01.26.2016Asheville, Architecture

7 Experts To Employ When Building on a Mountain Site

Whether you’re in Asheville or any ville, there are specific experts you want to design and build a custom modern home on a mountain or any challenging site.

Real Estate in Asheville May Cause Out-of-Box Thinking When Buying Land

For almost 2 years now, houses and lots are being sold in mere hours in Asheville. As a result, you might have to get creative if you’re looking for land to build a custom, modern home. We certainly had too!  Last year, we acquired 0.8 acres of land and began construction on our very own modern home.

Before acquiring the land, we realized we needed to create a list of personal priorities and then look at each potential property with open, creative minds.

Here is our list:

Our Very Own Home Sweet Home (A.K.A. Challenging Mountain Site)

We found a listing located on Beacatcher Mountain in February 2015. After we discovered the lot had this view of downtown, my mission was clear. I had to figure out how to buy and build on this property. 


The challenges ended up being many. To name a few:

Experts, people, Experts!  7 to be exact.

1. Architect: a person who engages in the profession of architecture.

This one we had covered in-house. We started immediately reviewing the challenges of designing on a steep slope in Asheville. We looked at GIS, topography, utilities and began forming a plan. We contacted the City of Asheville Planning Department and presented schematic approaches to site design to ensure it was feasible to build a home on this site before we entered a contract with the seller.

While hiring an architect can feel like a luxury or budget item that is easily omitted, it is critical if you’re working on a challenging site. On top of the value of having a home designed for your unique needs and lifestyle, architects can help ease the headache that  come with difficult sites. In addition, they help facilitate the discussions and work of many of the experts in this list.

2. General Contractor: a person who contracts for and assumes responsibility for completing a construction project and hires, supervises, and pays all subcontractors.

This was our first call. We are working with Rob Motley. While minimal and modern might be new to Rob, quality and care are certainly not. It’s what made the decision to work with him easy. We know he takes pride in his work and only allows top notch sub-contractors on site. I took him up to the site and asked if he thought we could build on this lot with our construction budget. It’s a “big picture” question, and while we didn’t have all the details worked out, he agreed with us that it was doable. That was last February. Negotiations of land purchase ended around May and we began construction in September. The current schedule should have us in our home late March/early April!

3. Civil Engineer: a person who designs public works, such as roads, bridges, canals, dams, and harbors, or supervises their construction or maintenance.

This was an expert we reached out to prior to purchasing the land because access to basic utilities were not clearly defined for this site.  It took a good bit of digging through the City of Asheville websites to find out if there was even access to the public sewer. We consulted with Michael at High Country Engineering. Civil Engineers think different than the rest of us, in a good way. Michael helped troubleshoot options for retaining walls, site access, and educated us about utilities on a steep site. He was also helpful in helping us find a soils scientist (see #7), when we later had to abandon the idea of public sewer and go for a private septic system.

4. Structural Engineer: a person who ensures a design satisfies given design criteria, predicated on safety, serviceability, and performance.

Foundations, driveways, decks, site walls and even standard exterior walls are more complicated when the site is at a 22 degree angle and 2500 feet above sea level. We all want to feel confident that the house is not going to slide off the mountain. We spent lots of time making sure the driveway design had as small an impact to the site and project budget as possible. High elevations also come with higher wind loads. This is something we especially had to detail considering we have large door & window openings and two-story spaces. You want an engineer working with your architect as part of the design team. We are fortunate to work with Chris Otahal at Kloesel Engineering. With Chris’s help, we are confident that our house and driveway (which happen to be connected) are going to stay put for a long, long time.


5. Real Estate Agent: a person who acts as an intermediary between sellers and buyers of property and attempts to find sellers who wish to sell and buyers who wish to buy.

We had this expert on hand before even finding the lot. While we felt confident and qualified to discuss all things home design and construction, David Cheatham, walked us through the negotiations of purchasing the land. As we mentioned above, this lot is a little funky and we needed our contract to be thorough and complete. Even after purchasing the lot, our real estate agent came in handy with a neighbor dispute.

6. Geotechnical Engineer: a person who determines and designs the type of foundations, earthworks, and/or pavement subgrades required for the intended man-made structures to be built.

If your site is on a steep slope, you’ll probably need to call an engineer to test the soils. Most jurisdictions have requirements to do this prior to receiving a building permit. Prior to buying the land, the group at ECS met us on site and provided a cursory review of the slope, soil type, settling and other elements that they are experts at observing. This review added to the confidence that this lot, although challenging, was not going to be a money pit in terms of unexpected soil conditions. After purchasing the lot, we hired them to provide a comprehensive report that recommended the location for the home site and also helped our structural engineer size the footings and foundation.

7. Soils Scientist: a person who is qualified to evaluate and interpret soils and soil-related data for the purpose of understanding soil resources.

This one may or may not be necessary, depending on your mode of treating sanitary waste. As mentioned above, we ended up finding that a septic system is more aligned with the goals of the Steep Slope Ordinance. Therefore, we hired Land Resource Management to help identify all things septic. They tested the soil for percolation, identified the type of septic system ideal for our site, and provided a design. We have currently trenched all of the lines for a traditional septic system, and did not have to cut down one single tree of a fairly wooded lot.

A mountain site has it’s own set of design hurdles, but it’s not impossible. The best thing you can do is put together a comprehensive design team that will provide a unique solution that best suites your specific conditions. This can turn what seems like an undesirable lot into a fantastic piece of property.

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