A looking glass in the mountain

by MICHELE KOH MOROLLO on Feb 17, 2012 in Architecture , Interiors
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With towers that hover above the Tahoe-Donner hillside in California, Stal Tre Hus – Steel Tree House – serves as a perfect lens for its magnificent surroundings.

Jon Trager, owner of Californian construction company Norwegian Wood, is the son of a welder, so the idea of living in a home that combined the best of wood and exposed steel was something that excited him greatly. Together with Joel Sherman of JLS Design, he created a contemporary mountain home that would meld seamlessly into the woods of Truckee, California.

Sited on a down-slope which drops 44 feet vertically, the house, which Traeger named Stal Tre Hus (Norwegian for ‘Steel Tree House’), was designed to address the needs of its occupants and the constraints of nature in the most efficient way. The masterplan was a site-specific design that fused indoor spaces with the great outdoors. It was to be a juxtaposition of nature, with plaster towers reflecting the form of tree trunks, beams reflecting branches and floors and ceiling planes reflecting the leaves and needles of the trees. Plenty of glass and natural sunlight imbues the space with a warm, earthy, and almost nostalgic glow.

“We worked together to design a site-specific, to-date solution, which addresses the programmatic issue for either Traeger’s family or a speculative home. The intention was to embrace and complement the environment rather than conquer or try to reproduce it,” says Sherman.

Though Traeger has since sold the property, which is now a vacation home for a family based in San Francisco, the project makes an important environmental statement because of its clever use of light and vertical supports. Stal Tre Hus’ floating planes and corner glass spaces are subtly suspended in the canopy of the dense forests of the hillside, so they exist in harmonious symbiosis with the limbs of the trees.

Vertical plaster towers and steel beams support a 280lb snow load, and rather than going with a conventional snout like front extended garage, Sherman integrated the garage into the overall design so it was almost indiscernible. Shear towers that land delicately on the forest floor offer a sensitive alternative to a conventional base and plenty of redwood and glass infill lend the home elegance.

The design was approached from the inside out: “The openness lays emphasis on the outside rather that the inside. Great expanses of glass, corner glazing, and non-wall bearing construction facilitates the details to blur the line from inside to out,” says Sherman. “The exterior is a result of interior programmatic solutions, and structural responses, rather than the typical ‘facade-omy’ glued on to the typical home in the western United States.”

Entrance to Stal Tre Hus is via an bridge that appears to be suspended in mid-air as the property drops away. Once at the front door, the foyer aids in the subtle transition between interior and exterior, and the foyer descends down a steel-framed cherry staircase to a lower level living area. “You can look outside and back through the interior of the living room pop-out beyond. I feel as though this sequenced transparency provides a level of depth – much like good photography, it provides a foreground, middle-ground, and a background,” Sherman notes.

This main living area consists of the kitchen, family zone, dining room and living room that extends to a back deck. The language of vertical plaster towers and glassed in pop-outs define a space for the interplay of light and nature. Natural light illuminates every room and clerestory glazing above walls and interior doors facilitate ever-shifting shadows, giving Stal Tre Hus a quality of illumination and privacy similar to Piere Chareau’s Maison De Verre.

The house was designed long before ‘green’ became a catchphrase, yet it embodies all the principals of eco-consciousness. It adapts to the forms of its environment and maximises natural light. Dual-pane insulated glass, high efficiency gas-fired hydronic in-floor heating and concrete countertops keep the home warm in an energy efficient way. Intermittent tower footings as supports mean the natural forest floor is preserved and continues to regenerate beneath the house, so flora and fauna can continue to thrive. The living area cohabitates with the limbs of 150-year-old pine and fir trees, while steel beams and abutted, dual-glazed glass corners further extenuate the merging of interior and exterior spaces.

“It became our intention to accentuate the forest, rather than plopping a foreign object into it with no interaction. Stal Tre Hus establishes a lens for viewing and enjoying the magnificent environment and enjoying the trees while minimally impacting the physical property,” says Sherman.