Turn to Stone: native Montana stone in architecture

By Dave Reese

Stone has been a part of architecture since time immemorial.
And now with that architectural element swinging back into favor, more people are incorporating native Montana stone into their home and commercial designs. Perhaps it’s the fact that native stone blends so well with the Montana landscape, or that it’s been around for centuries, which gives homes a legacy no other building material can match. Whatever it is, Montana architects, and many more across the country, like Montana rock.
“The number one idea is that the stone lasts,” says Richard Smith, a Whitefish architect. “The durability is the number one thing, like the great pyramids.”
But for Smith it’s more than that. “I just blends with this land,” he says. “It has a very nice transition between the building and the earth. It certainly is the material of choice when you want to have a quality project that fits the land and is going to last.”
Color is another reason people around the country choose rock from Montana. Different selections of the rock in Montana have high iron and lichen content, which makes it appealing with its browns, reds, greens and greys. The uses for native stone are limited only by the imagination. It can be used for walkways, fireplaces, entry ways, hearths, or as decorative landscape boulders.
One of Montana’s largest rock providers is Montana Rockworks in Kalispell. Co-owner Bill Carter says Montana rock is popular throughout the country. “Montana has this great western mystique,” he says. “Having Montana stone in their projects, wherever it is around the country, it’s probably a little more exciting to talk about, than saying ‘my rock came from Arkansas.’ Montana gets people excited.”
Montana Rockworks supplies rock for fireplace veneers, dry-stack retaining walls, landscape boulders, river rock and flagstone. Their rock, all of which is picked in Montana, has been used in projects around the country, from Nike headquarters in Oregon to a private residence in Lake Tahoe that used 15 tons of stone — that’s 80 semi-trailer loads.
Cost is one of the major considerations when thinking about building with stone. The price can run from $25 to $30 a square foot installed, and using rock brings up a host of other considerations, like structural strength of the building it’s going in.
“If there were a down side, it’s that it’s labor intensive. I don’t know that it fits into everyone’s budget,” Smith says. “If you’re real selective you can modify the cost a bit, but it certainly is a major factor. But if you look at the long term, it provides a great durability and low maintenance that certainly has some benefits to the initial cost.”
Two of the reasons for the cost are the high amount of transportation and labor it takes to pick the rock from quarries, which are often located in remote mountain settings. Even with all the high-end, professional excavating equipment available, it still takes human hands to bring the rock out of a quarry. In fact, Carter says each piece of masonry-grade rock that goes into, say, a fireplace, will be handled by at least three people. And that’s just to get it to the construction site.
“There’s a tremendous amount of hand labor involved,” says Carter. “You really can’t go in and scoop it up.”
Rock providers like Montana Rockworks use excavators and all-terrain cranes to lift the larger landscaping boulders, but the masonry grades are all picked by hand, put into wooden boxes then taken off the quarry by a front-end loader.
Much of Montana’s native stone comes out of northwest Montana, where large quarries have cropped up on federal, state and private land. This area features Chief Cliff and Chief Joseph rock, which is rich in color. Chief Cliff ranges from pieces two feet square up to several tons per rock. It is used in retaining walls, entryways, fireplaces and exterior veneers.
One Montana architect who likes to use Montana stone in his designs is Jerry Locati of Bozeman. He recently completed a design that called for a fireplace created with about $1 million worth of river rock. But while most Montanans couldn’t afford that amount of rock, Locati says there are ways to incorporate native Montana stone into a remodel or new construction projects. When he’s faced with a small budget and the client wants to use native stone, Locati will put rock into an entry way or on a hearth, because at up to $30 a square foot, it doesn’t take long to eat up a budget with rock.  
Ledge stone picked in Montana is universal in its applications, while Montana river rock — although rich in reds, purples and greys — should be used only in homes that call for a rustic look, Locati says. “It’s a great product in the right application, and that would be in the rustic, log application. If it’s not, it’s definitely out of place.”
The use of native stone in home and commerical applications has been around for centuries. And that’s what appeals to architechts like Locati. “Masonry is our oldest material, and we’re kind of seeing a trend of getting back to what the native materials were,” Locati says. 
“Our philospohy is getting back to the larger rock, to make it seem like it’s growing out of the earth,” Locati adds. “We’re looking to create something that looks like it was built 100 years ago.”

Resources: Locati Architects: www.locatiarchitects.com; Richard Smith: indigo@digisys.net.; Montana Rockworks: www.montanarockworks.com.

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