Steel Tree House

It was a windfall for architect Joel Sherman of jls design when a client hired him to design a residence outside the vernacular in the Lake Tahoe area. Sherman, who has spent quite a bit of vacation time in the area, describes the local architecture as predominately composed of wood cabins with a "bear-moose-fish motif." "So often people are stuck on a fabricated nostalgia," says Sherman, "and the end result is a fake façade attached to a vanilla box." With the construction of the Stal Tre Hus (steel tree house) in the midst of a development of 6,000 residences, the architect and his client set out to prove that it is possible to create Modern design that fits into the landscape in this high-end residential market.

The narrow lot, which measures 55 by 120 feet, drops away substantially at one end. Rather than fight the natural contours of the site, Sherman used this downward slope as a major design element. "All too often people fall in love with the natural environment and then cut down the trees and change the surroundings," the architect laments. Instead of razing trees or excavating the mountain, Sherman created a plan where vertical plaster towers step down into the lot, supporting the bulk of the residence that is suspended high in the canopy of surrounding trees.

The largest portion of the 2,500-square-foot residence, the garage, is subtly designed into the program of the house and hidden behind opaque shoji-like doors. At the same level as the garage, a wooden plank leads to the residence's main entrance. Once inside, access is available to the lofted master bedroom, master bath, the private porch, as well as the garage. A glass-and-steel enclosed stairwell leads to the level below which houses two bedrooms, a living room, and kitchen and dining area.

Due to the harsh winters, another major consideration during the design process was the roof. The majority of the surrounding residences use a steep-pitched roof to achieve the rustic cabin sensibility and to ease the problem of snow loads. Sherman, however, opted for a Modern, flat alternative. Stal Tre Hus's roof can resolve the required 300-pound-per-square-foot snow load and, as Sherman points out, "the snow ends up creating great insulation."

The fusion of indoor and outdoor spaces was important to both the owner and the architect. Sherman says that the placement of wood was sensitive to this design requirement -- from the Tasmanian red oak floors to the cherry wood cabinetry to the panels of redwood juxtaposed against the plaster towers on the house's exterior. Another means of merging interior and exterior spaces is the use of transparency. Not only did Sherman use large panels of glazing and glass-wrapped corners, but he also designed the interior spaces so that the residents would have access to outdoor views from a variety of locations, not just from rooms on the house's perimeter.

Stal Tre Hus is the result of the combined efforts of an architect and his client. The architect successfully brought a Modern design sensibility to the area, while the client, an owner of a wood construction company, actively participated in the building of his dream house. Wanting to be as much a part of the construction as possible, the client became certified in welding and personally welded every piece of steel throughout his new home.

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