CAMPout House is situated in Martis Valley, a planned community on the north shore of Lake Tahoe in the Sierra Nevada. As mountain houses go, it could hardly be considered isolated, yet it expresses an assertive desire to engage with its natural environment, in the shadow of an 8,000-foot extinct volcano. Dotted with tall sugar pines, the land slopes up to the south, with views of the ski runs on Lookout Mountain and down to the valley on the north. Impervious yet open to the elements, it straddles the lines between exposure and enclosure, rusticity and rigor.
“The lot is surrounded by neighbors,” says Greg Faulkner, AIA, whose firm has built a handful of houses in this enclave. “Their initial request was how to find outside space that’s private. That generated the courtyard and started off the diagram.”
Privacy strategies often dovetail with fire protection, and that is true here. The threat is too close for comfort: In 2021, the Caldor Fire came within 25 miles of this community and destroyed a thousand structures. The challenge, then, was to fortify the house against wildfires and unwanted neighbor views without making it feel like a fortress.
Greg used the slope to achieve some of these goals. Diagrammatically, the house reads as a living pavilion on the north view side, while four bedrooms to the east and south are built into the hill. Those bedrooms, the living pavilion, and an entry hall and garage on the west lay out around a central open courtyard—the answer to both privacy and wildfire survivability. Each built section faces the courtyard through glass walls, most of which slide away seamlessly.
This structure also responds to—and lightly touches—a small guest house that sat on the property. “We wanted to blend the new house into the land as much as possible so we weren’t adding a lot of bulk to the existing guest house,” Greg says. “By making the privacy a courtyard wall—i.e. the bedrooms built into the slope on the south and retaining the earth—it earned the space for the courtyard.” Positioned south of the living pavilion, the void captures the sun’s angles, while the entry hall on the west “separates the cabin from that guest house and allows it to stand on its own. It makes the project seem humbler—you can’t tell the courtyard is there until you enter the house.”
Sense of Release
Strategic sectional moves open the house to the sky and alpine scenery. While three sides have flat roofs topped with gravel ballast, the living pavilion’s rusted steel roof pitches up to the south, scooping in sunlight. A clerestory wraps three sides of the pavilion, filling the gap between the walls and roof slope. In this way, the steel-sash glazing is minimized where it meets the combustible surroundings and maximized in the glass-lined courtyard, where light and pine forest views can safely penetrate the interior.
In effect, it’s a place to decompress. With its glazed access from all points in the house, the courtyard becomes a metaphorical campfire for the sleeping rooms and main pavilion gathered around it. “The client is a very extreme mountaineering person and takes the kids out,” Greg says. “He skis up that mountain every day in winter. He has a high-stress job as a CEO in San Francisco, and the intention was for the house to give him that feeling of release and a sense of discovery. It’s more of a camp in the sense of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin West than a tent camp, with the concrete built into the earth and a tilted-up steel roof that almost feels like a canvas.”
In truth, of course, that barely-there feeling was achieved through a high level of design and detailing. The entire house is built inside the glazing along the courtyard, allowing the glass to be pulled up to the very thin line of the roof. “It’s as if you were building in a remote area and didn’t have the process of building a thick roofline,” Greg says. “It makes the architecture more delicate in the way it relates to the landscape. There’s not this friction of busy planes meeting the sky, so the overall assemblage feels light.”
Builder Eben Schreiber pieced it all together flawlessly. “People say floor-to-ceiling windows, but ours go up inside a pocket and go to the roof,” he says, “which made waterproofing, insulation, and window installation challenging. The tolerances were as close to zero as I’ve ever worked on.” The wood ceilings take a vertical upturn into the structural steel roof plate, creating not just a sleek architectural detail but a pocket for roller shades.
On the house’s outer edge, 8-inch-thick double concrete walls, with foam insulation between, will stop wildfires and airborne embers in their tracks. The formwork was lined with smooth plywood panels and held together with ¼-inch-diameter fiberglass rods rather than industrial snap ties. “They kind of go away; it changes the whole feel of it and is more expedient, as though you were building in a remote area where you didn’t have a lot of technology,” Greg says. Inside and out, a sandblasted finish gave the walls the desired texture.
Toward the back of the lot, the attached garage abuts the existing guest house’s single-car garage. Capping the small building’s stone wainscoting with a smooth concrete and wrapping its existing deck in perforated steel helped the traditional wood building blend with the new garage’s perforated metal siding and doors.
Rooted in Place
Inside, a durable but utilitarian aesthetic reinforces the camp theme. Radiant-heated basalt flooring and sugar pine ceilings take their cues from the boulders and trees on site. “We didn’t put a finish on the pine, so you smell it as well,” Greg says. “Once we make a decision like that, the materials aren’t up for grabs; the house is treated as a single deployment of materials—wood, stone, and concrete. It’s like when you arrive at a certain landscape, there’s always a climate species or shrubs depending on the moisture they want.”
Devoid of fancy light fixtures, the finishes are minimal, continuous, and calm: rift-sawn oak casework, black steel on some of the cabinetry and above the range, and black granite countertops. There is nothing that jars this concept: appliances are relegated to the pantry behind the kitchen, and open shelves are reserved for display. Outside in the courtyard, wire mesh partially screens a cook station.
“The kids hang out and play there,” Greg says. “Family members came and stayed in the guest house during the pandemic lockdown, and they would meet in the courtyard. It is one of those courtyards you use, but it also provides energy, light, focus, and orientation to the rest of the house.”
In short, there’s nothing arbitrary about the design of this earth-sheltered house that both resists and celebrates nature. Its focus on material durability, passive energy, and wildfire survivability ensures that it will be around for a very long time.
Architect: Gregory Faulkner, AIA, principal in charge; Christian Carpenter, project architect; Jenna Shropshire, project manager; Ann Darby, AIA, Faulkner Architects, Truckee, California
Builder: Jim Morrison Construction, Tahoe City, California
Interior designer: NICOLEHOLLIS, San Francisco
Civil engineer: Shaw Engineering, Reno, Nevada
MEP: Sugarpine Engineering, Truckee, California
Surveyor: Webb Land Surveying, Tahoe City, California
Geotechnical: Nortech Geotechnical Consultants, Reno, Nevada
Title 24: Monterey Energy Group, Carmel-by-the-Sea, California
Project size: 3,500 square feet
Site size: 1 acre
Construction cost: Withheld
Photography: Joe Fletcher Photography
Cabinetry: Wire-brushed charred wood
Cladding: 16-gauge Cor-Ten
Countertop: DaVinci Marble black granite
Fireplace: Cornish Masonry Stoves
Flooring: Haussman Natural Stone, honed fine hole basalt
Hot tub: Zen Bathworks
Lighting: Bega, Brendan Ravenhill, Commune, Anglepoise, Onefortythree, Viabizzuno, Lucifer
Outdoor fireplace/firepit: Paloform
Steam shower: Thermasol
Thermal and Moisture Barriers: VaproShield
Vanities: Westgate Hardwoods
Windows: Dynamic Fenestration
Wine refrigerator: Sub-Zero