Architects are three-dimensional artists. While most projects are redesigns of existing structures or plans for industrial spaces, many talented architects dream of designing a unique building in the mountains. The uneven terrains pose several composition difficulties allowing the draftsman’s talent and experience to shine.
Designs for a building in the mountains fall into two broad categories: traditional Mountain Architecture and Modern Mountain Architecture. Architects in Boulder, Colorado, and other mountain towns such as Big Bear in California are familiar with these categories as they strive to build safe but stylish structures that stand out. The goal in both is to create a structure that blends into the terrain’s topography while preserving the building’s style, structural integrity, and aesthetics.
Modern Mountain Architecture has become increasingly popular. However, it is primarily limited to residential and commercial structures used for hospitality, like hotels, villas, chalets, and cabins. Contemporary compositions allow the architect to combine classical building principles with unique creative concepts.
There are, however, specific issues that must be considered when building on a mountain. Here are several important architectural factors which can play a role when building a house on a mountain:
Designing the house using the terrain as an integral part of the composition is necessary; incorporating the natural layout of the land as part of the aesthetics is paramount. The structure’s orientation must allow natural light to enter the building while preserving the land features.
Little or no existing vegetation should be disturbed by the new creation. Preserving the natural flow of streams, creeks, and other water drainages down the mountain must be left undisturbed when deciding where aspects of the structure, such as garages or outbuildings, should be placed.
The idea is to build cohesively with the mountain, not replace the mountain’s space. Seeing the mountain as a component of the house rather than an obstacle allows the architect’s creativity to come into play. This is one aspect that separates a great architect from the mundane.
In the United States, building codes are strictly enforced. The recommended maximum height of a mountain structure is specific – 10.6 meters (34.8 ft) or three floors is the advised total height.
The official guidelines state, “The maximum height of a structure should be calculated based on the vertical distance of the grade (mean height of the highest and lowest elevations at which the structure meets the ground) measured to the mean height level between the eaves and ridge of the highest main roof.”
The structure can utilize the mountain’s existing features. For example, to accommodate the height guidelines requirements, the house can be constructed in layers that are each recessed against the mountainside. This is another area that allows a user to express their creative side.
Sustainable Energy Efficiency
Building a house on a mountain provides opportunities for sustainable, efficient energy sources not available to run-of-the-mill tack houses built on flat land. Nature’s ability to produce energy should be incorporated into the house plans.
Consider the following options:
- Wind Energy – The consistent wind velocities associated with mountain rises can be harnessed to generate electricity.
- Water-fueled Turbines – Using streams, rivers, or creeks that drain water from the mountain top downwards is a consistent source of power that can convert the water flow to hydroelectricity using a turbine. Unlike the wind, which may be variable, most running water sources are more dependable.
- Passive Solar – Utilizing windows, floors, and walls that collect, reflect, store and distribute energy from the sun can be used to heat in winter and deflect heat in summer.
- Solar Panels – Solar panel technology has become mainstream, making it more readily available and price efficient. Of course, when considering solar panels on a mountainside, take into account the changing path of the sun.
- Geothermal – Many mountains have access to geothermal sources of heat energy sitting below ground. Fortunately, there are several means to utilize this natural heat.
One concept is to run a system of water heated by the underground source through a series of pipes below the floors. This effectively heats the floor and room space.
Choice of Materials
The choice of building materials when constructing a house on a mountain should consider both structural integrity and the final aesthetic look. Timber, aluminum, and brass are the most commonly used mountainside building materials.
Remember that some mountains are not structurally stable and may experience tremors and shifts from underlying faults and volcanic activity. Therefore, consider design features that minimize the risk of damage to the home.
From a visual standpoint, timber and aluminum blend optically with the surroundings. The exposed wood should be toned to match existing vegetation, and aluminum complements exposed rock in the terrain. The reflective surface of aluminum also mirrors the natural environment.
Established guidelines concerning roofing on mountain homes state, “Mountain homes must feature inclined roofs to resist hail and snow that frequently occur in the mountains.”
This may seem intuitive; however, heavily pitched roofs can impede the overall visual cohesiveness. Consequently, many architects will incline the roof to match the angle of the mountainous drop.
Added deck features to a mountain house are an excellent way to increase usable recreational space and provide dramatic scenic views from the home. Multilevel and staggered decking can also add another visual dimension to the structure.
To ensure safe and comfortable access around the house after dark, many people use exterior lighting. When illuminating the exterior of a mountain house, try to use warm lighting and avoid blue light. Exterior lighting also enhances the beauty of the home and property.
However, avoid creating garish lighting that detracts from the natural surroundings.
The Bottom Line
Designing and building a house on a mountain requires complex advanced planning, but the creative possibilities are endless. Often, features requested by the property owner or for HOA management requirements are not feasible; however, they can be ingeniously incorporated by an inventive architect.
The first step is to know the mountain structure, local weather patterns, and potential barriers to the project. Be studious to ensure that any unforeseen problems specific to the location are addressed, which may make it necessary to alter or improve the building plans.
It may seem like a lot of extra trouble, but this is simply a part of the wondrous journey to having an incredible house on a mountain.