“A house’s aesthetic is earned from the process of making a good place experientially,” says Gregory Faulkner, AIA. “If you make good decisions with those experiences, the appearance is good. It becomes a kind of built-in place, a landscape additive.” This philosophy is elegantly expressed in the many mountain, coastal, and urban homes his eponymous firm has designed from its offices in Berkeley, California, and Truckee, three hours east of San Francisco. It was near this Sierra Nevada town that Greg’s clients bought land in 2013 and commissioned Faulkner Architects to design their first house.
As with all good architecture, landscape, climate, and culture were essential inspiration in the design. Just north of Lake Tahoe in the private Martis Camp community, the young couple’s lot sat on a 20-degree slope consisting of volcanic sediment, Jeffrey pine and white fir, waist-high manzanita, and boulders, some as big as sports cars. One of the perks of this tony enclave is that it has direct access to the Northstar California ski resort. In fact, the base of a ski run lies about 300 yards from the 1.4-acre lot. This adjacency influenced the design direction: the owners can ski right out of their house.
Lookout House is not only on intimate terms with the land, it’s also a testament to the alchemy that can occur when a high-level team is assembled early on. In this case, that included not just the engineers and builder but also lighting and interior designer Claudia Kappl-Joy of CLL Concept Lighting Lab in Tucson, Arizona. And of course the up-for-anything clients. “Their requests were pretty general; they treated the house as a living experience, and we constantly jousted with ‘what’s the best way to do this,’” Greg says, “placing emphasis on quality and design, and doing it as efficiently budget-wise as possible, but not starting with that as a driver.”
The couple is athletic and outdoorsy, qualities that came through in their program. They wanted a tough, modern house where they could walk out on all levels. And like increasing numbers of clients these days, it seems, they initially built the house as a getaway from their home in Tulsa, Oklahoma, but have moved in permanently with their two young children, who were born during the six years it took to design and build the house. “They wanted to change their lives and raise their kids in the landscape,” Greg says.
To capture views south up the mountain and north down to Martis Valley, the architects envisioned a three-level house that climbs the incline, rising to the south. An entry axis recessed deep into the form, like a crevasse, runs up through the plan, bisecting the public zone on the east and the bedroom wing on the west. “The house is on a cul-de-sac, and the crack protects you from the noisy vibe of other architecture; it cleanses the palate along the entryway,” Greg says.
“The house is in the site more than on it,” he says. On the mostly buried lower entry level is a garage, family room, mudroom, and ski storage. From there, the staircase ascends through the house, landing in a sunny kitchen and gathering space that feeds out to a north terrace and a south terrace, where a canted extension of the house’s concrete wall forms a slot that welcomes skiers. Across the central staircase, the sleeping zone contains three bedrooms and the main suite above.
Another advantage of the siting and plan is that the living wing feels like a realm unto itself, with little sense that it’s part of an almost 8,000-square-foot house. “Its slightly splayed concrete outer wall builds the kind of character of a smaller house,” Greg says. “Even though the insulated concrete walls are robust, it has a cabin feel, and the flat roof is like a visor that directs your gaze down to the valley and up to the ski mountain.” Opposite the stairwell, a solid-walnut wall screens the bedrooms behind it, reinforcing the cabin feeling.
The home’s 19-inch-thick concrete shell is a match for earthquakes, cold winters, and the 600 or so inches of snow that falls in some years. Made from local sand and aggregate, the poured-in-place walls of the living wing rise up to meet the roof and sky. In the gathering space, sliders in 16-foot-tall openings are fitted with structural glass that allows for thin frames. Another set was installed on the kitchen side so that prevailing southwest breezes flow through.
Exterior materials were chosen for fire resistance and low maintenance. The bedroom wing’s concrete west wall gives way to engineered wood framing sheathed in perforated steel. “The black mass of the bedrooms is perforated steel finished in obsidian black, the color of lava glass, the same as the window frames,” Greg says.
Serenity and Surprise
Lava, of course, is a nod to the site’s geology, at the base of a 3-million-year-old volcano. The wife’s request for some color, specifically red, was another opportunity to interpret that connection poetically in physical form. Suggesting the color of volcanic magma, red-tinted glass runs vertically up the three-story entry slot, casting a warm glow on the entryway at night and animating the circulation spine during the day. “It’s an interesting sort of reference in three-dimensional space,” Greg says.
Extending that material logic, basalt with a flamed finish was the inevitable flooring choice. “It has a bubbly character like dried lava; we chose the roughest finish we could tolerate,” Greg says. “The materials related to the site and were locality driven. Appearance was important but not the driver. Basalt connects to the site and happened to be gray, which fits with the stone outside. When we can make decisions like that, there is less discussion on the team; the ‘I like’ part goes away somewhat.”
Still, an adventurous spirit infused the deliberations. Both the architects and clients looked for opportunities to create moments of surprise and calm. One example is the bumped-out sun niche off the living room, just big enough to hold a lounge chair and small table for a cup of tea. Its concrete wall limits exposure to a future house on the building lot next door, while a 16-foot-wide window gazes out to the vertical lines of tree trunks. “The glazing goes wall to wall and floor to ceiling, so the space has this odd quality of being almost wrong, but warm and dry,” Greg says. “By leaving an opening in the concrete, it starts to activate us; what’s going on? You’re not quite present in the house. You can rest, it’s super-warm and puts you to sleep.”
In a house that’s all about prospect, another “refuge” is the wine room and tasting area hidden behind the living room fireplace. A vertical slot in the wine room wall admits a red glow from the stair hall. “There’s a reality of where you are in the house and some light pouring in, kind of a spiritual moment where you don’t have to have the lights on to find a bottle,” Greg says. And a horizontal slot in the cantilevered fireplace lights the tasting area, a hideaway where the husband often unwinds while listening to music. “In winter there’s a glare we get tired of from the snow,” Greg says. “Warmth from the fireplace radiates into that protected space.”
In another understated moment of discovery, the stair hall slot aligns with a narrow aperture in the tasting room’s back wall, creating a sight line from the hallway out to the rear terrace and the light. “You’re looking through multiple rooms without violating privacy,” Greg says. A doorway leads from the tasting room to the secluded spa terrace, where geometrical concrete “columns” are arrayed to play with light, space, and access. This was initially a response to a code requirement for the spa enclosure. As the architect explains, “They face southeast and allow thickened light, or layers, to flow into that space. As they developed, they started to associate with the tree trunks in a figure/ground way, a light reversal of the dark tree trunks. It starts to break down that line between a strong form and its environment.” Although the owners decided to install a spa cover that meets code, “the thing that evolved was bigger than the original need,” Greg says. “We try to push code toward a more architecturally ambitious definition.”
Open and bright, the house grew in scope as the owners evolved from engaged-to-be-married to parents of two. A family room with en-suite bath and kitchenette was added to the ground level opposite the garage and mudroom/laundry. Henrybuilt casework, made of gray-stained walnut plywood, hides the washer and dryer, sinks, boots, and coats. “The Gaggenau kitchen and Henrybuilt casework used throughout the house lend this sophistication of modulism to the house with systems built in,” Greg says.” It gives a simple clarity that worked with our minimal approach and focus on the outside.”
At the top of the house is the owners’ spa-like retreat with a lounge, north and south terraces, and a large pivoting door separating the bedroom and bath. The bed swivels so that it can face the fireplace or the view. Solid walnut on the floors, ceiling, and walls came from old orchards in the Sierra foothills.
Here and in other parts of the house, wood slats on the ceilings and walls have a ¾-inch gap, allowing the wood to expand and contract. Behind it, drywall and ROCKWOOL insulation absorb sound. In the great room, thin Flos lighting tracks were integrated into the gaps. The foyer’s atmospheric chandelier was another pitch-perfect lighting element. “The entry opening to the sky is a surprise,” Greg says. “You get a little weather in there, some flakes falling into what would be this crevice in the rock. Claudia picked up on that feeling and reflected it in the light fixture.”
The minimal palette is a credit to the owners, he adds. “Detailing becomes simpler when there are fewer materials to deal with, and there’s less stress on the mind. You can relax in a space that doesn’t appear to have gone through gymnastics to make it work.”
Not that construction was straightforward. A COR-TEN steel plate 8 feet wide by 20 feet long was needed to stiffen the north terrace’s cantilevered roof, so that a thin edge meets the sky. “We came up with a system where the roof sheets could expand and contract up to an inch without affecting the waterproofing,” says builder Andreas Rickenbach. “The giant cantilever over the garage was another challenge. It is supported by a grid structure of beams inside the second-floor walls and third-floor ceiling.” He also worked closely with a steel fabricator to finesse the custom bifold garage doors, which are supported in the raised position by a counterweight.
More practically, energy use was a concern on the north-facing slope. Solar panels were out of the question because of snow loads and tree cover, so the architects focused on retaining energy and using it sparingly. The double-sided concrete walls with 3 inches of foam insulation act as a heat sink. That, combined with an R-80 roof, high-performance glass, and radiant floors keep the house toasty in wintertime.
At the end of a lengthy construction period with many weather-related delays, that enveloping quality was palpable to the builder, and becomes part of how the house is experienced. “The house is very warm and welcoming. There’s no echo,” Andreas says. “It feels like you just want to sink into the couch and hang out.”
Plans and Drawings
ARCHITECT: Gregory Faulkner, AIA, principal-in-charge; Christian Carpenter, Jenna Shropshire, Gordon Magnin, Darrell Linscott, Breanne Penrod, Garrett Faulkner, Faulkner Architects, Truckee, California
BUILDER: Rickenbach Development & Construction, Olympic Valley, California
INTERIOR & LIGHTING DESIGNER: CLL Concept Lighting Lab, Tucson, Arizona
STRUCTURAL ENGINEER: CFBR Structural Group, Reno, Nevada
MEP ENGINEER: MSA Engineering Consultants, Reno
PROJECT SIZE: 7,833 square feet
SITE SIZE: 1.41 acres
CONSTRUCTION COST: $990 per square foot
PHOTOGRAPHER: Joe Fletcher Photography
CABINETRY AND MILLWORK: Henrybuilt
CLADDING: Cast-in-place concrete, COR-TEN, painted steel
COUNTERTOPS: Marble, Paperstone, stainless steel
FLOORING: Flamed basalt and walnut
FOUNDATION: Concrete with 3” foam insulation between 8” layers of concrete
HUMIDITY CONTROL: Neptronic
LIGHTING: B. Lux, BEGA, BK Lighting, Brendan Ravenhill, Catellani & Smith, FLOS, Hevi Lite, HK Lighting, Kreon, Luceplan, Lucifer, Lumenpulse, Marset, MP Lighting, Nir Meiri, No. 8 Lighting, Occhio, Viabizzuno,
Plumbing fixtures: Boffi, Blanco, TOTO
REFRIGERATOR: Gaggenau, Sub-Zero
SINKS: Boffi, Blanco
SPA: Diamond Spas
VENT HOOD: Vent-A-Hood
WINDOWS & WALL SYSTEMS: Reynaers & Albertini, Apex Fine