Retired fire chief designs off-grid cabin in Lee Canyon
It sounds a bit cliché. But location is what really defines Greg and Michelle French’s off-the-grid mountain retreat.
“This is the only property surrounded by US Forest Service and BLM (Bureau of Land Management) land,” said Angie Tomashowski of Mt. Charleston Realty Inc. “There are no neighbors. other properties.
Minutes from Lee Canyon Ski Resort, the 2470 Avalanche Trail is nestled in the wooded pine backdrop of Toiyabe National Forest. Its elevation of 8,245 feet offers breathtaking 360 degree views of the surrounding forest and mountains.
“Our house overlooks the range of sheep across the valley,” Michelle French said. “The gorgeous pinks and blues that accompany sunrises and sunsets are indescribable.”
At the center of the 0.46 acre property, the couple custom designed and built a 3,349 square foot tri-level home where they lived year-round.
Listed for $1.75 million by Tomashowski, the self-contained property features two bedrooms including a private master suite, an upper level open floor plan, custom furnishings and built-ins, tiered wraparound terraces, a wood-fired hot tub and two-story garage with fitness room on upper level.
“The wood-fired spa is a kit that comes from Canada,” said Greg French. “It’s mostly a tub but it works just fine.”
Greg French was very knowledgeable about Lee Canyon and the exclusive location of the property. Growing up, he spent summers in his father’s cabin. His father worked at the Nevada Test Site in the 1960s.
“He needed a place to stay and loved Lee Canyon,” Greg French said. “The Forest Service ran a lottery on the nine lots up there for summer homes. They literally pulled names from a hat and he was selected.
“I feel like I grew up there,” he continued. “That’s why when I saw the property listed, I jumped on it. I’ve always loved living in Lee Canyon.
Purchasing the land in 2000, the couple designed the house for independent living. Greg French focused on the structural and exterior design while Michelle French developed the interior layout.
“When we bought the land, the plans for the house came with it,” said Greg French. “Some of the earth work had been done and a build pad was roughed out, so we worked with what was there.”
The couple hired a residential designer to draft the plans for the house, but the designer struggled to grasp Greg French’s vision.
“One day at work, I took two kraft paper folders and cut them up,” he said. “I made four walls, the bridges and the diagonally seated gable roof and brought it to him.”
Greg French’s unique structural design has improved the home’s solar energy and maximized views from inside the home.
“By placing the (main roof) ridge beam diagonally and orienting the house like we did, we have a top-down view of the canyon,” he said. “I knew I had to angle the ridge beam correctly so the panels were angled for maximum sunlight.”
The home’s off-grid design features a six-kilowatt solar power system featuring 24 solar panels, a 12-kilowatt propane backup generator, a 300-watt wind turbine, a septic tank, a 375-foot-deep domestic well and multiple heat sources including propane, pellets and wood. Internet is accessible via DSL via the telephone line.
“We have everything a modern home does,” said Greg French. “We can run a vacuum cleaner, watch TV, listen to the stereo, get something cold out of the fridge, and heat our food.”
Greg French, a retired firefighter and fire captain for the city of Las Vegas, wanted the house to be fire resistant. Instead of a traditional timber frame, he used insulated concrete form (ICF) construction for the exterior walls.
“ICF construction has high insulation properties,” he said. “It’s 10 inches of concrete with 1 inch of polystyrene on each side.”
During construction, ICF blocks fit together like Legos or interlocking blocks, laced with rebar and filled with concrete. Additional fire prevention measures include a metal roof and a 1,000 gallon water catchment system.
Overseeing the project as owner/builder, the couple hired sub-contractors for different phases of the house.
“We kept the project on track and on budget,” said Greg French. “I did all the submission of the plan with the building department and dealt with the building inspector on site.”
It took three years to complete the project. Delays have occurred due to site changes and impediments to material delivery resulting from the steep slope and high elevation of the property.
“The biggest challenge was the location,” he said. “Guys used to work at 2,000 feet. When they got to 8,000 feet, they had headaches and couldn’t exercise as much as they could at low altitude, so they didn’t do as much work.
A narrow road to the property presented additional challenges. Trucks carrying concrete dumped meters of material at the rear while navigating the difficult aspects of the terrain.
“The first time we ordered concrete, a guy was afraid to run the truck,” said Greg French. “I told them from then on to send their most experienced drivers.”
Even the disposal of construction waste presented more invisible challenges.
“Garbage management is becoming a huge problem,” said Greg French. “We couldn’t get a dumpster up there, so we hauled it every day.”
Through all the challenges, the couple found themselves wondering if they should continue with the project.
“We were at this point many times,” said Greg French “Where it was way too much, and we shouldn’t be doing it anymore, but we were so far we had to go all the way. It was a lot of work , but we are very happy that we did.
Their hard work is showcased throughout the property. From the entrance, the house has a warm and rustic charm. Its tall, thick knotty alder front door provides extra security and insulation from the elements.
“The door was custom made by a furniture maker in Utah,” Michelle French said. “He made the door thicker to withstand the cold and not warp. In fact, he’s done everything in the house, from cabinets to the stereo cabinet.
The bright and airy interior features hickory hardwood floors, a vaulted pine ceiling with wood beams, custom wood built-in furniture, and floor-to-ceiling glass walls.
A long island adorned with granite counters separates the gourmet kitchen from the dining room and the main living room. The spacious kitchen features a professional-grade Wolf gas range, custom knotty alder cabinetry, and a farmhouse sink with a weathered bronze faucet.
An old woodstove from 1939, refurbished by Michelle French, adds to the vintage charm. Not only a conversation starter, it also provides an alternative cooking and heating source.
“It’s great because it serves a dual purpose,” Michelle French said. “We have cooked many dinners in this oven.”
An expansive main retreat on the second level offers incredible mountain views through window-lined walls and access to a wrap-around outdoor deck. Exposed beams, hardwood floors, and sitting areas enhance the airy, open layout. The spa-like bath features a walk-in shower with a tiled surround, a double vanity and a stunning clawfoot tub.
Michelle French designed the outdoor covered walkways to protect against the elements.
“I didn’t want to come home with groceries and try to get into the house,” Michelle French said.
A playground for outdoor enthusiasts, the property offers incredible hiking, skiing, mountain biking, camping and rock climbing right outside the front door.
The couple, both former members of the Lee Canyon Ski Patrol, have taken full advantage of their proximity to the ski resort during the winter season.
“When we worked at the ski resort, we both skied over 100 days a year,” said Greg French. “We were a lot in our ski boots.”
The couple started Bristlecone Avalanche Rescue K9s (BARK) in 2015. BARK is a non-profit organization created to provide trained Labrador Retrievers for avalanche rescue efforts.
The couple are selling the property to live closer to Greg French’s father.
“We have our hearts and souls in this place,” said Greg French. “Reluctantly, and with great consideration, we have decided to enroll him.”