Let’s say you’ve invested millions in a choice piece of Aspen real estate, only to discover that every visit to your dream home begins with a pounding headache—sometimes coupled with nausea, dizziness, and dehydration—lasting up to four days. Prone to the high-altitude hangover known as acute mountain sickness (AMS), you’re the mountain-town equivalent of someone who’s just bought a yacht, then manifests a propensity for sea sickness.
So what to do? You can divest; you can swap your castle in the clouds for a villa on the French Rivieria. Or you can hire Larry Kutt to give your home an atmospheric makeover.
Kutt is founder and CEO of Altitude Control Technologies (ACT), a Denver business that specializes in what it calls “altitude simulation.” Using NASA-like technology, ACT equips rooms so that at the push of a button atmospheric conditions go from simulating sea level to mimicking Everest, or vice-versa. ACT’s handiwork can be found in research labs at the Mayo Clinic and Harvard Medical School, in flight simulators at the U.S. Air Force and Naval Air Systems Command, in training facilities where athletes work out and rest at different altitudes to enhance performance, and, now, in mountain homes whose owners are willing to pay almost any price to sleep soundly at altitude and forestall the onset of AMS.
“We just did a home with an art museum and a planetarium for a couple that built their dream home and the wife gets sick,” says Kutt, also cofounder of the School for Entrepreneurship at Denver’s Metro State University. “We did one bedroom, and they loved it so much they asked us to do another for their in-laws and bedrooms for their children. If you spend $8 million or $9 million on a house, you don’t want to come to your place and get headaches and nausea.”
But why oxygenate just the bedrooms? “Our board of medical advisers thinks that if you sleep in an oxygen-enriched environment, that’s sufficient to avoid altitude sickness,” explains Kutt.
One of those advisors is Dr. Peter Hackett, executive director of the Institute for Altitude Medicine in Telluride and one of the world’s foremost authorities on AMS. “It’s tremendous,” says Hackett, who prescribes sleeping with oxygen—albeit typically via cannula from a rented cylinder or a portable O2 generator—as the gold-standard therapy for AMS prevention and treatment. “Your body thinks it’s back at sea level.”
Hackett notes that commercial enterprises—from mountaintop astronomy research facilities to high-altitude mining operations in places like the Andes—have been using oxygenated bedrooms in employee housing for years, but as far as he knows, ACT is the first to apply this technology to the dream home.
This elegant solution is, however, not uncomplicated. An air separator (a high-tech machine that strips oxygen and nitrogen from the air) is installed in the home’s mechanical room and is then plumbed to dedicated pipes that send oxygen into bedrooms. Special sensors monitor the levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the room, while a computerized controller continually adjusts the mix of gases, which changes as barometric pressure rises and falls and people enter and exit.
Once in place, though, the system is virtually undetectable. “When we’re done with a room, we’ll give you 15 minutes to see if you can find any trace of our technology,” says Kutt.
Prices run about $20,000 for the average 200- to 300-square-foot bedroom. But homes in mountain towns like Aspen and Vail, where Kutt says ACT has done a half-dozen installations, tend to be anything but average. For a current Aspen project, he estimated it would cost about $100,000 to outfit a large bedroom; the homeowner wasn’t even fazed. As Kutt recalls, “He said, ‘If that’s all it is, we need to expand it to the dance studio and the guest bedrooms.’”
That pales in comparison to the commission from Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, vice president and prime minister of the United Arab Emirates. ACT first oxygenated a bedroom at his Newmarket estate, then bedrooms in his Dubai palace, and then the stables where the sheikh quarters $400 million worth of thoroughbreds.
“Talk about a challenging environment,” says Kutt. “You have indoor air-quality issues; you have outdoor air-quality issues; you have dust storms and sandstorms. If we can deal with horses, we can deal with humans.”
Even in the rarefied air of Aspen.