Article No: 24

2006-04-28 10:12:16
The Wolfe Lodge

Residents in Truckee, Calif., only two miles from the notorious Donner Pass, know that California sunshine can be something of a myth. When the winds blow cold across the Sierra Nevadas, they often drop dozens of feet of snow on the ground.

Photo courtesy of Zweigle-Ratiner Studios

Reginald King, president of King Engineering Inc., based in Grass Valley, Calif., 60 miles from Truckee, remembers a particularly brutal winter that hit the area five years ago.

"Twenty-five feet of snow reached all the way to the transformers on telephone poles," King says. "Truckee very often has the coldest temperature of all the western states."

While a heavy snowfall in this region near Lake Tahoe and Reno, Nev., is often a skier's paradise, it is a nemesis to homeowners. The quickly changing weather patterns and icy winds make it necessary to build a solid home, but the extreme snow loads caused by large amounts of wet snow make sound construction imperative.

"With 300 pounds of snow load, a house has got to be stronger or it won't make it," says builder Ed Zweigle, who constructs homes in the area. Zweigle should know. As a builder's son, he's been on construction sites since he was 6 years old and has been a contractor himself since 1961.

"I've built everything from airplane hangars to outhouses," Zweigle says. So when he came across a better alternative to stick construction, he gave it a shot. "I wanted to try to do it before someone got a leg up on me," he says.

Zweigle was just finishing construction on an insulating concrete form (ICF) home when King contacted him about superintending the construction of his home.

Photo courtesy of Zweigle-Ratiner Studios

As a structural engineer at a firm specializing in mountain subdivisions, King was already familiar with concrete construction. While interested in the energy efficiency and quietness characterizing a home made of concrete, not to mention the added strength concrete would give to a house covered in a 300-pound per square-foot snow load, he was wary of the learning curve and kinks that go along with first time concrete homebuilders.

Zweigle had experience, however, and they redrew King's house plans, adjusting them for ICF construction.

The resulting project was called the Wolfe Lodge, a 4,400 square-foot mountain retreat constructed with Reward Walls ICFs from the foundation to the roof. The home, set into a granite hillside overlooking Donner Lake, is dressed in Clear Canadian Red Cedar, attached vertically to the exterior of the home. The Wolfe Lodge dispels any notion that a strong, energy efficient home cannot be appealing to the eye. With its solid construction, King can rest assured that his home will stand up to the most brutal winters.

"Because of a heavy snow load, the concrete system provides sheer in all directions — which is a major structural issue," King says. "It eliminates the need for special hold downs like straps and hardware you would use in a wood frame wall."

Zweigle found the Reward Wall ICF appropriate for this area because the recessed ties connecting the forms are made of plastic, not metal, like extruded ties, and thus do not conduct cold or heat into the home.

Zweigle installed an in-floor radiant heating system into both the upper floor of the home and also the lower level walk out, or daylight basement. On the upper level, the tubes were set in Gypcrete and then covered with either carpeting or wood floors. In the daylight basement, the radiant heating tubes were placed in concrete.

King says he and his wife turn the downstairs radiant floor heating system on very low or completely off during the wintertime. The daylight basement is so well insulated that waste heat from the furnace is enough to keep it warm.

He recommended using ICFs to construct a daylight basement even if the rest of the house was built with wood or steel. "They are faster to build and there is no need to add insulation," King says. Zweigle simply attached sheet rock to the form and painted it.

Another recommendation from King, as a first-time concrete homeowner, is a triple and final walk through before the concrete is poured into the styrofoam forms. Adjustments such as a new window or door can be made relatively easy pre-pour, but after the concrete is poured changes can be made only by breaking apart the concrete.

"Pay attention to venting," King says, "like dryer vents and bathroom fans." These are things which some builders or contractors overlook or assume can be altered later, but it would be almost impossible to add them after a pour.

While Zweigle admitted to a bit of a learning curve when he began constructing with concrete, he says "any good contractor or competent carpenter can learn this in half an hour." He says, however, that the process needs to start with an engineer or architect.

King says that Zweigle's previous work in residential concrete construction made his own experience with concrete construction a positive one.

"It's wise to have someone with experience," King says. "It really takes a guy on the job who can tell people how to do things."