Tour a Modern Mountain Retreat in Tahoe by John Maniscalco Architects
Surrounded by a seemingly endless expanse of white fir and sugar pines and nestled amidst mountains and lakes sits a minimalist retreat. Engaged by a client to build their dream home in a secluded Tahoe spot, San Francisco’s John Maniscalco Architecture drew inspiration from the rugged landscape to create a modern getaway: a long, low, refined rustic home beautifully integrated with its site.
“The client came to us with the best client brief ever: ‘We want the smallest house possible that sleeps 16,’” notes Maniscalco. “It was obviously tongue-in-cheek, but it was also a very clear statement of their intentions.”
The homeowners, an active family with their primary residence on the Peninsula, wanted a getaway where they could entertain friends and family and take advantage of every outdoor activity possible. Says Maniscalco, “The house is nestled into the slope as it descends—all the spaces spill directly into the landscape. We made sure there was a direct relationship between the interior uses and the elements of the landscape that the clients had come to love.”
Climate and site also drove the solutions for the nearly 6,300-square-foot house. Maniscalco, known for refined, urban Bay Area homes as well as mountain getaways, had already designed four residences in the area and knew how to design for local conditions. “The extremes of the weather directly affect the structural design, the materials used, and the configuration of the houses,” he notes. He situated the home so that it is optimized for the best natural light at all times of day, and the sunset can be appreciated from the outdoor gathering areas. “The home is based around an idea of framing and reframing nature,” says the architect.
“When you come back in from outdoors, natural assets are reframed: A tall slot window profiles a single tree; the master bedroom is suspended above the valley floor that slopes away below you.” In harsher weather, the sloping and cantilevered roof in painted zinc is able to withstand the elements and shed snow easily. “The experience of being in this master bedroom floating over the snow-covered valley floor as it drops away from you is a magical experience,” says Maniscalco.
One outstanding element of a site can often capture the imagination, and here, a sculptural, rocky outcropping on the property captivated the clients. It became the key natural element around which the L-shaped house was built. “At the early site meetings, the interior designer, the client and I started gathering branches, rocks and different materials. We said, ‘This is the palette of the house. It should have the qualities already here, just enhanced and multiplied,’” explains Maniscalco. “We took our cues from these colors, materials and textures.” The home was clad in dark-stained cedar, painted zinc panels, bronzed aluminum doors and windows, and polished and board-formed concrete, all in carefully proportioned dimensions.
The home’s layout is an open plan centered around a great room—with a double-height walnut and steel fireplace—and extends into two sleeping wings. “When used by the family alone, the house is concentrated on a single occupied floor,” says Maniscalco. “But when they have visitors, the house ‘expands’ to include the lower floor. This maintains a comfortable scale for smaller family use and an extended scale for larger groups.”
Maniscalco collaborated on the project with Dovetail Design Works founder Katy Chudacoff, an interior designer who had worked with the clients on two previous residences. Soothing, honest materials—including polished concrete and warm walnut floors—bring the expansive, light-filled space together, while pops of burnt orange and brown echo the landscape.
After a long ski day, a sheltered patio that overlooks a meadow and the Pacific Crest range invites lounging. Designed for entertaining, it’s complete with a dining table, barbecue area and built-in pizza oven. Whether gathered around the fire, restoring themselves in the sauna or taking a dip in the cold plunge pool, the clients are always connected to life’s essential elements.
A version of this article appeared in the February/March 2017 issue of SFC&G (San Francisco Cottages & Gardens) with the headline: Natural Assets.