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Knoll Ridge Café

Prefab, helicopters and snowcats solve site inaccessibility

Client: Ruapehu Alpine Lifts
Brief: Build a café on Whakapapa ski field in Tongariro National Park
Key Challenge: Altitude, access and weather  
Contract Range: $6 - $7m
Time Frame: 23 weeks
Architect: Harris Butt


In February 2009 the original Knoll Ridge Chalet, located high on Whakapapa ski field, was destroyed by a fire. Ruapehu Alpine Lifts Limited (RAL), who owns and operates the Whakapapa and Turoa Ski Areas on Mt Ruapehu, engaged Tallwood (then Stanley Modular) to help them with an ambitious building programme.

The project was an exciting opportunity for us to showcase how the Tallwood process can adapt to a unique set of circumstances. The job, set within the context of an ecologically sensitive, highly regulated environment, would be characterised by unpredictable weather, harsh terrain, no crane access, and a tight construction time frame.

We collaborated with Harris Butt architecture, who set the bar high in terms of architectural and quality standards. The client’s brief was to design and build a 1,512m² café at a height of 2010 metres above sea level. The building would be perched on a rocky ridge of an active volcano in New Zealand’s oldest National Park.

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The logistical constraints meant that this project required considerable offsite prefabrication. All of the building’s components were manufactured at our Matamata premises in panelised form, allowing for delivery and installation by helicopter.

Prefabrication enabled us to achieve the time efficiencies necessary to complete the project to a tight deadline which straddled two winters. During the winter season prior to the construction programme getting underway, the precast concrete floor panels were formed and delivered to the site so they could be transported up the mountain by snow cats towing sledges before the snow melted. Each load was limited to one and a half tonnes.

Insulated sandwich panels constructed of LVL and plywood form the walls and roof of the café. These were helicoptered onto the site over the following summer. They were designed so as not to exceed the helicopter’s 800kg max load limit.

Knoll Ridge Cafe Wide

Precision workmanship enabled rapid on-site construction – an essential provision, given the area’s extreme conditions with winter temperatures dropping to -13ºC and wind speeds of up to 241 km/h. Work was fast-tracked so that the building was ‘closed in’ before summer came to an end. Significant time savings and logistical planning meant that the cafe was open for the second half of the ski season. In total we achieved over $1m in cost savings for our client.  

The café has internal seating for approximately 400 people, a kitchen and support facilities, and a deck that seats approximately 200 people. The building has a purpose built 415m² glass facade that can withstand wind speeds of over 200km/h and temperatures well below freezing. The facade uses an impressive 25 tonnes of glass.

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  • Registered Master Builders House of the Year 
    Gold Award 2011 and Local Category Winner for 2011

  • NZ Timber Design Award 2011
    Commercial Architectural Excellence Highly Commended

  • NZIA Local Architecture Award 2011

  • Commercial - Western Architecture Awards

  • National Winner
    RMB 2011 Commercial Project Awards ‘Tourism & Leisure Project’ Category

  • 2011 Supreme Award
    Waikato RMB 2011 Commercial Project of the Year

  • Category Winner
    Waikato RMB 2011 ‘Tourism & Leisure’ Project

  • Gold Reserve Finalist
    RMB 2011 Commercial Project Awards ‘Tourism & Leisure Project’ Category

  • Life Member Award 
    Waikato RMB 2011 ‘Construction Excellence in workmanship, creativity and innovation’

  • Tourism & Leisure Property Award 
    Merit 2012 Tourism & Leisure Category Property Council NZ

  • NZ Architecture Medal Finalist 2012

  • New Zealand Architecture Award 2012

  • Design Curial
    Best Designed Café in the World 2015


PHOTO CREDIT: SHARON MAZEY, SIMON DEVITT

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