Desolation Hotel: A Stunning High Sierra Destination

Project, Reno

Unique to the area and perfectly positioned a few blocks from Heavenly Mountain Resort and Lakeside Beach on Lake Tahoe’s southern shore, the Desolation Hotel is a high-end structure that is now open for business. Engineers Jordan Denio and Scott Wardwell from Ashley & Vance Engineering’s Reno, Nevada office performed the structural engineering for the community-minded, eco-friendly destination hotel.

Real-Time Collaboration

Because of the timeline, finances, and tight lot size, the entire design team met weekly onsite to sort through issues and changes that allowed construction to proceed quickly and efficiently. Navigating frequent changes to find creative solutions requires nimbleness and collaborative teamwork throughout a project. 

Jordan Denio, Engineer of Record for the project, recalls, “Every possible position tied to this job, about 15 people, would meet every week onsite, where decisions were made in real time, and some things would change dramatically. Then we’d go back to the office, update the design, and have to prove that it worked.” He adds, “This process can be stressful, but it can also be very rewarding to be right in the middle of the construction process, working with the whole design and construction team, and to see the results happening in real time.”

Cantilevered Patios & Angled Kickers

Overhanging the street from the second and third floors, the cantilevered concrete sidewalks and patios are stand-out features. Jordan explains, “We integrated the design right into the main slab on grade, which on one end is laying on the ground and then extends as a structural slab cantilevered out as a distinctive feature, visible from the street. The long kickers angling up to the roof are sitting on those second-story concrete slabs. These non-conventional support systems give you forces you don’t normally deal with, and the very first year in service we had record-breaking snow loads sitting on it, and they performed perfectly, which was exciting to see.”

Real Structural Features as Architectural Elements

Because the client wanted a certain look, the architect chose to accentuate structural elements like exposed steel columns and glue-lam beams. Project Engineer Scott Wardwell recalls, “Many of the steel columns you see are either part of a moment frame or real structural elements made into architectural features. So, the structural work is very visible.” Other elements, like the pool area’s exposed concrete walls with cantilevered steel awnings, also add architectural interest.

Designing Around the Trees

The hotel’s compact design made efficient use of buildable space and significant effort was made to preserve the site’s mature trees. This meant the engineers had to consider root structures and canopy size, wind sway, and growth rate. Scott states, “There’s a perimeter around the tree of free space you have to maintain. Where trees interrupted the eves, we had to be innovative with design to keep the eve up to code and consider snow load without damaging the tree or the structure. In the Tahoe area, we have to consider additional factors like high seismic zone, high snow loads, high wind loads, and ice. It’s a lot to keep all in your mind at once while you design around a living, moving obstacle like trees. It was a really interesting challenge.”

Hydronic Passive Heating

The hotel’s hydronic heating system operates off roof-panel solar electricity, which requires engineers to consider not only the added weight of the hydronic systems but the size and pathways of tubing crossing throughout the property. “Even though the heating system isn’t structural, there were numerous coordination items we had to consider,” Scott says.  “There were hundreds of tubes crisscrossing the entire lot throughout a very tight property through floor framing and concrete.”

Quick Coordination with Rewarding Results

Because of the project’s timeline and Tahoe’s compressed building season, changes occurred throughout the entire building process. Jordan says, “This project was fast processing and fast coordination. It was key to look ahead when making designs so if things changed, we were ready with suggestions for which way to go, and we also had options to work with. Ultimately, this was an exciting project to be a part of because there isn’t a lot of small, high-end construction in the Tahoe area that aren’t single-occupancy homes. It’s exciting to see the Desolation Hotel is up and running.”

Jordan advises engineers undertaking similar projects to, “Understand that our job, as engineers, is to serve the project, meet the needs of the client, and make the project a success. The first design ideas we come up with aren’t always the right or final answers. In order to add value, engineers should be understanding of the entire process and everyone’s jobs and goals”

Scott’s advice is to be flexible. “You need a lot of flexibility to do a project like this. Oftentimes I would have an idea for how to do a part and then the design changed. You have to adapt to frequent changes. Be open-minded and be flexible with those changes and you’ll be better off from the start.”