Tahoe Quarterly |

by Ryan Miller

Scott Gillespie, principal and founder of Truckee’s SANDBOX Studio, has designed homes larger than this 6,870-square-foot Clear Creek Tahoe retreat. He has not, however, designed a great room bigger than the social hub of what the owners affectionately refer to as the “Grizzly on the Green.”

The name references something the owner’s father told him, which was passed on as a sort of design mantra to the team that brought the home into being: “If you’re going to be a bear, be a grizzly.” In other words: dominate.

Gillespie says the owners have a place in Montana where they regularly play host to big family get-togethers, so he sought to bring some Big Sky State sensibilities to the Tahoe area.

That meant natural stone, exposed timbers and massive spaces—such as the almost 25-foot-tall great room with 10-foot-high bifold doors that open to the fresh air and views of the fairway beyond. The home itself is average size when compared to neighboring structures in Clear Creek, but its presence is epic, both inside and out.

Achieving a massive scale required similarly massive building techniques and materials. Project manager Casey Eberhardt of Truckee’s Mark Tanner Construction says the project involved the largest cut he’s ever made, hammering out rock 18 or 19 feet deep into the side of a hill. Tanner, the company’s founder and president, says they brought in chunks of indigenous granite quarried from Yosemite and cut it into the appropriate dimensions for construction. Some of the pieces were so large, they had to get creative when positioning them.

One particular challenge was the fireplace, which the owner—an imposing figure at 6-foot-6—wanted to look grand. In fact, he wanted it to be so grand, the team redesigned it on-site to be sure it was upscaled properly.

They then laid down carpet and rolled out large irrigation pipes to create a rudimentary conveyor belt. It took two Bobcats and more than a dozen crew members to move the stones, transporting them along like ancient Egyptians raising the Great Pyramids. They used pry bars and jacks to settle the stones into their designated spots, ultimately creating a fireplace fronted by a 16-by-16-inch reclaimed wood mantel brought in from Montana.

“It was a very big expedition,” says Casey Lang, lead superintendent on the project. “When [the owner] explains that he wants this thing to look big, he means it.”

Sometimes, as with the fireplace, that push for eye-popping proportions meant changing plans after seeing how features appeared in their place.

The headboard wall, an almost 20-foot-tall structure in the primary bedroom, needed bigger stones. The hearth in there weighs about 3,000 pounds. Lang says they redid a pavilion countertop so it would look “amazingly large” for the owner, assembling it from two pieces that weigh 800 pounds each and required 10 guys to carry around the back of a hill on the property. The beams in the great room weren’t big enough for the owner, so they upsized those, too. The top beam is 24 inches tall and 14 inches wide, running the entire length of the space.

“And because of the size of the living room, it almost looks small up there,” Lang says.

Interior designer Debbie Costa, owner and principal of Truckee’s Moxie Design Studio, put up faux beams in the kitchen to bring the same scale into that space, where Lang says the island is “a massive slab right in the center of that room.”

Size considerations played a role in the interior design, though Costa says it was important to not overdo anything. It was a fine line to walk.

“Getting furniture to balance the scale of what the house posed was a serious challenge,” she says, adding that furnishings had to handle “the volume and girth of the home and the height of the family itself.” Costa had big sofas made, scaled up the rugs and brought in larger artwork to hang on the walls. She installed 60-inch round light fixtures in the great room and raised the kitchen counters to 37 inches.

“We had to use the volume,” she says. “The house would absorb it and make it look miniaturized if not.”

Supersizing objects can also have unintended consequences. A maxed-out coffee table can start to resemble a boat, Costa says, so to avoid the appearance of a raft floating in the middle of the room, she had a table custom-designed in Mexico. The result is a piece of furniture with two separate surfaces that appear cohesive and united.

Functionality also drove some design decisions. With guests in mind, dining room chairs and barstools stayed at the typical scale. Art—while larger—still hangs at an appropriate height on the wall.

In areas where scale didn’t change, the team brought in the “grizzly” element in other ways.

“The owners kept saying, ‘more, more, more,’” Tanner says. They wanted an interior railing made in Mark Tanner Construction’s shop to be hammered dramatically so it would “feel heavier, more distressed, more manly.” They didn’t just want big stone, they wanted more of it, and they called for more real grass—not artificial turf—on the surrounding lawn.

Speaking of outside, “Everything about the exterior got upgraded,” as well, Eberhardt says. The center post and railings grew in dimension, and the stairs were made with stones the owner helped place himself.

“It brings a unique look to the exterior of the house,” Lang says. “It definitely makes you feel like you’re in a mountain area.”

Mountain living does mean that certain considerations had to be made. The roofing is synthetic, which is necessary due to fire codes, but manages to convey the nostalgic feel of true hand-split cedar shake.

“It looks as authentic as anything can,” Tanner says, “but it has all the properties of something fire-resistant and is much more durable.”

To fully capitalize on the geography, the SANDBOX team sought a way to take advantage of a somewhat disconnected section of the property that featured the best views of the entire site. Their solution was a pavilion set on a hilltop overlooking the golf course, ideal for relaxing in the afternoon or evening. The pavilion boasts an area to prep and serve food (where the massive countertop sits) and other special features that make daily living feel like a vacation.

“It has all the bells and whistles and amenities of a resort, in essence: a fire pit, hot tub, outdoor pavilion with fireplace and cooking,” Gillespie says. “It’s got golf out the back door. It’s more than just a utilitarian home. It’s designed for extended family getaways and the reality of day-to-day working life.”

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