2020 RDAA | Custom Rural or Vacation House | Michigan Lake House | Desai Chia Architecture

There was no argument among the jury that Michigan Lake House should win an honor award. The firm got everything right from concept through execution, and that’s a bit of a surprise because neither principal—Katherine Chia, FAIA, nor her husband and partner Arjun Desai, AIA—had stepped foot in Michigan before. They are, however, very talented architects and savvy world travelers with international roots. They have a knack for thinking globally, while also delving deeply into local traditions and sensitivities. Who else would have noticed that Michigan and Japan share a similar latitude and climate patterns?

The epiphany resulted in a family weekend house that strides both worlds with grace and resonance—one foot planted in the agricultural and fishing traditions of Leelanau, Michigan, and one in the ancient Shou Sugi Ban architecture of Kyoto, Japan. Other key goals of the project were to preserve this precious piece of property along a vulnerable bluff from further erosion, a longstanding problem along Lake Michigan.

“We wanted to create an architecture that engages the site, but also did no harm,” Kathy observes. “In fact, it should go ever further and begin to restore the site. This became a theme for the project, as did the A-frame fishing villages we discovered when researching the area with our local architect, Ray Kendra.”

The Detroit-based client approached the firm after running across its jewel box project, the 2,000-square-foot LM Guest House in New York’s Hudson Valley. However, it became clear early on that he required a larger, more complex program. “He described his family, and we talked about how he imagined his life over the next years,” she recalls. “He had a daughter heading off to college, and two in high school. He imagined one day they would inherit the house. So we began to think of it as a cluster of buildings that speak to each other.”

The cluster comprises a living/kitchen zone and a separate bedroom wing for the daughters. The two wings are stitched together by a central dining room. “Pulling the house apart allowed it to feel more intimate in the landscape,” Kathy notes. “From the lake, he didn’t want people to see the house. He wanted to protect those views. The other aspect is that the dining room creates a breezeway through the space. You can open it at both ends and pull air through the house.”

The cluster organization influenced the interior space making, but the biggest impact on the architecture derives from a series of striking butterfly roofs—especially the one over the main living area that cantilevers above the view terrace. Wrapped in charred board-and-batten siding, it resembles a large raptor, unfurling its wings in preparation for flight. The shape is a “riff,” says Kathy, on those A-frame fishing shacks, but it’s inverted to control the flow of water off the roof.

“It’s a muscular way of gathering the rain and diverting it out through scuppers,” she explains. “The water pipes away from the bluff and moves toward the nearby farms. It’s a bold move to say, ‘we were not going to move any water toward the bluff.’”

Ash trees, compromised by borer beetle infestation, were culled from the site and milled for interior flooring, trim, cabinetry, and select pieces of furniture. Warm Doug fir accentuates the undulating ceilings and contrasts with dark elements of window frames, millwork, and the dramatic steel stair. “We thought of the power of shadow and light in painting—chiaroscuro—and the work of Louise Nevelson,” Kathy says. 

Custom Rural or Vacation House  

Honor Award


Project Credits

DESIGN ARCHITECT: Katherine Chia, FAIA, and Arjun Desai, AIA, principals in charge, Desai Chia Architecture, New York, New York

LOCAL ARCHITECT OF RECORD: Ray Kendra, AIA, Environment Architects, Traverse City, Michigan

BUILDER: Easling Construction, Leland, Michigan

LANDSCAPE ARCHITECT: Surface Design, Inc., San Francisco

STRUCTURAL ENGINEER: Apex Engineering & Management, Traverse City, Michigan

CIVIL ENGINEER: Jozwiak Consulting Engineer, Traverse City, Michigan

MEP ENGINEER: Bayshore Engineering, Grayling, Michigan

ENVELOPE CONSULTANT: James R. Gainfort, AIA, New York, NY

CUSTOM FURNITURE: Woodbine Custom Furniture & Cabinetry, Suttons Bay, Michigan

LANDSCAPING: Darling Botanical Co., Traverse City, Michigan

PROJECT SIZE: 4,800 square feet

SITE SIZE: 21 acres


PHOTOGRAPHY: Paul Warchol Photography

Key Products

CLADDING: Delta Millworks Shou Sugi Ban


DOOR HARDWARE: Omnia Industries (latch sets and lock sets, bedrooms and bathrooms); Rajack pivot hinges (bedroom and bathroom doors); Colonial Bronze pivot hinges (closet doors); Rajack BB roll pulls (closet doors)



FAUCETS: Kohler Stillness; GROHE Concetto (kitchen) and Europlus (master bathroom)

FINISHES: Custom ash trim milled from reclaimed wood from the site; Delta Millworks Shou Sugi Ban (dining room walls)

FLOORING: Custom ash flooring milled from reclaimed wood from site

HVAC: Trane, RenewAire ERV; Modine Heater

INSULATION/HOUSEWRAP: WrapShield SA by VaproShield; Rockwool Comfortbatt; HP-H Polyiso by Carlisle SynTec


LIGHTING: Edison Price Magic Wand (living room); BK Lighting, Delta Star and SSL path light (exterior); Archirivolto Sunlight pendant (dining room); Marset Discoco pendant (master bedroom); SLAMP Fiorella pendant (bedroom); Nuevo Cerebro pendant (bedroom); Artecnica Phrena pendant( bedroom); IRIS Lighting (downlights, bathrooms, entry breezeway)

PAINTS: Benjamin Moore

ROOFING: Carlisle SynTec, Sure-seal membrane

SINKS/LAVS: Kohler Vox Rectangle (master bathroom) Vertycl (children’s bathrooms); JULIEN (kitchen and bar); Elkay Crosstown (laundry room)

THERMAL AND MOISTURE BARRIERS: CertainTeed MemBrain; Comfortboard IS by Rockwool; VapAir Seal by Carlisle SynTec

TILE: Florida Tile Streamline (bathroom walls); Appiani Lingotto Tiles (master bathroom); Lagos Blue stone tile (bathroom floors)






Plans and Drawings

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