Winter Construction in the Mountains

One of the primary challenges of winter construction in the mountains is timing and scheduling. If you are considering building a home in the mountains, or anywhere else in snow country, planning the start of your project to avoid outside work in the winter will save you money and construction time. That’s easy to say, but it is not uncommon for projects planned for spring starts to be delayed until late in the year because of such things as building department delays or funding challenges.

While it is not the ideal situation, building construction can still be done outside in the winter, even in areas with freezing temperatures and lots of snow. The best scenario for construction work to continue through the winter months is to have the roof on the building, the windows in, insulation done and enough interior work to keep crews busy through the coldest months. For those not lucky enough to be in this situation, it is still possible to keep the project moving during the winter, but expect progress to be noticeably slower and costs to be higher.

A mountain home ready for some winter interior construction.

A mountain home ready for some winter interior construction.

Timing construction projects to avoid working in (and sometimes on) the ground during winter is one of the most important scheduling issues. Foundation work is often not feasible in winter because of frozen ground, high groundwater levels, frost heaving, and the danger of concrete freezing before it is adequately cured. If you can’t get started early enough in the fall to get the foundation in and at least partially backfilled, it is advisable to wait until spring before breaking ground.

A building with a foundation completed before winter arrived.

A building with a foundation completed before winter arrived.

Here are some things to consider that may help avoid having to do outside construction in the winter:

  • Start design in the summer or early fall the year before you want to start building. Have a good idea of what you want before getting started, and submit for a building permit during the winter when the building department workload is light so you can have a permit in hand when the snow melts. Spring and early summer is the building department’s peak season, and often leads to sizable delays. Avoid the bottleneck and start early.
  • If your project does get a late start, it may be more cost effective to get the foundation and floor framing done, and then seal and tarp everything for the winter. This will give you a good start in the spring, and the cost of construction loan interest early in the project may be less than the added cost of working through the winter.
  • It may be less expensive to have more workers or pay overtime during the summer and fall to get the project enclosed than to be paying the extra costs for winter construction.
A home being built through the winter.

A home being built through the winter.

If it works out that your project will need to have framing or exterior envelope work done in the winter, it’s not the end of the world. Building professionals in snow country do it all the time, and some even claim to enjoy it. A few things to keep in mind if your project is being built in the winter:

  • There will almost certainly be some days lost to weather. Bad weather is inevitable in the winter, and working outside is sometimes just not possible.
  • Snow removal is an essential, and will most certainly cost you extra. Review your contract carefully and discuss it with your contractor so everyone is clear on responsibilities and expectations.
  • Consider having the wall framing prefabricated. This is becoming more common and is a good alternative to framing outside in the winter.
  • Workers and their tools are not as efficient when it’s cold, especially below freezing.
  • Some materials require special storage and handling, or don’t work at all when it’s cold. Concrete products, paint, stucco, drywall mud and glues don’t like low temperatures. Non-chloride chemical accelerators may be used to increase the rate of concrete strength gain, and insulated blankets and heaters can protect the concrete from freezing after it’s first poured.
  • Masonry work requires tenting and heat if temperatures will be below freezing during or for a period after installation.
  • Temporary heat will need to be provided for workers and to keep some materials warm
  • Special care needs to be taken to store materials where they will stay dry and not be damaged or lost under snow.
  • Installing materials that are wet or frozen can lead to shrinkage & moisture problems in the future.
  • Roofing is difficult in the winter. If it looks like getting the finish roof on isn’t possible before the snow flies, it may make sense to dry in with a durable underlayment or ice and water shield that will last through the winter and keep things dry.
  • If siding will be done in the winter, it is a good idea to have it prefinished so it is protected both on the ground and after it is installed.
A winter masonry tent.

A winter masonry tent.

One thing I have learned from many years of being in the architecture and home building business, including several winters building homes in the mountains, is that things might take longer than we think they will. If you are planning to build a home in snow country, start the process early and plan ahead to avoid starting construction late in the summer or fall. If things don’t go as planned and it is necessary for your project to continue through the winter, have realistic expectations and make sure to communicate with the contractor about what work is occurring, how it will be accomplished, and if it makes sense to do it in the winter. Most builders want to work through the winter, and tend to be stoic about the challenges it presents. There are definitely advantages to keeping the momentum of a project going, and often the best strategy is to keep working on aspects of the project that can be done efficiently in winter, and save the rest for spring.

Tom Russell, LEED AP and John Hendricks, Architect AIA, NCARB

Hendricks Architecture, mountain architects in Sandpoint, Idaho.

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