A Forest Sanctuary Designed to Support Autistic Triplets, Their Parents, and a Host of Caregivers

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By Kelly Vencill Sanchez and Dwell / Published by Dwell
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Architectural harmony defines a family’s home near Lake Tahoe.

Ever since the birth of Amy and Nick Bancroft’s triplets six years ago, the couple’s lives have been a whirlwind of activity. But when their son and two daughters were diagnosed with autism four years ago, things shifted into overdrive, and the family’s home, near Truckee, California, became a de facto therapy center, with a stream of professionals cycling through daily to provide specialized interventions. The Bancrofts didn’t just need a place for themselves, they needed their home to be a home. "During the week, we’d have up to a dozen people at the house," says Nick. "We figured out quickly that we needed separate areas for kids and therapists, and areas off-limits to them during therapy so that Amy and I would have privacy."  

A piece by John Belingheri hangs in the living room of the Bancroft family’s home, which is centered by an Antonio Citterio sofa and Robert Marinelli tables.

A piece by John Belingheri hangs in the living room of the Bancroft family’s home, which is centered by an Antonio Citterio sofa and Robert Marinelli tables.

A former Scavolini kitchen dealer in Las Vegas and Reno, Nevada, Nick had a vision for a modern house with areas for learning, therapy, sleep, and play, as well as common spaces for family time, a retreat for their 10-year-old son, and a private refuge where he and Amy could relax and refuel. 

The entrance is highlighted by a custom walnut door designed by the architect, Jack Hawkins. Cheryl Chenault designed the interiors.

The entrance is highlighted by a custom walnut door designed by the architect, Jack Hawkins. Cheryl Chenault designed the interiors.

When the family found a forested, three-acre site not far from where they’d been renting and about a half hour from Lake Tahoe, they reached out to two old friends from Reno: architect Jack Hawkins and interior designer Cheryl Chenault. The challenge was to build a house that would support the Bancrofts’ unique requirements for years to come, albeit on a grand scale—the living area is close to 8,000 square feet of the overall 10,000 square feet.

The structure sits among the trees on the three-acre site. "The elevation is 6,600 feet—you can sit outside even in winter," says Hawkins. "There’s a lot of outdoor space, which helps tie the project to the property. The design was all about fitting it into the environment."

The structure sits among the trees on the three-acre site. "The elevation is 6,600 feet—you can sit outside even in winter," says Hawkins. "There’s a lot of outdoor space, which helps tie the project to the property. The design was all about fitting it into the environment."


The entrance introduces the home’s main materials: steel, glass, wood, and concrete.

The entrance introduces the home’s main materials: steel, glass, wood, and concrete.

"The kids’ needs were paramount to the design," says Hawkins, who came up with a plan that divided the house into four zones: the living-dining room, kitchen, and pantry; a children’s wing; a master suite; and a detached guesthouse. Multiple entrances and exits would allow therapists as well as Nick and Amy to come and go without disrupting the kids’ routines. 

The library holds a wall-size blackboard for the Bancrofts’ four children, with a colorful permanent piece by local artist Derek Phillips.

The library holds a wall-size blackboard for the Bancrofts’ four children, with a colorful permanent piece by local artist Derek Phillips.

Despite the home’s considerable footprint, it doesn’t read as monumental on approach. "The last thing I wanted was for it to look like a country club," says Hawkins, who set the parking, mechanical, and storage areas at the property’s lowest point, away from view. The kitchen, dining, and living areas occupy a soaring, open volume, defined by exposed structural steel beams and columns. Wood, concrete, hot-rolled steel, and glass set the tone for what Chenault calls "a pared-down sense of order."

A picnic table from Janus et Cie sits off the kitchen; the landscape architecture is by Richard D. Wood. In addition to passive solar, says Hawkins, "there is the added benefit of a thick concrete slab as a thermal mass that absorbs and stores the heat from the sun."

A picnic table from Janus et Cie sits off the kitchen; the landscape architecture is by Richard D. Wood. In addition to passive solar, says Hawkins, "there is the added benefit of a thick concrete slab as a thermal mass that absorbs and stores the heat from the sun."

The designer worked with the couple to prioritize their needs. "We talked about ways to streamline their activities—everything from waking up and preparing coffee and the kids’ meals to grocery shopping, food storage, and entertaining," Chenault says. "Design decisions were made to simplify tasks and support and enhance daily events."

Hawkins created the built-in anigre bed and side tables in the master bedroom. Chenault designed the bedding; the sconces are from Artemide.

Hawkins created the built-in anigre bed and side tables in the master bedroom. Chenault designed the bedding; the sconces are from Artemide.

Individuals with autism tend to function better in an environment that minimizes visual distractions, so keeping things free of clutter was more than just a practical concern. Accordingly, the house includes a place for everything, from the pantry that neatly stores the triplets’ preferred snacks to the seamless anigre cabinetry that keeps necessary items nearby but out of sight. This visual rigor also suited the couple’s love for modern design. "I’m from the South and was used to red brick and antiques," says Amy. "Nick introduced me to modern. He told me, ‘I fell in love with you, but can we not do the antiques?’"

Norman Cherner barstools from Design Within Reach line the island in the kitchen, which is crowned by an open loft office. The faucets are from Dornbracht; the countertops are Caesarstone. Hawkins integrated a steel-clad casual eating nook, at left.

Norman Cherner barstools from Design Within Reach line the island in the kitchen, which is crowned by an open loft office. The faucets are from Dornbracht; the countertops are Caesarstone. Hawkins integrated a steel-clad casual eating nook, at left.


In one corner of the room, an Arne Jacobsen Egg chair and ottoman rest on a flokati rug. Overhead is an Ecos pendant by Vistosi.

In one corner of the room, an Arne Jacobsen Egg chair and ottoman rest on a flokati rug. Overhead is an Ecos pendant by Vistosi.

Located on the west side of the house, the children’s wing has four bedrooms, a library–study center, and a playroom, downstairs. Connecting to shared dormitory-style bathrooms, each bedroom has a workspace and a play area featuring durable, soothing materials; expansive windows fill the rooms with light and offer a connection to the outdoors. The older son’s  bedroom has a loft and a lounge area, where he can play games and hang out with friends.

"The central vision was threefold: interiors that would bring the family joy, support their daily activities, and provide specific areas of refuge for each member and as a family," says Chenault, who integrated a Hansgrohe Axor rain shower in the master bath, which has frosted glass.

"The central vision was threefold: interiors that would bring the family joy, support their daily activities, and provide specific areas of refuge for each member and as a family," says Chenault, who integrated a Hansgrohe Axor rain shower in the master bath, which has frosted glass.

Nick and Amy’s own retreat, on the opposite side of the house, opens to views of the forest and features sitting areas indoors and out, a washer and dryer, and a beverage and snack center, as well as a bathroom with a rain shower and a freestanding tub. "It’s like an oasis," says Amy. "We never had privacy before."

"It’s like an oasis—we never had privacy before." —Amy Bancroft, resident

"It’s like an oasis—we never had privacy before." —Amy Bancroft, resident

"People hear ‘three autistic kids,’ and they don’t know what to think," says Nick. "But there’s a ton of love in the house. It’s soothing to them and us."

The kitchen opens to the elements thanks to sliding doors from C.R. Laurence. The anigre in the kitchen is the same employed in the master bedroom.

The kitchen opens to the elements thanks to sliding doors from C.R. Laurence. The anigre in the kitchen is the same employed in the master bedroom.

A sloping ceiling allows light into one of the children’s bedrooms. The bed is from CedarWorks.

A sloping ceiling allows light into one of the children’s bedrooms. The bed is from CedarWorks.

The guesthouse hovers above the motor court. "The main area was broken up into four zones: the kids wing, the guest suite, the master suite, and the living-dining room and kitchen, which is a transition area, where public meets private," says Hawkins.

The guesthouse hovers above the motor court. "The main area was broken up into four zones: the kids wing, the guest suite, the master suite, and the living-dining room and kitchen, which is a transition area, where public meets private," says Hawkins.

On a concrete wall near the stairway off the main hallway hangs an artwork that depicts the children. Nick conceptualized the piece with painter Bryce Chisholm and artist Jeff Johnson, who did the custom neon work. The floor is also made from concrete.

On a concrete wall near the stairway off the main hallway hangs an artwork that depicts the children. Nick conceptualized the piece with painter Bryce Chisholm and artist Jeff Johnson, who did the custom neon work. The floor is also made from concrete.

You'd never designed for special needs children before the Bancroft residence, how did you interpret the clients' needs?Jack Hawkins, architect: I would like to say I did tons of research, but I didn't. I went with the parents' lead. I took most of my design cues from them. They're the immediate caregivers, they know their children and about autism. They did all the research and told me what was important.

You'd never designed for special needs children before the Bancroft residence, how did you interpret the clients' needs?Jack Hawkins, architect: I would like to say I did tons of research, but I didn't. I went with the parents' lead. I took most of my design cues from them. They're the immediate caregivers, they know their children and about autism. They did all the research and told me what was important.

What are some places the children's and parents' needs dovetail in the design?There was a lot of concern about minimizing clutter. There's acres of cabinetry to put things away. I think that helps to keep the kids calm. Clutter is really hard on autistic kids. Being able to keep things clean seems to really help. This place had to be user-friendly for the kids, parents, and tutors.

What are some places the children's and parents' needs dovetail in the design?There was a lot of concern about minimizing clutter. There's acres of cabinetry to put things away. I think that helps to keep the kids calm. Clutter is really hard on autistic kids. Being able to keep things clean seems to really help. This place had to be user-friendly for the kids, parents, and tutors.

What advice would you give an architect taking on a similar project for the first time?JH: It's critical to have several long conversations with the residents. It's different when you're doing a childcare center or school, but with a residence you really learn about the individuals. It's important to get a feel for how the family lives and listen to them closely. You can spend your entire fee on research and not be any closer to solving the design problems. Listening is critical to designing a successful residence for someone who has special needs kids.

What advice would you give an architect taking on a similar project for the first time?JH: It's critical to have several long conversations with the residents. It's different when you're doing a childcare center or school, but with a residence you really learn about the individuals. It's important to get a feel for how the family lives and listen to them closely. You can spend your entire fee on research and not be any closer to solving the design problems. Listening is critical to designing a successful residence for someone who has special needs kids.

Bancroft Residence Floor PlanA    GuesthouseB    Patio C    Master BathroomD    Master BedroomE    Living Room F    Dining RoomG    KitchenH    EntranceI    BedroomJ    BathroomK    LibraryL    Motor Court

Bancroft Residence Floor PlanA GuesthouseB Patio C Master BathroomD Master BedroomE Living Room F Dining RoomG KitchenH EntranceI BedroomJ BathroomK LibraryL Motor Court