WORDS – DOMINIC BRADBURY PHOTOGRAPHS – RICHARD POWERS
Having project managed the construction of the village biomass plant, you might expect Marcell Strolz to build a green family home. He has done just that and much more, creating a striking, contemporary house nestling on the edge of the mountain enclave of Lech in Austria. Sitting next to the ski runs, with the mountains towering all around, it is an extraordinary spot for this timber framed, larch coated eco friendly home.
Building a place in Lech can be something of a challenge, as no second homes are allowed in this small community in the Arlberg mountains, which in the winter months offers some of the best skiing in the region and where the snow can easily settle at a few metres deep. Modern designs can sometimes be contentious and then there are other considerations, like the extreme conditions and avalanche risk. Strolz and his wife Uli had to take all of this into account when they decided to construct a home for themselves and their two children, Felix, 7, and Emilia, 5.
But as Strolz grew up in Lech he knows the area intimately, including both its beauties and dangers. As well as working as a project manager, Strolz also volunteers as part of the avalanche protection team for the village and is on call throughout much of the winter. When Marcell and Uli – a physiotherapist and sports trainer - found their plot of land just on the border of the 'red zone' for avalanche risk they factored it in to the design of the house.
'We are right on the edge of the area where building would be allowed and beyond us is a pasture where there will never be any other homes, because of the risks,' says Strolz. 'It is very difficult to get land here to build a house so we were lucky to have the opportunity. There is some steelwork, as well as the timber frame, to strengthen the house and we also have a series of sliding wooden shutters to protect the building, plus specially strengthened glass around the kitchen.'
These wooden shutters can be closed off to seal the windows when there's an avalanche warning or during the annual 'snow roll' from the nearby Omesberg mountain, which passes close by after a controlled explosion. There is also a neat retractable wooden wall, which disappears into the floor, to protect the open veranda at one end of the house.
The building was designed by Helmut Dietrich of Dietrich Untertrifaller Architects, while Strolz was closely involved throughout, both in managing the build and getting closely involved in construction. Strolz has worked on a number of engineering projects in the region, including running the project to develop and build Lech's own biomass plant, which opened ten years ago – fed by woodchip from the area's forestry industry – and now supplies hot water for heating and domestic hot water for most of the village.
'I got very involved in the construction of the house and did all the preparation of the site, the digging of the foundations and laying the concrete base of the house,' says Strolz. 'Then the wooden frame was prefabricated by a local construction company and went up in two days. I also did the dry walling, the floors, some of the electrics – it was quite a lot of work.'
The house is gently pushed into the hillside, with a large basement area holding a garage, boot room, storage areas and utility spaces as well as the entrance hall. Flexibility was a key part of the design, with two separate apartments – one for rental and one for a nanny - integrated into the outline of the building along with the family's own space, which is spread over two storeys. The main living area is open plan, leading out to the veranda, with bedrooms and Strolz's study up on the floor above.
Naturally, the house is linked to the biomass plant, which feeds the underfloor heating. Strolz also installed solar panels, which are cleared of snow during the winter and make the most of the winter sun. The timber for the frame and larch cladding is sourced from sustainable sources, making the house just about as green as you could hope for. Even the layers of snow on the roof in winter add to the high levels of insulation that keep the house warm.
Strolz is now working on another biomass plant in the neighbouring village of Zurs, but he has also been helping British sculptor Antony Gormley with his Horizon Field project. One hundred life sized, iron body sculptures have been placed at exactly the same altitude around seven valleys in the Vorarlberg mountains, drawing upon Marcell's local expertise.
For Strolz, Lech is also a wonderful place to raise a family, with all of the advantages of a small community mixed with the benefits of a long season of liberating winter skiing. Here the children learn to ski almost as soon as they can walk.
'Once a week the children have training with the Arlberg ski school and the rest of the week they go out with us or with friends almost every day,' says Strolz. 'It is great for the children and a great place to grow up. There is a lot of freedom here without any of the worries of a big city.'
New Natural Home, featuring the Strolz House, by Dominic Bradbury and Richard Powers,
is published by Thames & Hudson in March
Dietrich Untertrifaller Architects – www.dietrich.untertrifaller.com