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Pole house: a solution to an 'unbuildable' site

On the West Coast, homes perched on steep slopes are often built on poles, and Charleston architect Paul Marshall has proved that the idea can work in the East, as well. He adapted the concept for an Appalachian home site here.

Developer Earl Stalnaker first approached Mr. Marshall about the possibility of designing a house for the sloping wooded site which many area developers would view as unbuildable. "Its location three miles from downtown and close to elementary school seemed to be desirable," he explains now.

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It was just the challenge Mr. Marshall had been waiting for. "I had made a trip to California some years back," says the architect, a Charleston native who recalled seeing the pole house concept there and in architectural magazines. "I always considered it an answer to unbuildable sites if someone was willing to take a chance."

Many developers tend to be reluctant to deviate from conventional styles with proven salability when planning speculative homes, he suggested. But in the mountainous Charleston area, there are few standard building sites remaining.

Unlike conventional houses, the pole house required no excavating other than the holes for the pressure treated Douglas fir poles which support the structural beams of the house. To give extra strength, as well as a contemporary design, the poles were designed to go through the floor to the second level of the house.

The pole construction eliminates a common area problem of basement dampness due to inadequate waterproofing and insufficient water drainage. The house sits off the ground and required neither excavation nor fill which would have disturbed normal drainage patterns. Because it lacks the natural insulation of a below-ground level basement, however, the house was constructed with additional insulation to aid in maintaining comfort in the area's often cold winters and hot, humid summers.

Wood poles were selected rather than steel for economy and appearance. The poles are set deeply into the ground on solid rock or 12 inches of concrete.

"Those poles will last 50 to 100 years," asserts Mr. Stalnaker, a two-decade Charleston resident and a telephone company employee who says he has observed the durability of phone poles.

"You can reduce construction expense by using poles," comments Mr. Stalnaker who would like to incorporate the pole idea in needed low-cost housing for West Virginia's mountainous terrain.

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The buyers, Richard and Rose Peters, appear to be satisfied with their pole structure.

"I fell in love with the house," recalls Mrs. Peters, who first saw it last September when very discouraged after several days of her third house hunting trip from Columbus, Ohio, where the couple had been living.

The Peters say that they appreciate the openness of the house. The structure has three enclosed rooms suitable as bedrooms or, for the Peters, as guest room, office, and pool and recreation room. But the kitchen at the middle level and the master bedroom on the top level both have interior openings looking toward the tall southern exposure windows in the cedar wall opposite. While the bedroon provides privacy, it also affords a striking view of both lower levels and of the wooded hillside outside.

Even the Peterses' furnishings, moved from Ohio, appear to have been selected to blend with the earth tones of the woods.

Mrs. Peters, who enjoys the play of the afternoon sunlight coming in four levels of south-facing windows and skylights , says that the couple plans to add only ground cover and some natural flowering shrubs outside.

"We plan to keep it as natural as we can -- close to the environment," she says of landscaping plans.

"We did not try to put in a conventional yard," says home developer Stalnaker , who avoided disturbing the natural environment any more than necessary. In fact, he moved the house site about eight feet forward on the property rather than cut down a large tulip poplar. The lower level deck is built around the tall poplar.

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