Navigating the Design and Permitting Process for a Mountain Home

We provide Architectural design, Engineering, Surveying and Real Estate services for residential projects all along the Rocky Mountain Region, and there is no doubt that while permitting a mountain home has a lot in common with its urban counterparts, there are a few issues that are unique to the mountains and most building jurisdictions will have special requirements for these properties. In order to stay sane, it is important to know what you will have to do before you start.

Here’s what Mountain and Urban properties have in common:

The largest scope in the set of residential permit drawings is the Architectural and Structural design – the core of the set of plans for the home. This includes everything about the home itself, from the initial programming, the design concepts, floor plans, elevations, sections, electrical lighting and switching layouts, to the structural engineering of the foundation plan, floor and roof framing plans and all of the necessary details for the builder to build the home. While local climate and regional location drives a multitude of design parameters, these core documents are largely the same for mountain and urban projects.

Also required these days by any jurisdiction adopting the new International  Energy Codes will be a Manual J, Manual D and a Rescheck energy model for the home’s energy performance and heating system design. These documents are not typically a part of the architectural drawings as they are most often provided by the HVAC system installers or separate MEP engineers. Be that as it may, expect to see these requirements for permitting any home, rural or otherwise, and find out the cost of these services up front.

A geologic soils report in the general location of the proposed structures will also be necessary for any project in order to determine appropriate soil characteristics for the design of a foundation. Mountain properties are often in geologic zones that have few issues with soils, however pockets of unusual strata can be encountered anywhere, so at a minimum, the soils should be examined by a professional during excavation. These services need to be coordinated, and can be costly, depending on your location, so find out what the impact will be early on to eliminate unhappy surprises.

Urban Living

Most jurisdictions are now requiring stamped and sealed truss drawings prior to releasing a permit. While this practice is questionable because field changes can drive changes to shop drawings, and cause confusion during framing, the International Residential Code is clear on it’s requirement for permitting. Some jurisdictions will grant a conditional permit, requiring these drawings to be submitted prior to framing inspection, which is much more reasonable. Truss drawings should be coordinated by the structural engineer and provided by the truss company as a part of the truss package, so it would be unusual to incur a separate design fee for this scope.

It is always important to have a property survey, showing the property boundaries, easements, setbacks, any improvements, and spot elevations around the site in order to determine building heights, location and orientation, and ensure positive drainage around the building. Understanding what entitlements and encumbrances on a property are crucial to understand. They are itemized on a title commitment, and should be a part of any survey. Do not take anything for granted or assume anything about the lot without documentation. Survey costs vary significantly with lot size and survey complexity, so be sure you know what your site will entail.

In addition to the above requirements,  a mountain project will also require the following additional documents prior to release of a building permit in most jurisdictions:

A more detailed topographic survey of the portions of the property will be necessary for the design. This is critical for larger lots where steep grades can be encountered. Driveways need to be designed to exacting standards, and existing topography will drive what can and cannot be done. Steeply sloping sites will also drive design of the home and any other structures as well. Other site elements include large trees, rock outcrops, wetlands areas, riparian boundaries, and any other natural features found on the site. Documenting these features not only helps to preserve them for the enjoyment of the owner, but also to enhance them and integrate them into the design. These elements do add complexity to the survey, and the lots are generally much larger, so expect a sharp increase in costs for these kinds of surveys.

Civil Engineering necessary for a driveway and/or grading permit will also likely be required. Because of larger lot sizes, driveways really become private roads and the amount of site disturbance required to get to the building site can be significant. Civil engineering documents for the driveway design, erosion control plan, and grading plans all are necessary for the proper design of the driveway, emergency access, and also help to identify potential issues. This is a scope largely unseen in urban environments, unless you’re developing commercial property or tracts of land.

Mountain Property

For lots without utilities, a full Septic design will be required for the site. This will outline the septic tank and leach field based on the number of bedrooms in the home. Careful design of the septic field will ensure longevity of the system, but also protect underground water from contamination. While you will enjoy the value of not having to pay for tap fees, the design and installation of the sewer system will be no small number, so be aware of these requirements. Also note that most jurisdictions are not very keen on “alternative methods” of waste disposal. Any effort to propose things outside of the norm will require more engineering proof to the department for its acceptance.

You will also need to demonstrate proof of water for the site. Again, most rural mountain lots will not have a metro district nearby, and therefore, you will need to show that a well can legally be drilled, and also that the well can produce a minimum amount of production prior to a building permit being issued. While the amount of water necessary to support a home is a highly debatable issue, the fact remains that you will have to prove you have water before they will let you build. The well design often comes with the septic design as the two are related. However, the cost of the well and the cost of the septic installation are two different line items, and akin to their respective tap fees on urban properties.

Often taken for granted, you will also need to demonstrate that you can legally access the site. On urban lots that have been developed, this issue rarely comes up, but on mountain property, there are often parcels that result from illegal subdivisions that can orphan interior lots. Our advice: Do not buy one of these properties unless you know with certainty that the issues can be resolved and necessary easements granted. The survey for the property may need to be broad enough to demonstrate this proof of access, or the title work will need to identify the appropriate easements necessary to legally access the site.

This is not an exhaustive list, and there are many more considerations to be aware of when dealing with mountain property. If you are considering building a home in the mountains, it is best to get help selecting the right site before you even make an offer. While it is unusual to hire an architect before owning a lot, our real estate department offers these services at no additional cost. Give us a call and we can help you select the right property for the perfect home.


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