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House of the Seven Trolls

A family compound in Tahoe takes inspiration from Scandinavia, Austria, and an army of grandkids.


The design of the house—a chalet-style wooden building perched atop a concrete plinth—was inspired by a family trip through the Arlberg Valley in Austria.

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The exterior is clad in solid cedar timber and coated in black pine tar, a traditional Norwegian technique thought to date back to medieval stave churches.

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The southern side of the top floor is surrounded by sliding glass doors that are thrown open in the summer.

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The home’s interior is furnished with a combination of contemporary furniture and antiques. Custom pieces, like a dining table bench and barstools, were designed by the owners’ daughter (and architect’s wife), interior designer Lexie Mork-Ulnes, and built by Yvonne Mouser.

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“We went for a stripped-down, almost purified aesthetic,” says Lexie Mork-Ulnes. “Simplicity is luxury.”

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A second-floor bathroom features a pair of sinks separated by a sliding pocket door. Concrete is used for the countertops and the floor, which is radiantly heated.

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Bert Damner grew up skiing Sugar Bowl in the 1940s, the powder-dusted early days of the now-famed ski resort. He wooed his wife, Sisi, between turns gliding down the slopes. Now retired and in their 70s, the Damners were ready to get back to their snowy roots, purchasing an alpine-fringed plot of land atop Lake Tahoe’s Donner Summit. Up at 6,800 feet, they envisioned a ski cabin where their family—three children, their partners, and seven grandchildren—could gather. Luckily, they didn’t have to look far to find the ideal builders for their high-altitude retreat: Their daughter and son-in-law are Lexie and Casper Mork-Ulnes, respectively an interior designer and the principal of Mork Ulnes Architects.

Together, the Damners and the Mork-Ulneses went on a scouting trip to the Arlberg region of Austria, where they were inspired by the prevalence of outdoor decks protected by deep overhangs. They were also influenced by Norway, where Casper Mork-Ulnes is originally from. “We wanted to fuse Scandinavian practicality with that NorCal spirit of innovation,” he says. Sisi christened her future home the Troll Hus, a reference to otherworldly beings said to dwell in remote mountains in Scandinavian folklore. “She felt it was a fitting name for a mountaintop house nestled in the woods,” Mork-Ulnes notes, “soon to be filled with little trolls—her seven grandchildren.”

Mork-Ulnes modeled the three-story home after alpine chalets, basing the wood structure on a concrete plinth. In an area where snowfall can exceed 65 feet annually, the often-buried first floor is devoted to ski equipment and changing rooms. “The architecture is a response to the climate,” he says. The home’s exterior is coated in a thick layer of pine tar to protect the wood from weather and insects, a technique that is thought to date back to medieval stave churches. Inside, the house is swathed in bright Douglas fir and bleached with a lye finish to whiten the wood. “That warm wood is something that’s been done in Norwegian interiors for centuries to battle dark winters,” Mork-Ulnes explains. From the imposing black facade to the minimalist white interior, it immediately becomes clear: “This is not your typical Tahoe cabin,” says the architect. 

The family gathers on the communal top floor. Two skylights, one placed over the dining table and another over the stairway, are surrounded by angled Douglas fir ceiling panels that cast the light around the room. The brightness varies throughout the day as the sun moves across the sky. “It makes the ceiling glow,” says Mork-Ulnes. At night, the room is lit by custom LED strip lights recessed around the skylights. And in summer, sliding glass panels circling the living and dining areas tuck into the wall to create an indoor-outdoor effect. Between the terrace’s guardrail and the roof’s overhang, the view is one of the surrounding woods. “It really feels like you’re in a tree house,” he says. “There’s nothing but branches and blue sky.”

The open staircase, flooded with sun from its own skylight, connects all three levels of the house. The Damners’ bedroom and bath are on the top floor, while three bedrooms for their adult children and a bunk-bed-stacked room for the grandchildren are on the second floor. Despite the Troll Hus’s generous 3,300 square feet, the layout feels uncommonly cozy. “The tough part is just getting everyone to sleep,” Mork-Ulnes says. Nightly story time has become an homage to the dwelling’s whimsical title. “We all take turns reading troll stories until we get some peace and quiet,” he says.

Originally published in the February issue of
San Francisco

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