2011 CH+D Award for Residential Architecture (more than 3,000 sq. ft.)


John Maniscalco
John Maniscalco Architecture, San Francisco
Sugar Bowl Residence

John Maniscalco took some cues from waterfront residences when designing this Sugar Bowl vacation home for a San Francisco couple.

For most Californians, snow hasn’t lost its magical appeal. Not hardened by six months of scraping ice off windshields or having boots destroyed by a season’s worth of salt stains, Californians associate snow with a season pass, fireside cocktails and a long weekend away from work. But the architecture up in the mountains still has to do the heavy lifting. Sugar Bowl, one of the oldest Lake Tahoe ski resorts, gets more than 40 feet of snow annually. Steeply pitched A-frames and boarded-up ground-floor windows have been the simple answer to the extreme conditions, but leave it to a group of city slickers to bring in an updated, innovative way to create shelter from the snow.

The house rests on an eight-foot-tall concrete plinth that lets the snow pile up without obstructing views from the living room.

John Maniscalco is a residential architect in San Francisco who has mastered the art of blending modern homes into the fabric of a persistently historic city, where his designs might sit next to a Victorian or a Beaux Arts–style house. After he completed a family home in San Francisco for a couple with four young daughters, Maniscalco’s clients asked him to transport that same clean but compatible aesthetic to their pine-dotted property in Sugar Bowl.

(Left) This modern cabin trades knotty pine banisters for sleek steel railings and a kitschy antler chandelier for a cluster of Bocci pendants. (Right) Instead of a closed-off warren of rooms, the house features spaces that open onto light-filled hallways via cleverly folding doors.

His immediate challenge was designing a home that could stand the eight-to-nine-foot snow packs that midwinter brings. But instead of choosing a style that would shed the snow quickly, as steeply angled roofs do—often resulting in dangerous conditions called snow bridges, ruined siding and shattered ground-floor windows—Maniscalco wanted to build a house that could shoulder it. The result is a super-strong flat roof reinforced with glulam (or glue-lam) beams and steel, angled ever so slightly to the rear, so snow sheds gradually, but otherwise is allowed to pile up, creating a pillowy white berm that would put a smile on the face of any snow-starved Californian. “You could park pickup trucks end to end on that roof and it would be perfectly fine,” says Maniscalco.

(Left) There are plenty of places to cozy up by the fireplace, which is a quieter interpretation of a roaring hearth, created by Maniscalco with a roll of textured wallpaper and a long horizontal gas flame. (Right) The slightly slanted ceiling plane in the kitchen is part of Maniscalco’s snow management plan: as the powder piles up on the roof, it slowly slides off the back of the house.

As for the snow drifts that have been known to barricade doors and trap people in their homes for days on end, Maniscalco looked to beach houses for a solution: a plinth made of hollow concrete blocks that lifts the house five to eight feet above the ground. “Snow comes up around the house like water,” he says. A channel through the center of the plinth even lets a river of melted snow run beneath the structure as the weather warms.

The interiors are meant to provide a comfortably edited version of the great outdoors. “When you are up here, you spend the day outside in the elements,” says Maniscalco. “So inside I wanted to reduce the experience, to slice and dice the views and make them more interesting.” All the windows on the first floor are set deeply into the walls and are protected by overhanging steel frames that extend out just beyond the Western red cedar facade. Three narrow vertical windows in the boot room were designed to perfectly frame three slender pines, and a long horizontal pane in the master bedroom looks out to the mountains in the distance. The home’s second floor has floor-to-ceiling walls of glass that can slide open to a large wraparound porch.

The master bedroom is a woodsy escape, thanks to the unfinished cedar planks behind the bed, the Douglas fir ceiling and the perfectly framed views of stately pines outside.

Despite the raised form, the residence could hardly be mistaken for a beach house. The wood paneling and ceilings throughout the interiors give the home the feeling of a modern cabin. Walnut floors are a shade darker than the narrow-planked Douglas fir and knotty glulam beams on the ceiling, and the unfinished cedar used as exterior siding carries over to highlight a few interior walls, such as those behind the master bed and along the floating staircase. And what says “ski cabin” better than bunk beds? Maniscalco managed to turn this clunky childhood rite of passage into a luxurious experience that any guest would be happy to indulge in. Two identical sets of double walnut bunks let eight sleep soundly in one room. “If you’ve got four kids, you automatically have eight,” says Maniscalco, knowing that each of the four girls usually brings a friend with her for weekend stays. Colorful, upholstered headboards and playful modern sconces (not to mention the fluffy white linens) are unexpected perks, but the beds’ streamlined design speaks for itself.

Views dominated by snow are broken up with windows in various shapes; the treehouse view from the bunks.

Whether it’s carrying the load of a major storm or standing up to the storm created by eight snow-giddy girls, the house designed by Maniscalco brings an urban sensibility and style to the mountains, and lets those dreaming of a blustery white winter find that the best of both worlds is just a long weekend away.

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