At no expense to the company, I have just been fortunate enough to spend a week skiing in Claviere, a small alpine village in the Italian Alps adjacent to the French border. In fact the border ran through the back garden of the hotel. The town nestles in a valley, bordering along the banks of a small stream that expands into a torrential torrent of water when the melt occurs during late spring. While there, the stream looked benign, but each stream bank was heavily reinforced to prevent the spring melt from causing damage to the village.
The village of Claviere is a mixture of old and new buildings, the old are of stone construction, with wooden roofs and rock slabs for tiles, and the new are a mixture of reinforced concrete walls with block wall infill and rendered, painted outer surfaces. They are designed to survive a mountain environment, which is both cold, rugged and has a propensity to dump large volumes of snow on the buildings at regular intervals through the winter period. Whilst we were there, a fall of 20cm overnight occurred, and one did hear stories where doorways were filled in, in very short time periods, requiring the use of a shovel to escape the building in the morning.
Without exception the alpine lodges have warm roofs, that is the ceilings of the top bedrooms are just below the roof structure, minimising wasted space internally, and the overall size of the buildings are quite large, again maximising the ratio of internal space to external wall area, an important equation when you are considering heating a building in extreme cold conditions. No wasted cold attic spaces here.
Modern external roof construction is heavily insulated. In most instances, it still uses wood and felt to provide a waterproof layer, but the outer layer has changed from slabs of sheet rock to galvanised metal profiled sheeting, with snow rails, to prevent snow from sliding quickly off the roof onto passers by below. Not quite so picturesque, but practical, especially when there is about a metre depth of snow lodged on the roof. It can be quite alarming to see lumps of snow falling off a roof just in front of you, especially if you or your car is parked below it, as happened to me in Evesham a few years back. I had a job to explain the pin point damage caused by icicles across the car bonnet to the insurance company.
Wall construction is also starting to change. Quite often the modern chalet will have an outer stone construction, with an insulation sandwich, similar to our cavity wall construction, but it is by no means used everywhere. The inner wall would be constructed of reinforced concrete, providing an integral strength when cast into the floors. Windows are either double or triple glazed and the modern window frames still tend to be of wood construction, to give the aesthetic alpine look. Looking at the windows in my chalet room, the frames appear to be quite durable, and of course, wood has good insulation properties.
Internally, heating tends to be by wet central heating system, using fuel oil to run the boiler. No North Sea gas here. Occasionally one sees under floor heating, but only in the newest of apartments. In private houses and hotels, you still tend to see fireplaces with wood burning stoves, as they form a feature and are extremely pleasant to sit in front of, particularly after a hard day’s exercise. Couple that with a Vin Chaud and one can soon pass a couple of hours easing the pain in your limbs from the exercise taken on the slopes.
Maintenance of the town’s roads and pathways was also very impressive, particularly as most nights we experienced heavy falls of snow. Both the Italians and the French are experts at lifting snow off roads, and using lorries to cart it away. In the morning, it is very much business as normal. And the roads are free of pot holes. Apparently they use a slightly softer tarmac, which is more resilient to water penetration. Because the environment is colder, the working surface remains intact, even when heavy traffic passes over it. We in this country have a lot to learn from them.
On the mountain slopes, I took great pleasure in looking at the cable cars, lift chairs and drag lifts. One cannot help but admire the civil engineering which goes into each construction. The lift chairs are enormous, and seem to run effortlessly. The pulley wheels are up to some 5 metres in diameter, and the wire cable must be 8cm in diameter. It is quite reassuring to look at whilst sitting in the chair lift travelling up some steep slope, where to fall off would be extremely prejudicial to personal health.
One also marvels at the mountain cafés, right up on top of the mountain slopes, you suddenly find a place of refuge, with all mod cons. You take water, electricity and toilets for granted, but there is some significant civil engineering involved to get utilities there, without having any visual impact on the surrounding scenery.
When looking at the resort as a whole, my overall impression of their built environment is that the architecture of the last thirty years has resulted in some very utilitarian looking buildings. However, as the Italians try and expand tourism, they are paying more attention to the external appearance of their buildings, to recapture the classic alpine look one would expect to see on the lid of a biscuit box. Whatever the architecture, one cannot escape the beauty of the mountains, where the views are breathtaking. I was very lucky to have been able to spend a week in the mountains, taking in the alpine environment.
Tony Rowland BSc(Hons) MSc MRICS