Mountain Exteriors

A style file for designing mountain houses, cabins, lodges or ski chalets.

I'm starting to notice more and more reclaimed wood around.  Used in the right way, it can be understatedly beautiful.  I also love it in edgy contemporary applications.  And sometimes, it's just downright charming.  Here are some great inspirations for using reclaimed wood.

A client showed me this house in Truckee.  She says it is her hands-down favorite house around and I can see why!

One thing I don't often see is old red-painted barnwood mixed with greyed recycled lumber on exteriors.  I love the way some of the siding planks are left red and some are grey and that the pattern seems to be applied randomly.  I also think these homeowners got it exactly right with the trim stains, the mouse brown on the portico and fascia boards is perfect and I adore the red doors and window trim.  Even the wicker chairs are the perfect color.

Absolutely charming.

The landscaping really sets this house off, too.

The garage "barn" doors are absolutely delightful, aren't they?

The same evening she showed me the house above, we stumbled into a shop in downtown Truckee where we admired a new and ingenious use of reclaimed lumber mixed with rusted corrugated on the ceiling. 

Above, they used reclaimed lumber to trim out the doors and I love that they kept the trim chunky and scaled-up.  The floors are also reclaimed.

Above, more ceiling detail.

Above, this is a photo that this same client is using for inspiration to build a fabulous recycled wood bookshelf on two walls in a corner of her great room.  

Of course, reclaimed lumber can be expensive.  If it's not in your budget, here's a little inspiration.  These recycled wine crates are made up into utterly charming window boxes at Pour House in Truckee, California.

The Swiss excell at shutters.  I recently ran across an old SD photo card and was delighted with some of the forgotten shots I found of Swiss exterior details. 

I am often asked by owners of older cabins to give their exteriors a pick-me-up with paint, but I think shutters can sometimes be overlooked as a way to add character and personality to older homes at a fairly low out-of-pocket cost. 

Not every style of house is suitable for shutters, of course, but if your cabin is somewhat cottage or chalet-like in character, consider some of these fabulous Swiss shutters for inspiration...


Above, three different shutter patterns are used on the same building.

This charming chevron pattern is seen throughout Switzerland.  Painting a simple pattern like this on a flat shutter is a do-it-yourself project that anyone can do.  All you need is two cans of paint, a ruler and some high quality masking tape.

A simple hand-painted pattern brings old world character to a newer building.

Above, forget the shutters, use plants!

This wavy stripe is an exciting variation on the chevron pattern.

The ultimate in Swiss chalet charm!

Just for fun, I can't resist throwing in this photo of Grindlewald.  Living at altitude as I do and skiing at Squaw Valley, which has some of the steepest vertical in North America, I was still utterly floored by the enormous scale and steep incline of this amazing ski mountain.  It completely dwarfed the small village at its base. In order to look up at it and view its full height we had to bend our necks completely backward. 


Last week I enjoyed an afternoon touring Tahoe gardens as part of the annual garden club tour.  There's always at least a few special gardens on the tour and usually a spectacular house or two, as well.  This year we got both in one package.  There was one house and garden combination that totally blew me away. 

I had seen the house years ago when it was part of the Tahoe Historical Society annual house tour.  On that day, they wouldn't let you get out into the garden.  It was clear then that the garden was wonderful and I kept peeping out every window trying to snoop as much as I could.

This year the house was on the garden tour and the interior was closed to the public.  Well folks, the garden and exterior was worth the wait!  The house actually has sod roofs which are planted like a beautiful mountain meadows with a mixture of grasses and wild flowers.  Stunning!

This charming little garage with its amazing sod roof sits just to the front of the main house.  Check out the hand adzed detail on the facia boards.

The garage on the main house also has a sod roof.  I think this is just so very pretty.  I also love the garage doors and their beautiful hand forged iron strappings.  The stone work is beautiful, too.  Everywhere you look on the exterior of the house you find custom hand-made detailing.

A detail of the sod roof over the main garage.

This house was modelled after Vikingsholm, a fabulous private home built in the middle of what must be Tahoe's most beautiful natural feature, Emerald Bay.   Vikingsholm was built in 1928 and was influenced by Scandinavian architecture. 

Above, a photo of the original sod roof at Vikingsholm.  You can see how much it influenced the garden tour house.  The photo below displays the side view of the free standing garage from the tour.

While the main house at Vikingsholm, above, is a stone castle-like structure.  The main house on the garden tour is trimmed out mostly in wood, but the detailing on this house is truly amazing.  See below.

Garden fans admiring the back porch, above.

Fabulous detailing on exterior woodwork.

The photo above shows an actual view of the Vikingsholm out buildings.  You can see how much they were used for inspiration. 

Above, a close up shot of a window.  Notice the custom wood framing, which is surrounded by custom iron casing.  Everywhere you look there is something beauitfully handmade.

One of my favorite things about the sod roof house was it's wonderful deck overlooking the lake.

The perfect wicker furniture to enjoy the spectacular view.

Love this stick embellished planter.

Is this what I think it is?  Can it really be?  Yes folks, that's a built-in custom-made hand-hammered BBQ!

And I'll leave you with this charming look at another perfect mountain planter.

Screen doors can often be an unattractive necessity if you live in mosquito country.  Not this's adorable!

I found this wonderful hand-made screen door at and I think it manages to be charming without being schmaltzy (which I find a lot of bear motif design elements tend to become).  It has a definite Arts and Crafts style to it that works beautifully for a lot of mountain cabins and lodges. 

They have some other choices such as a stag, loons, fish, etc.  I like this one the best, but go check it out if you are thinking about new screen doors.  Decide for yourself which one you prefer the most!

In the mountains, certain building materials such as wood and stone are easy to come by.  That's why mountain houses are almost always stick frame or log construction and feature extensive use of exterior wood trim.  Many houses are completely encased in wood siding, logs or shingles and, in fact,  you often see all three used together on more expensively constructed houses. 

Contractor Andreas Rickenback, Architect Gary McKelvey, Interior Designer Sue Pipal

Stone elements add to the luxe feel of mountain homes.  Stone is used around the foundation, on columns holding up the entry portico, on elaborate exterior fireplaces and chimneys and underfoot on pathways, entries and staircases.

 Contractor Bruce Olson, Interior Design Sue Pipal

As for shape, mountain homes have always displayed a distinctive “chalet” shape with its steep rooflines and two or more story height.  Although many are influenced by the basic historical shape derived from the Alps, form follows function and there are reasons why this shape is still so prevalent.  The steep rooflines are a safety feature for shedding heavy snow loads, and the height is an energy saving feature—it is much less expensive to heat a house that is stacked on top of itself.


One influence on mountain homes is that of the old-fashioned American style log home.  In the high-country, you see many homes bult entirely of logs and many others that use logs as exterior trim. 



Architect Gary McKelvey, Contractor Doug Drake, Designer Sue Pipal 


Designed and built by contractor Andreas RickenbachArts and Crafts Many of today’s high-end mountain houses are heavily influenced by Arts and Crafts style. Support beams, fascia details, corbels, and railings are often hand-crafted in shapes and styles that reference old Arts and Crafts elements.  Modern versions of craftsman light fixtures and iron detailing are incorporated.  Heavy wooden hand-made front doors with iron strapping are seen and garage doors display similar detailing.  Angles change frequently, especially on roof lines, and multiple dormers are featured. 




 Although Arts and Crafts style is undeniably the most influential in newly built mountain homes, you do also see some new log homes, and the occasional traditional old style mountain cabin or spectacular steel, concrete and glass modern construction masterpieces being built.



Exterior colors are inspired by the colors found in nature.  Wood houses are either stained in natural wood tones or use subdued and muddy greens and browns in stain or paint forms.  Popular trim paint colors are greens, teals, reds, browns and creams. 


For more on exterior paint and stain colors click here.



Modern mountain houses are full of angles and changes.  Traditional construction elements such as gables, dormers and sloping roofs are rotated, enlarged and repeated everywhere.  Bay shapes, angled walls, and unusual window shapes are used frequently.


Mixed Materials  One of the biggest recent trends in mountain house construction has been the increasing use of mixed surface materials on exteriors.  Many houses display several forms of siding used together, such as wood shingle used with wood board and batton or log work.  In addition, you might also see rusted corrugated siding or rustic finished steel panels added.   Often there are several stain or paint colors used.  Also, the use of two or more roofing materials is common, such as shingles plus corrugated. 


Special Detailing  The more the better seems to be the philosophy when it comes to adding customized detailing on today’s mountain exteriors.  In addition to the fabulous custom stonework often used on foundations, columns and chimneys, you might also see log trim or log entry columns as well as elaborate carved wooden corbels and eaves.  Balcony, deck and stairwell railings are another place for unique details, and often feature custom log work or jig sawed panels cut into charming shapes like pine trees or European chalet shapes.  Railings are also frequently made up in one-of-a-kind wrought iron designs.





Front doors, garage doors and gates are often custom made.  They can be hand carved, but many feature hand-made iron nail heads and strapping.  Special front doors are popular.  The wood used for them can be hand-adzed or antiqued and distressed and they may include charming small windows and elaborate hardware.  Door knobs, often bronze, are seen in the shape of twigs or stones. 

Exterior light fixtures are selected to further enhance the hand-crafted impression.  Many are updated versions of arts and crafts fixtures.  Others are made by local artisans. 

For more on exterior light fixtures, click here.




All this creates a hand-crafted expensive-looking vernacular style unique to mountain construction.







 One other important design feature of mountain houses is the generous use of windows.  With fabulous views to feature, windows are often large and combinations run floor to ceiling in great rooms. 

In fact, odd shaped windows abound in the mountains and trapezoid shapes are frequently used.  These are stacked on top of square windows and nestled into the apex of the roof line. 

A recent trend is the use of aluminum clad windows in mountain homes.  With winter's harsh weather conditions, wood windows require regular maintenance that many homeowners (especially second home-owners) want to avoid.  Aluminum windows come in a number of powder coat colors that are used widely in the mountains.  Red, teal, dark green, white and beige are frequently seen.  The colors of these windows often become an important design element for the house.

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