The perfect site, the place we imagine as the ideal setting for our dream house, can be very elusive in the real world. Finding the right spot usually involves searching, waiting, and, almost inevitably, compromise. For Steve Reuther, however, it just took a little luck.
When an old friend put his property on the market, Reuther didn’t hesitate. The unique, twelve-acre plot was tucked into a high valley among tall pines and old-growth sagebrush, overlooking a poetic bend in the river west of Ketchum. With no visible neighbors except for several dozen elk, it was secluded, beautiful, and best of all, a hotbed of geothermal activity.
In the design of most homes, consideration of the site gives way to other concerns once the house is placed. In this case, however, the magnificent site served not only as the genesis of the design, but also as the guiding factor in many decisions throughout the building process.
Working with sun angles and views and against avalanche dangers, the designers of the house created a form that seems to have been pushed up from the earth like a shifted tectonic plate. Atop a massive, undulating stone base, the glass and timber exterior opens up to channel the southern sun. The roof soars powerfully upward, an impressive invention of timber beams and rafters, log purlins and columns, and spider-like brackets.
“I had a very clear idea of what I wanted because of the nature of the hill,” says Reuther. “The concept was the feeling of flying.”
Reuther’s work as a movie producer comprises more than forty films, including his breakthrough 9-1/2 Weeks, blockbusters Pretty Woman and Dirty Dancing, and most recently, a documentary on His Holiness the Dalai Lama, filmed in Sun Valley this past fall. Not surprisingly, several decades in the film industry have honed his ability to envision space.
“In producing films,” Reuther explains, “one reads a story and has to visualize where the story takes place. Through proximity, I’ve learned about designing space—about character, what resides in the space, and the myriad choices you have. How do you bring them together? How do you create comfort, tension? Who is the space for?”
Reuther’s vision for his own home centered around comfort and family. The house would be used for escape and for entertaining. He pictured the outside coming in. He imagined his 16-year-old daughter sharing it with her friends, in the near and distant future.
To bring his vision into reality, Reuther enlisted the help of builder David Rosser, a friend he’d met while shooting skeet and trap. “I saw the level of craftsmanship in other houses he had done,” says Reuther, “and I knew what a meticulous perfectionist he is. Rosser’s work is really high quality. He is such a practical, skilled technician and craftsman.” For this project, Rosser’s small, handpicked crew included his wife and every one of his six children (among whom were his best carpenter and the main welder).
Rosser added architect Jim Glancey, of Glancey-Rockwell & Associates in Boise, to the team. After 18 years of collaboration, Rosser had implicit trust in Glancey’s ability. “I’m the traditional craftsman and he’s the stereotypical wild, eccentric artist,” says Rosser. “We can both think outside the box, in different ways.”
Reuther brought to the table a desire for rustic modernism and a kinship with the site. Together, Reuther, Rosser, and Glancey pushed and pulled and massaged the design into the impressive end result. Says Reuther, “It really was always a conversation. Glancey would draw it; Rosser would edit it; we would reach a decision about it. Decisions came by committee, but in an evolutionary way. We never had to go backwards. Some of the details were changed, but there was no retrofit.”
In response to the avalanche possibility at the bottom of the slope, the form began with a massive retaining wall, 23 feet high and 18 inches thick, containing 300 yards of concrete. In front of this giant fin, which was designed to stand on its own, a superstructure was created with a long, sloping roof diaphragm supported by columns and steel spider brackets on a 15-by-20-foot grid. Rosser and Reuther then inserted walls, windows, and rooms.
“It was a long build,” says Reuther. “As we went, we were able to make adjustments. The house suggested itself to us over and over again, as it became clear how to use the space.”
The effect is similar to that of a loft, where structure is a major focal point rather than a backdrop. The non-bearing exterior walls made glorious expanses of thin-mullioned windows possible. A skylight, located unconventionally where the roof meets the fireplace, serves a dual purpose: revealing the chimneystack as a single continuous volume from inside the house and balancing the otherwise one-sided light from the south-facing windows. The triangular geometry of the interior rooms works with the slope of the roof to funnel the visual focus.
Inside these unconventionally shaped spaces, an eclectic mix of furnishings tells some of Steve Reuther’s story. The screening room, complete with popcorn machine, is filled with shelves and shelves of films—Reuther’s work, as well as that of others. Movie posters and photographs of the producer on various sets line the halls in testament to his life’s work. And there are wonderful props: An impressive tome entitled Cabinet of Natural Curiosities, the Complete Plates in Colour, 1734-1765—one of the most celebrated natural history books of all time—weighs heavily on a coffee table next to a Steinway baby grand.
“I had a lot of things in storage that I had collected from all over the world,” Reuther says. “As the form of the house began to define itself, it was easy for me to visualize which things I wanted in that environment.”
The lower level, ensconced in the heavy stone base, was originally planned as a garage with storage space. Rosser explains, “Steve was given a pool table from a movie set and he asked if I could find a place for it. So I redesigned the space to meet existing needs.”
The resulting exercise and game room complement the full catering kitchen and family room to create a more casual suite of rooms. Antique Japanese prints hug the perimeter of the game room near the ceiling, unfolding like celluloid, frame by frame. Reuther was born in Tokyo, and the prints were purchased long ago, by his mother. “They had all been in books,” says Reuther. “The case David designed finally let me get them out where they could be seen.”
Reuther’s sense of history extended beyond his personal effects to the site itself, which sits at the foot of what was once the Blue Chip mine. In homage to the site’s past life, Rosser and Reuther pushed for native and historic elements such as iron, stone, and solid wood—no engineered or manufactured materials.
The Montana ledge stone, although not native, was chosen for its propensity to blend with the site, and was carefully placed by Brett Sullivan’s masons according to Rosser’s vision. The dry-stacked masses weave and climb and fall away from the house into the hill, marrying the building with the land. Large, flat rocks provide places for repose throughout the meandering landscape.
Exposed steel beams and iron work, the decorative spider brackets by Wood River Welding, and clad windows that were powder-coated with a weathered metal finish are sprinkled throughout the exterior and subtly reinforce the old mining theme. >>>
Wood was a slightly stickier subject. “We couldn’t use glulams for the roof,” Glancey explains. “The spider brackets were designed to shorten the spans of the timber roof beams and then became aesthetic elements.”
Timber beams, free of heart, were cut in Canada, dried in a microwave, and shipped to the site. Some were joined together with splines and decorative bolt patterns. Because of the nature of the roof diaphragm, the relationship of the rafters and purlins to the exterior walls is wonderfully unexpected, even baffling.
Perhaps the most splendid feature of the property is the abundance of onsite natural hot water. Reuther describes this as “a gift” that serves both recreational and functional purposes. The crown jewel is a natural hot springs pool designed by Rosser and constructed by Rosser in conjunction with The Johnson Company. Large, smooth, granite boulders that were unearthed during excavation now rest in a sandy-bottom pool, begging an idyllic soak.
Paramount in the design was the proximity of the pool to the house. A grotto was constructed to connect the pool area with an indoor changing room for Reuther’s guests. The rush of cold air that greets bathers when they walk under the timber frame into the stone tunnel recalls the sensation of entering a mine.
It is the experience of being in the hot water pool that connects Reuther most strongly to the site. “There are animals nearby all the time,” he says. “Sometimes there is a herd of between twenty and sixty elk playing in the field. The steam comes off the ponds. I love the aesthetic.”
The two ponds are an added bonus. After these former mud flats were dug out, they filled on their own with a mixture of cool and warm water. The warm water keeps them from freezing during the winter, and attracts plenty of wildlife looking for a drink.
Aside from creating a luxurious place to play, the surface hot water provides an amazing energy source. Rosser developed an elaborate system to harness the geothermal energy and use it for heating, cooling, snowmelt, and of course, the pool. He explains, “The geothermal water is run through plate heat exchangers and transferred to the closed-loop heating systems of the house. All systems are computer programmed to be interrelated and driven by a predetermined system of operation. After BTUs are taken from the geothermal water, it is released through the hot springs pool, which is then tempered according to need.”
The mechanical systems and equipment throughout the house are impressive even to those uninitiated in the world of BTUs and heat exchangers. Other, more conventional, efficiencies exist in the house as well. The elaborate roof is super-insulated to retain almost twice as much heat as a conventional roof. Triple-pane windows keep the heat in or out, and deep eaves block the high summer sun. Over 15,000 lineal feet of ground-loop, heat-pump air conditioning sit in the 55-degree earth to help mitigate the effects of the sun. Rosser designed the landscape to include native and drought-resistant plants, which draw the hillside forward while conserving water use.
Despite—or perhaps because of—all the technology in the house, it is quite easy to manage. The entire geothermal system as well as the temperature controls, lights, sound system, mechanical shades, and phone and security systems for each room can be regulated by Reuther from Los Angeles.
“The house surpassed my expectations,” he says. “I like to think its success was influenced by having spent 25 years in Sun Valley. I create fantasies in movies, and know the process of creating realities. I wanted to see what was possible. I wanted to make this house feel as though it belonged and would last forever.”
Tp view more images of the Reuther home, click here.
Writer Gretchen Wagner received her masters degree from the Yale School of Architecture. She lives in Hailey with her husband, Erik Leidecker, and their two daughters, Sascha and Svea.