How to Build a House on a Mountain

Written by matt kailey
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High-Country Living Offers Rewards and Challenges

How to Build a House on a Mountain
Slope and soil type are important considerations -- not only foundational, but financial, as well. (Goodshoot/Goodshoot/Getty Images)

There is no better place to be and no better feeling than looking out the windows at the wilderness and thinking, 'I made this.'

— Award-winning author and photographer K.S. Brooks

When city life becomes city strife and the hustle and bustle is nothing but a hassle, maybe it's time to move -- to a mountain. That's what award-winning author and photographer K.S. Brooks and her partner, builder/carpenter David Rust, did. Since early 2010, the couple has made their home in the mountains of eastern Washington State in a house they built themselves. "We decided to relocate somewhere remote to be out of the 'buzz' of civilisation," Brooks said, "which is a better writing environment for me and puts us closer to certain outdoor sports for David. We decided to build the home ourselves to keep costs down." Brooks and Rust broke ground on their mountain house in 2009 and are peacefully at home after finishing their project in roughly a year, replacing city stress with highland happiness. "With the increased stresses of modern life, people want to build their last home the best it can be," said sustainable home planner Richard C. MacCrea. "A refuge ... where they can enjoy nature, entertain their friends and family, and simplify their lives. They are also looking for self-sufficiency and a sense of genuineness." MacCrea has built a house for himself in the mountains of North Carolina, is working on a second and assists others through The Mountain Home Show trade show and website. If you have that same dream, consider turning it into action. Maybe next year at this time, you'll be in a remote residence of your very own.

Locate Your Land

For Brooks and Rust, cost per acre and availability of water were the most important criteria when deciding on a location for their hillside habitat.

Skip Brewer, an accredited builder, certified green professional and owner of Walnut Cove Builders in North Carolina, says that other considerations are equally important, including access to the site.

"If you can't readily access the site, building materials will be significantly more difficult to deliver, if at all," he said. "If you have to create access, this can be a costly consideration -- not only to create, but to maintain, both during and after the build. Site elevation can also play a role in design considerations and cost implications."

For example, Brewer says, depending on your location, elevation determines the wind zone, which relates to design-pressure requirements in windows and doors. Temperature and climate severity are also factors, as well as home positioning with relation to the sun and how you might want to use the sun for enjoyment and energy efficiency.

"Additionally," said Brewer, "when building on a mountain, the slope of the site and the soil type and stability are all significant factors that can and do become serious financial considerations."

MacCrea agreed. "Nobody wants to see their new house sliding downhill," he said.

Determine Your Design

Choosing a house design was easy for Brooks and Rust.

"We looked through house-plan magazines separately, and it turned out we'd both chosen the same design," she said. "The design is akin to a chalet with lots of windows."

Because each project is unique, MacCrea focuses on three equally important requirements when building his own homes or assisting others.

"I must design each home for the needs and wants of the people who will live in it," he said. "How do they entertain? What are their hobbies? Do they have health limitations? The home also needs to respect the homeowners' budget. The third consideration is the site: The home must fit into its environment."

Manage Your Materials

Brooks says there was only one logical choice for the exterior of her home: a fibre-cement home siding called Hardie board siding and a metal roof.

"In a thickly wooded mountainous terrain susceptible to forest fires, having a fire-resistant home was the only way to go," she said. "There is no exterior exposed wood. We chose ICFs [insulated concrete forms] for the basement because of their R-factor [thermal resistance factor] and ease of construction."

Brooks and Rust also decided on structural insulated panel technology for the living space because SIPs are airtight and energy efficient. "Our 100 percent electrically run house costs about £26 a month in utility bills during the summer," she said.

Using energy-efficient, recyclable SIPs, Brooks and Rust were able to quickly and easily construct the shell of the home themselves. They subcontracted the heating, ventilation and air-conditioning systems, the septic system, concrete pouring, excavation, and the well. They requested bids from at least three of each type of vendor before making their choice, Brooks says.

To maintain a budget, consider building a smaller house so you can choose top-quality, environmentally friendly materials. "I like the authenticity of concrete, stone, metal and wood," MacCrea said. "A metal roof can be resistant to high wind damage. I try to avoid plastics, vinyls and carpet."

Plan for Problems

The biggest snag for Brooks and Rust was hitting underground springs while digging the foundation, filling the basement-to-be with water.

Brewer identified other possible problems. "If you are on your own mountain, with a mile-long driveway delivering you to the middle of your mountain getaway, electrical service in the traditional sense can be an expensive proposition to get installed. ... Check before you buy. Also, solar systems are available, although to run an entire home off solar energy needs to be carefully planned, to say the least."

Other considerations, particularly with regard to cost, are well drilling -- "You pay for the hole by the foot, whether water or dust comes out of it," said Brewer -- and on-site septic systems, where soil composition plays a large part in determining what systems are suitable. Get estimates, and check your state and local building-code requirements to determine what work must be done by a licensed professional.

The easiest and best way to avoid costly mistakes, says MacCrea, is to choose a good planner. "There are so many potential problems that can increase construction costs and make the home much less energy efficient that it is critical to hire a professional with experience designing in the mountains," he said. "The best time to solve these problems is during design."


If you truly want to build your own high-altitude abode, unpredictable pitfalls are part of the adventure. With a little planning, that seemingly unconquerable mountain can become home, sweet home.

"We all have dreamed of living on our own mountain one day, removed from the rest of the world in our own personal enclave," said Brewer. "Proper planning, budgeting and choosing the right team make the difference between a dream come true or a nightmare one may want to forget."

Brooks and Rust are living that dream.

"We have what we want, where we want it, and we did it ourselves," Brooks said. "There is no better place to be and no better feeling than looking out the windows at the wilderness and thinking, 'I made this.' "

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