Mountain House & Home: Tricky Terrain, Part II |

Mountain House & Home: Tricky Terrain, Part II

H. E. Sappenfield
Courtesy TAB Associates Inc.Digging out a building site: Two stories on the front, one on the back, which still required extensive excavation and a retaining wall.

When creating a home in a mountain region, many future homeowners opt for challenging building sites. Sometimes, geographic features or views draw them. In resort towns that are approaching build-out, that bit of level-challenged earth may be the only space left. No matter the reason, when considering building on tricky terrain, a homeowner faces more intense challenges. Gathering a design team an architect, builder and landscape architect is critical in determining if the dream in mind is feasible on the lot. They help determine and moderate added costs due to terrain challenges. Pick your architect very carefully, and pick your contractor very carefully, advises Mike Cuthbertson of Avon-based R.A. Nelson & Associates. The architect can help on the design end; the contractor knows market trends and what works well in implementing that design.Look for professionals with local knowledge and a good track record. Ask for references; talk to people who have worked with that firm before. If you have your heart set on an architect from outside the area, be sure to hire a builder who can help steer design with crucial local knowledge.Hand-in-hand with selecting a team though, is recognizing your design priorities and what aspects are crucial for that dream dwelling.

Determining where to build on the lot is the first step in design. How the site is, how you want to live on that site all goes together, says Pam Hopkins of Snowdon & Hopkins Architects in Vail. Siting is always the most important aspect of any custom home, but you also have to have access, and you could build a house in one place to optimize a view or the sun, but it may cost more, say in excavating the driveway.A good design team can guide homeowners through the checks and balances of budget- and eco-conscious design.If youre thinking of buying a difficult lot, its going to cost more to access it, says Sherry Dorward of Sherry Dorward Landscape Architecture in Vail. Youll need soils tests to understand what its going to take for the building foundations and construction of a road. Lots of retaining wall, most likely. Things dont often look as steep as they really are.Construction may need additional support as well.You may find yourself using shoring systems temporary stabilization of excavations until the foundation is backfilled, Cuthbertson says. On steep lots, the water flow is going to be coming down the hill from above, and the potential for surface and underground water must be diverted away.Cuthbertson recalls working on a Beaver Creek home that required five months of excavation before framing could begin.On the homes back side, it was 30 feet tall and 100 feet long, Cuthbertson says. It had an extensive driveway, and it took massive granite excavation, then shoring systems to complete the foundation. Wed pull out the rock, then haul the material down the hill and use it on the driveway.There may also be rules in place that determine siting.In Pitkin, Garfield, and Eagle counties and within many municipalities in the region, there may be restrictions on where you can build on the lot, says Jeff Johnson of Jeff Johnson Architectural in Rifle. In Glenwood Springs they have restrictions such as Hillside Preservation Zones, which limit the building envelope to a lower existing slope. For instance, if your lot has existing slopes over 20 percent, you will not be allowed to build on that section.Getting building materials into the site and storing them without scarring is also a major consideration. Preplanning can minimize the disturbance on a hillside, Cuthburtson says, because its difficult to put back.

During design, a checklist of must-haves is important, but homeowners also need to be flexible and creative. Working with the natural features of the lot can save not only on excavation, but also on construction cost and time.Everyone involved needs to have an open mind, Ken Bridges of Vails Morter Architects says, including design review boards; its critical.Bridges suggests maximizing the lots assets. What were the things which attracted you to the lot in the first place an enormous boulder dead center? We can make that a spin-off for design. With a sloping lot, there are usually some design basics.If you have an upslope condition, Johnson says, the configuration of the house tends to lend itself to a lower floor garage, a half-level entry and a main floor above. If you have a situation where the lot slopes down, then youll have a main-floor garage, a lower floor basement with walkout in the back. The deck would be in the back assuming the views are on the down slope side.Creatively tweaking design basics to fit your style is what instills the flavor of a home.Tab Bonidy, of TAB Associates in Avon, recalls how he elaborated on this upslope template in designing a home for a steep Bachelor Gulch lot, which sloped in three directions to create a bowl effect.We determined we needed the main level 14 feet above the garage, so we brought you up the site a third of the way on an outside architectural stair integrated with the landscaping, Bonidy says. Then we created an entry level, which brought you up another third and where you could see views in the living area, which was connected by a last third. This created a dynamic transition that was interesting and not confusing and a welcome approach to a steep uphill entry.Although this design was integrated into the terrain, it still required extensive excavation and retaining walls.Ken Bridges took an innovative, non-invasive approach to an extremely steep hillside lot with limited access in Redcliff and emerged with a thoroughly workable, modern design that maximized the lots assets and created a few of its own. A garage, located on the main level, is close to the road. The living areas begin below, and windows are minimized where neighbors are nearby, yet employed where views are abundant. A primary deck off the main living area creates one feeling, but a flat grass roof creates another feel and another way to experience the site, Bridges says. This roof creates recreational space that might have been lost with a sloped roof. It also mediates snow runoff. Pam Hopkins recalls how the collision between a steep slope and Vails height restrictions led to an inspired roof design and one of the homeowners favorite features.The eaves we had designed were too high, Hopkins explains. The homeowner saw a roof down in Denver which was curved, and we incorporated that curve, bringing the height down. It ended up creating the personality of that house.Thats the beauty of a difficult site.The more difficult the site, the more you have to think it through, Hopkins says, and the personality comes out of the home and the homeowner. A custom home strives to be just that.With a greater challenge can come greater satisfaction.You have to go about things in a different way than you are used to doing them, Bridges says. This really excites me about odd-shaped lots or difficult terrain. In the end theres always a story behind them, and owners get really excited by that.Next issue: Part Three: Extraordinary Environs Realistic talk with landscape architects about design for Tricky Terrain.

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