A mountaintop retreat in stone

September 18, 2001
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Propped on top of Aspen Mountain, the new Sundeck Restaurant posed several obstacles for those involved in its construction. Due to its extreme height of 11,212 feet, workers were faced with the challenge of transporting 100 tons of stone up the mountain -- with limited access roads to the peak. Additionally, the high altitude made for difficult working conditions, and the construction schedule was tight due to the pressure of opening in time for the ski season. But despite these obstacles, the restaurant went up with minimal problems, and was greatly received by ski-goers.

"It was literally on top of a mountain," said Project Manager Clark Atkinson of Shaw Construction in Grand Junction, CO, the general contractor for the job. "The conditions were rough. We dealt with winds up to 120 miles per hour."

According to Clark, it is not unusual to work at altitudes of 8,000 to 9,000 feet when working in Aspen. "[But,] there's a huge physiological difference working at 11,000 feet," he said. "Some people experienced altitude sickness, [including] headaches, dehydration and earaches. It's one thing to take a ski lift up when skiing, but it's another thing to work 8- to 12-hour days." Clark explained that even with taking the proper safety precautions, some of his workers developed ear infections, which later led to pneumonia.

The high altitude also caused concerns for Permanent Builders, the stone installer for the job. "The project was especially difficult because of the altitude," said Project Manager Dan Glenn. "We were told that anyone over age 50 shouldn't be up there. It was quite a project for us. We had to also watch our working hours." According to Glenn, an installation crew of about nine -- including a foreman, four masons and four mason tenders -- worked on the Sundeck.

Glenn explained that Fred's Brown granite, which was used for the project, came from a local quarrier -- Specialty Stone Co. -- in Marble, CO, which faced the task of transporting the stone up the mountain. "They hauled about 10 tons at a time," said Glenn. "They got it up there and dumped it in a pile, and from there on in, it was all ours."

Installing the stonework

Rough-cut pieces of the granite were employed for the exterior facade of the restaurant as well as for a fireplace inside. "It took a lot of labor," said Glenn, explaining that a forklift was on site to lift the stone out of the pile and put it on a pallet. From there, the pieces were put on a scaffold and then on the wall, said Glenn, adding that the granite was installed in a bond pattern.

"A good stonemason is an artist of some sort -- to get good closed joints like these, and to make it like it didn't get stacked," said Glenn. The pieces were fastened with stone anchors and mortared in place.

Inside the building, Fred's Brown granite was used for a fireplace that was designed to resemble the one in the original lodge, which once stood where the Sundeck was built. The architects actually documented and studied the original one before it was demolished.

The granite was also used in additional specialty areas such as portals that were done in the club and club bar. "They are quite impressive," said Glenn, explaining that the installation work was done by foreman Jim Cross. "They are like round tunnels 4 to 5 feet long and 4 feet in diameter. Jim wouldn't let anyone else work on it. He did a super job."

According to Glenn, the stonework took about four months to complete. "We didn't have a large window, because being at 11,000 feet, the snow stayed late and came back early," he said. "We worked quite a bit of overtime - usually a maximum of 10 hours a day and sometimes six days a week."

Planning the design

When considering the design for the Sundeck Restaurant, the team at Cottle Graybeal Yaw Architects had two primary objectives that they wanted to achieve. "Sundeck is at the very top of Aspen Mountain," said Project Architect Susan Touchette, who worked on the design along with Partner-In-Charge Larry Yaw. "When you are there, you are really right in the Elk Mountain Range, so it was really important that the Sundeck related to it. The stone was used to ground the building to the mountain."

In addition, the design was influenced by European mountain "refuges" and Aspen's mining heritage, according to Touchette. "That was a very strong reference for this building," she said.

The site of the 22,000-square-foot restaurant is actually where another structure once stood. "There was an existing building, but it was demolished," said Touchette. "It's interesting from an environmental standpoint, because it was dismantled piece by piece and recycled. Originally, we thought we could use the rock on the site." But, the architect explained they later realized the stone on site couldn't be used.

As a result, Fred's Brown granite was chosen because of its ties to the region. "We wanted to use something that was local to the valley, and emulated many of the colors that you see on Aspen Mountain and the mountains in the national forest there," said the architect. "We chose from several different stones that were similar. Fred's Brown was more appropriate because of its colors and richness."

According to Touchette, the stone selection process took about three months. "Our firm uses a lot of stone on many of our projects," she said. "We had in mind that Fred's Brown was the right one."

The architect explained that Shaw Construction provided a mock-up of the granite in random stacking for the exterior that was approved before construction began. And because of the remote location of the building site, the mock-up was set up at another construction site for them to review.

Complying with the owner's swift construction schedule, the Sundeck Restaurant was completed in nine months - opening in December 1999. "Aspen Skiing Co. did not want to compromise their skiing days," said Touchette. "While they did close the mountain a week or two early in April, they wanted it to be ready for their Christmas season."

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