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A House in the Sierra Nevadas Built to Withstand Both Fire and Ice

An interview with CAMPout House architect Greg Faulkner on precision, resilience, and wood.

A Faulkner house.
Heatmap Illustration/Faulkner Architects, Getty Images

Faulkner Architects have practiced from Truckee, California in the Sierra Nevada Mountain range for 35 years. The firm’s particular approach to design takes inspiration from founder Greg Faulkner’s former work in aircraft design. “Precision is one of the things we’re about,” Faulkner told me. “I was part of the wing group at Cessna. I drew — by hand — the wings and all the parts that make up a wing for the Citation III, the first intercontinental business jet with a low swept wing.” (A low swept wing improves aerodynamic performance.)

Translated to architecture, Faulkner thinks about precision in the assembly of pieces and parts to accommodate for expansion and contraction. He also takes direction from the natural shape and form of the building’s environment to determine materials. “Our work is not just an idea dreamt up separate from the place,” he said.

CAMPout, a Faulkner-designed home located in the Sierra Nevada mountains just 25 miles from where the 2021 Caldor Fire burned through more than 220,000 acres of woodland and destroyed roughly 1,000 structures, perfectly embodies that approach. I spoke with Greg about the story behind the house, designing for fire risk, the virtues of pine. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Where is CAMPout house located?

Near Lake Tahoe, at the base of a mountain that used to be a volcano and is now carved with ski runs. The house is at a high elevation with a lot of snow and looks south toward that mountain. The house is surrounded by an alpine forest and is in between the mountain and a former prehistoric lake with an all-desert bottom. A spring-fed creek runs through the property.

CAMPout.Courtesy Faulkner Architects

Tell me about your architectural approach to the house.

For CAMPout, we used unfinished sugar pine trees throughout the interior. You get the scent of sugar pine, and the wood is soft to touch. We used it on the interior walls and ceiling.

We also used a fire-resistant concrete base to create a continuous surface materiality — you have boulders outside, concrete inside and out, and start to get a feeling of inside out, outside in. We wanted to create a seamless experience, using a singular wood species throughout the whole house — it’s not about a different experience everywhere. It’s expedient, and we use what is at hand.

Your Habitable score shows extreme fire risk. Were you aware of this when you built the home? What decisions did you have to make?

We did plan for fire. The exterior of the house is corten steel, [otherwise known as weathering steel, which resists corrosion,] and concrete. There are only these two exterior materials, and both are fire-resistant. Also, we designed an inner courtyard and glazed the exterior windows. The roof has a Class A rating, [meaning that it can withstand intense flames,] and is a combination of heavy plate steel over a layer of stone to protect from flying embers.

In 2021, the Caldor fire came within 25 miles [of the CAMPout property] and destroyed 1,000 structures nearby. In forest fire terms, that’s pretty close. Glazing on the interior glass in the courtyard made that somewhat of a safe room. While the courtyard provided some protection, it still would’ve been very smoky and best to evacuate.

We didn’t have to do too much to create escape routes because there are two ways out of the community where the house is built, in case one is blocked.

Habitable doesn’t have a risk factor for snow and Truckee had record snowfalls last year. How did CAMPout perform in the snow?

Snow is heavy on a roof. CAMPout house is designed for 175 or 200 pounds per square foot — that’s one person standing side by side over the whole roof. But last year we got double that weight in snow; the house had 10 feet of snow stacked on top. We had safety factors built in — we designed the roof to hold the snow in Swiss tradition because of the insulation it provides. Still, that’s a lot of snow.

The water content of snow varies so much. The roof could take a lot of light dry snow, but if it’s full of rain, it might not. Last year the engineer recommended after 5 feet or so to start knocking off the snow. In case another big storm comes, it would be difficult to remove.

CAMPout.Courtesy Faulkner Architects

Is there anything you would've done differently?

We went back and forth on heating the inner courtyard surface for snow melting. We chose not to do it for sustainability reasons because it takes a lot of energy to heat the outdoors. But with these kind of storms, we might reconsider. Removing snow from the courtyard is difficult even with drains. They have to snow-blow it out, and with 10 feet of snow on the roof, it’s challenging.

What are your three top takeaways for people living in fire and extreme snow zones?

1. You have to make the decision that you are not going to have wood on the exterior of the structure. It’s for more than just fire — building a wooden house in a forest with such extreme weather conditions, it’s a recipe for maintenance. It’s like putting a piece of furniture in the woods and expecting it to survive! You have to look for other materials that can’t burn and don’t need refinishing.

2. Simple forms are best. Complex roof forms and shapes based on aesthetics are difficult to waterproof. Think of 10 feet of snow moving around on the roof. As temperatures changes, snow melts and freezes again. If you have a lot of activity going on in the roof form, it will be difficult. A simple form will keep snow on the roof as insulation.

3. Angled or sloped roofs are not the answer either. What tends to happen is there is a porch at the bottom that ends up holding the snow, or the snow slides onto walkways and driveways and where cars and people and neighbors pass. If you build close to another house, you can’t have the snow slide off and hit the neighbor’s property. Best to keep snow on the roof.

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Ann Marie Gardner

Ann Marie Gardner is an award-winning editor and entrepreneur. She writes about design and climate and just launched Habitable, a newsletter and tool to assess your home's risk from climate change. You can read it here: http://www.habitableliving.com/

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