinking about renovations for 16 years, so all the things I wanted, I put in the house,”  Morris added. “Even the little things like where the light switch goes.

“I wouldn’t do anything differently.”

Morris' destroyed neighborhood in Superior after the 2021

A view of Morris' Superior neighborhood after the 2021 fire. 

The frame of the house in progress last winter, with geese flying overhead

The team battled wind gusts and historic cold temperatures throughout much of the rebuild. 

A man helps to place a steel beam held by a crane

Placing a steel beam for the roof with the help of a construction crane.

Morris takes a selfie on the roof, with a worker in the background

"Very few homes in the world have this combination of concrete, steel, and the mechanical and ventilations systems. So I learned a ton," Morris said.

Donado Quintero helps Morris carry a piece of furniture into the house, while Kurtz holds open the front door.  Photo credit Jesse Petersen.

Donado Quintero helps Morris carry a piece of furniture into the house, while Kurtz holds open the front door