View from the road side of our plot of land

Our Mountain Pole House Project

Mountain Pole House is a documentation about our journey to build our own home, doing as much of the work as we can ourselves.

Why build a house in the Appalachia?

How did we decide to build a pole house on the side of a mountain about 1300 feet / 400 meters above sea level in the Shenandoah Valley?

The very beginning of this journey is where I (Ben) grew up. Central Virginia has a lot of cookie cutter homes, and even those larger houses tend to be covered in the same weatherboard, the same shutters, the same earth tones, the same roofs and general boxy layouts. Sometimes you might have a dormer window, or some columns out front, or a bit of brick to spice things up. It wasn’t until me and my family started vacationing in the Outer Banks of North Carolina (which is often referred to as just OBX) that I first saw some truly different architecture. Houses on stilts! It made so much sense to me as a kid – ground level is boring, why not start the house where the action is (and better views are) on the 2nd floor? And as a bonus, most houses are actually two levels, so the top floor is at 3rd floor height. Epic views.

Combine that with the penchant for the OBX homes to have wrap around balconies, and I was really smitten. I’d keep track of architectural features I really liked, imagining future houses having this feature or that. I don’t think it hurt that those weeks spent there were always on vacation, at the height of summer, so the beautiful weather, soft sandy beaches and plentiful seafood dinners made the entire occasion quite special.

Keep the above in mind, I’ll come back to it in a moment.

When our son was born, I wanted to try to nail down our living arrangements for his sake. In my childhood we made two major moves across the country. Once at 8, and again at 12. It wasn’t fun starting over from scratch in a new school. I wanted to prevent Daníel Valur from experiencing that so that he could cultivate friendships from the very beginning of his life and continue through with them as he gets older.

The problem is that other than the weather, Iceland is really perfect. Half of our extended family is all here within driving distance (Ágúst’s side), the healthcare, schooling, safety, and overall culture is a good fit. But the winters are long, cold, and dark, and we wanted to explore other options. Ágúst is also an avid gardener and feels severely restricted in Iceland. In fact the actual spark that started us searching for land to build a house in Virginia started with him after he browsed through a gardening catalog at my parent’s place and felt bad that none of the plants there would grow in Iceland.

Virginia on the other hand, is warm with four even moderate seasons, close to my family, and plenty of geographic diversity from one side of the state to the other. But the idea of living full time in America again and sending Daníel Valur to school in the US was something I would have to think about.

Even though that could leave a lot of compromises, living away from both sides of the family didn’t seem to make sense. So we floated the idea of building a getaway home in Virginia, in a great part to visit, near my parents, and spend a lage part of the year in Iceland, and then escape to the house in Virginia when the winters got too long or we just wanted a bit of sunshine. That really sounded like the winner.

Why build a pole house in the mountains?

Now to pick where. Virginia has everything from mountains to beaches and most areas between. Ideally I would like both mountains or cliffs and beaches, but that isn’t really a feature found in Virginia that I know of. Off to some trusted sites to see what houses cost in Virginia.

We originally looked at the beach areas of Virginia, but not only were prices really out of our reach if they were on the water, the waterfront designs in Virginia weren’t as tropical as those from the OBX. Additionally I’m a pessimist when it comes to global warming, and most ocean front areas of Virginia will be underwater within the time frame I want me and my family to enjoy the house.

So I looked more at the major cities, which are largely along very flat land with only rivers to break up the landscape. I grew up in Richmond, and lived in Fairfax as well. The city life of a flat crowded US city didn’t really appeal to me. We have the metropolitan big city feel here in Reykjavik, I wanted Virginia to be more of a rural escape.

So then it was to the mountains. The views were incredible, reminding me of my time at my grandmother’s now sold mountain homestead. The prices were the most reasonable yet per acre. But the houses there were even worse from the standpoint of either being affordable and architecturally boring (when they weren’t outright ugly) to being ostentatious in a way we didn’t enjoy and a price tag we couldn’t afford. This made me jump to the idea of building a beach style house from the OBX, with a beautiful view in the mountains. Could it be done?

Why a mountain pole house?

I first figured out how to describe the houses in the OBX to make researching them easier. After some initial confusion, I eventually found that the correct term is “pole frame” versus the more traditional “stick built”, though there are many variations of both, and even a combination method of the two. The main difference is that in a pole house, you have poles embedded in the ground instead of a concrete foundation. Additionally the poles will travel to the top of the building, to support the roof, making the walls non-load bearing. A stick built house has the above mentioned foundation, and the walls are load bearing and the roof rests on them.

The benefits of the two can be summarized as:

Pole frame
  • Easier to construct
  • Cheaper materials
Stick built
  • Faster to put up

The answer to my question of “can we build this pole frame style house in the mountains?” was a fortunate yes. In fact it was even better than yes, it was that they are often superior to stick built. Why superior? With stick built, there must be a foundation. This isn’t so difficult on flat ground, but on the side of a mountain it requires major excavation. This takes time, costs money, disturbs far more of the site than the alternative and limits the height the house can be. With a pole frame, however, it can be installed as easily as on a flat plot, just with the cost increase of longer poles down the grade. It’s significantly cheaper, allows the site to go mostly undisturbed, and the house can be as high as the building code allows based on the pole heights.

Ok, so not only can a pole frame house (aka, the OBX style, remember I said I’d come back to this?) be built in the mountains, but it’s actually cheaper than a traditional stick built house. Score! And the mountains have plenty of beautiful plots with views for sale in our price range. It seems we’ve hit on a plan to drill down into the specifics of. Very exciting.

Still to come related to this post:
Using Zillow and Google Earth to research land plots for sale.
Figuring out how to go from the idea (build the house) to a logical route to reality

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