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Planning the Ultimate Mountain Getaway

Planning the Ultimate Mountain Getaway
Here's what to know before you build your mountain dream home.
It’s time to get serious and build the mountain home of your dreams. But as you may already know, building a cabin home (including log home plans and A frame house plans) isn’t as easy as building one in a subdivision setting. Things you take for granted – particularly utilities and construction trades – can be problematic in a remote location. 

Three big concerns drive the selection of a mountain home plan, says Angela Loughry of Confluence Architecture in Carbondale, Colorado, which specializes in mountain house plans. “Site, site, and site.”   Since excavation may be necessary in the mountains, Confluence’s foundation plans include dimensions and notations for support columns, walls, and excavated and unexcavated areas.

One of the firm’s best-selling designs, a modern take on a Colorado mining home (plan 902-1, seen above), is designed for a lot that slopes 30 percent downhill. The design ensures that each level has a walkout door. The layout of the main living space, modeled after an alpine ski hut, focuses on a wood stove that integrates kitchen, dining, and living spaces. The home is a great place to entertain a small group of friends or family.

Site demands may create a battle between conflicting desires to harness views and generate energy. The ideal situation would be to orient windows toward the great view that led you to the lot in the first place. Ideally, those windows would face south to harness and control solar heat. “If the view is not to the south, you start making tradeoffs on controlling the sun,” says Loughry. “Too much sun from the west, and you can overheat. Too much from the north, and your home can get chilly.” 

Harnessing solar energy becomes a big deal when building on a site without easy access to electricity, water, and other utilities. You can grease the skids by selecting a plan that accommodates solar power, heat, and hot water. One such plan is the highly versatile High Sierra Cabin (plan 452-3, above) that architect David Wright first designed for Sunset magazine then made available to the public. “It’s proven a very popular design,” he says. “It’s being built throughout the country.”

The energy program for the self-reliant home starts with a high-performance frame built with structural insulated panels (SIPs), made in a factory and shipped to the job site. With SIPs, “construction can be easier and faster than conventional framing,” says Wright. (That may be a big concern in regions with short building seasons.) The home’s electricity comes from PV panels, supported by a backup electrical generator that runs on propane. Propane is also used for cooking and backup solar water preheating. 

The cabin plan can be adapted to nearly any aesthetic or neighborhood requirement. It will work with any kind of roofing from shingle to tile. Exterior walls could accept stucco, wood, cement fiber, shingles, or stucco. You could even pick metal roofing and siding to reflect the mountain scenery. A wraparound porch with ironwood decking nearly doubles the home’s usable floor area. Interior details skew modern with laminate flooring, cable railings, and simple Douglas fir trim. Clerestory windows and vent skylights fill the home with light on winter days.

Both architects sweat fireproofing details that may not be found on other plans. Wright, for instance, designs to California’s code for fire-safe buildings. He puts a layer of gypsum board or cement siding under the exterior roof and adds exterior shutters over windows. The Confluence plans include fireproof screening in attic vents. On porches and roof overhangs of four feet or more, the plans minimize exposed timbers or include a layer of gypsum underneath. Sometimes both. “We typically follow our local (Colorado) fire codes, which are robust,” says Loughry.

Another big concern is how you intend to use your mountain home. Maybe all you need is a small weekend retreat. Here’s a small plan (design 556-3, above), only 688 square feet, designed with cold and mixed climates in mind, that does the trick. It comes with a classic loft bedroom that looks down on a great room. A crawlspace foundation makes it ideal for sloping lot conditions. A solar PV system design and rainwater harvesting make it self-reliant.  

But increasingly people are building full-scale family dream homes in the mountains. They may use it as a second home now, but it could become your primary residence later on. Here’s a plan (design 908-1, above) that meets both needs.

On the main level, a two-sided fireplace separates the kitchen and dining area from the family room. Upstairs, the room over the garage makes for an ideal home office or studio that converts easily to a guest suite.

The master suite includes a dramatic bathroom with an oversized tub and shower, along with generous closet space. This plan could be easily adapted to remove the upper level and add a main-level master suite, a garage bay for a third car, or more bedrooms. 

Snow removal can be another big concern with mountain homes, especially when you only use them periodically. You may want pitched roofs to keep snow (and rain) away from walking surfaces so that you can at least get to the front door if you arrive after a big snow. Or you can add stone stops to keep snow on the roof. There’s also the issue of protecting the home from wildlife. You may want to investigate bear-resistant door hardware. “Bears love levers but can’t work knobs,” says Loughry.

Shop mountain home plans and build that dream retreat.

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