The Alps are a magical land defined by natural beauty and quaint living. Shrouded in the romance of timeless alpine villages and folk architecture along the paths and forest roads; rugged shelters, bivouacs, lodges, and shelters for animals and shepherds just below the mountain tops.

Alpine Architecture was born as a simple and functional response to the concrete needs of those who lived in the past at the Mountain. 

There are several cultures in the Alps that have contributed to the generation of many heterogeneous architectural styles. Every typical Alpine Architecture enriches the landscape with traditional images, testifying the customs and habits typical of those places. 

From the need to build in a simple way and with the few materials available locally, a model is born, therefore the differences made to the model by different cultures this type of buildings, known as Alpine architecture, are recognizable and with a clear identity, which over the years has continued to fascinate.

1. What have been the construction techniques of the mountain house of the past?

These Alpine Architectures and their modern offspring are generally characterized by a regular plant in shape and volume, the footprint on the ground is generally compact with the aim of minimizing excavations and difficulties related to building on steep slopes. 

Normally the buildings were square or rectangular in plan and with a two-pitched roof.

There could have been a stone hoof. The rest of the building could be:

  • all wooden including the roof
  • all in stone, with wooden roof and stone roof
  • combinations of stone and wood.

By combining construction techniques you could get endless solutions.

From the construction technique comes the winning aesthetic of the house in the mountains.

The house in the mountains is built with an extraordinary technique to adapt to extreme environmental conditions such as temperatures, temperature excursions, precipitation, wind, ground inclinations, snow loads, landslides, and avalanches. 

All these constructions are made with local materials and techniques, which respond in a very simple way to the functional needs for which they are built.

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All wooden ©
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All stone ©
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Combinatio ©ecomunità.it

2. The Alpine stone house

The stone was used for constructions that needed safety, for people and agricultural products, and durability.

The stone plinth rested on the most consistent part of the ground, without foundations. The house seemed to rise from the earth, integrated into the landscape, normally in the proximity of other houses, water springs, quarries, roads, and with good exposure to the sun.

The stone was laid in horizontal courses, with or without lime mortar, for a wall thickness of at least 50 cm. Larger stones could be placed on the corners or around the openings.

 The stone could be face-to-face or plastered with lime mortars. This type of irregular plaster that followed the movement of the stone below gave the house a natural appearance and better inserted in the environmental context. The decorations that we often find on these plasters were intended to communicate. The family communicated their well-being, membership in an important group, or date.

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Stone house ©depositphotos.com_author rogkoff

3. The Alpine wooden house and mixed ones

The wooden construction presupposed a design of all the various pieces and their assembly with joints or supports.

A number of techniques were used:

  • Blockbau or armored technique, that involved the overlapping of round or square trunks with interlocking at the corners of the house
  • Ritti and Panconi technique, with the load-bearing structure in wooden beams and pillars and the closures, or the perimeter walls, with horizontal and vertical boards, with an insulating filling in straw
  • Crossing technique, in which, in the structure, the pillars and beams were tied by cross-wood elements

However, houses built of wood were more prone to fire.               

More often we find constructions with stone walls on the lower floors, where there were stables, kitchen and hearth, workshops, and product warehouses. The stone was used for structural purposes, creating a heavy base on which the subsequent light wooden floors were built. Also in wood were built the back or the side of the house was intended for barns. 

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Blockbau _ ©
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Ritti e panconi _ © 
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Crossing ©

4. The roof of the Alpine Architecture tradition

The roof always had a wooden structure resting directly on the stone, on wooden pillars, or on fascinating reticular structures called trusses.

Above the structure were beams or wooden boards on which rested the roof. It could be either in irregular stone slabs called Lose, Beole, or Piode or in wooden planks called shingles.

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Stone roofs ©
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 Shingles roof ©

5. Traditional composition of functions

Whatever the construction technique the alpine houses were internally structured in a very similar way.

In the stone plinth, there was the stable, which was directly connected to the living room, to the Firhus (fire room), and to the kitchen. On the mezzanine floor were the bedrooms and the loggia while on the first floor the barn, the warehouse for food, and a second loggia. The upper floors were accessed via external wooden stairs and communication between the bedrooms took place through the loggia. 

The stables and the barn were located on the back of the building, the closest place to the mountain. This escamotage made it possible to isolate and keep the inhabited rooms of the house warm from the cold ground at the back. Furthermore, the facade of the buildings was usually exposed to the south to take full advantage of the solar radiation.

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Casa Walser ©

6. Translate traditions

Today modern materials and techniques are used for alpine architectures. The buildings that somehow preserve the ancient shapes and traditions have structures made of reinforced concrete for the basement, engineered wood for the upper floors, or even masonry (less appropriate material). 

To solve problems related to moisture and water infiltration, especially when renovating an existing building, aerated horn wasps are made on gravel substrates, which guarantee water drainage and aeration of the building. 

Natural materials such as rock wool, wood fiber, or sheep’s wool are used for insulation. However, there are more and more examples of innovative mountain buildings, with new shapes, materials dissonant from those of tradition such as metal and far from tradition.

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Chalets des Bois ©

7. The duality between preserving and renewing

 Alpine architecture nowadays is an archetype that changes in the dualism between preserving and innovating, between safeguarding and breaking with tradition. We are therefore faced with mountain and design chalets, in wood, yes, but also large windows and technologies to minimize the environmental impact. 

Contrasted with buildings detached from tradition for shapes and materials. These, like the examples below, are a look at what Alpine architecture means today.

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Chalet Anzere ©
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L’Addis Abebar ©

8. The new alpine huts

Building new alpine huts today paves the way for an interesting debate about the best architectural solutions for the purpose. On the one hand, there is the tendency to enhance the traditional image of the mountain hut, on the other the need to renew and evolve the concept of refuge, just as has been done in almost all other architectural contexts.

A certain degree of change is inevitable and we are gradually paying more and more attention to energy saving, to the new construction techniques available, to the new way of living in these shelters, and to the increasingly marked tendency to seek luxury and comfort even at high altitudes.

As is the case in most new shelters, the structure is made of small prefabricated components that can be easily transported. The energy necessary for the operation of the shelter is produced locally with a photovoltaic system, which meets 90% of the needs and allows it to accumulate the one produced in excess.

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Nuova Capanna Gervasutti ©

9. The sustainability of TRADITIONAL Alpine Architecture

The issue of environmental sustainability does not lose importance in any context, including mountainous sustainability. Integrating perfectly into the surrounding environment, adapting to local climatic conditions, saving as much energy as possible are also the guidelines to follow in a project, which is new construction rather than a renovation.

The traditional Alpine Architecture, the emblem of sustainable building. The layout of the rooms, the search for the best exposure to sunlight for the rooms used as a dwelling, the use of traditional materials (with excellent thermal inertia), the wise exploitation of the heat produced by animals; all contributes to creating an exemplary building well before studies and new technologies.

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Traditional Alpine Architecture ©

10. The sustainability of NEW Alpine Architecture

Unlike the traditional architecture which, thanks to the know-how of the mountain populations, were built to meet the needs of living in the mountains. The newest ones need solutions that allow them to collect as much as possible the heat of the sun, isolating the interior spaces, and so on. 

Why does this happen? Because the New Alpine Architecture isn’t always built thinking about what the past teaches us.

There are many solutions to build a sustainable building, depending on the case and the project: 

  • Underground or semi-grounded buildings: uses the soil conformation, the slopes, and the earth to repair and protect the structures from atmospheric agents and cold.
  • South oriented windows:  the aim is to maximize solar supply in the winter months. This is easier than in the past thanks to new technologies that allow you to install high-performance glazed surfaces, reducing thermal dispersion and thus offering magnificent views of the surrounding landscape, without sacrificing internal comfort.
  • Maximize thermal inertia: using traditional and natural material and high thickness walls or metallic structures combined with thick thermal insulation (not always a natural one).
  • Energy efficiency: technological supplies such as solar and thermal panels, wind turbines, etc. to ensure the self-production of energy and hot water from renewable sources.
Rifugio Gouter ©