When art and architecture come together, wonderful things can happen. For this home in Roxbury, Connecticut, the idea was to build a weekend getaway and an incubator for artistic inspiration. Desai Chia’s clients own an apartment and a gallery in New York City devoted to Latinx art, but they wanted a more expansive place to regroup, reflect, and restore their creative juices.
They found their canvas in a 12-acre property, marked by woods, meadows, a ruin or two, an obsolete older house, and several manmade retention ponds. From its entrance to the north, the site tumbles down a south-facing hill—and so does all the water on the property. As it turns out, directing and conveying runoff also tapped the creative resources of the design team.
“Different jurisdictions have different requirements about retention ponds,” says Kathy Chia. “This one is very restrictive about even manmade ones. We think they were used for grazing on the property at one point. So we restored those ponds as part of the natural restoration of the entire meadow area. And we used rain gardens elsewhere, along with other drainage strategies, because it’s a steep hill and a lot of water comes off of it.”
The firm doesn’t just exploit the sites it works on, it seeks to replenish and improve upon them—an even higher order goal than simple preservation. For that same reason, the architects kept the new house in the same location as the old one, leaving the rest of the property for the clients to enjoy on its own terms.
“As we talked with the landscape architect Chris LaGuardia, we learned that Alexander Calder had lived very close by,” Kathy recalls. “He put all of his art in the meadow. Chris got very excited about this idea. And that got us thinking about these outdoor moments and indoor moments. We also thought about Storm King Art Center, with its massive rolling hills, meadows, and fields for outdoor art. We thought, ‘this could be a microcosm slice out of Storm King.’” Located in New York’s Hudson Valley, Storm King art museum sprawls across some 500 acres, but even on a much smaller site, the notion of larger scale art placed outside in nature was inspiring to both architects and clients alike.
The program called for a main house, guest house, garage, and pool. The architects organized the main house in three small volumes around a front courtyard, which helped them mitigate the level change from the driveway while beginning the curated entry experience. A stone retaining wall marks the transition from the motor court, cleaving to reveal several steps down into a gravel area dotted with grassy plantings of sinewy white birches. Large, irregular-shaped stepping stones establish their own sculptural personalities as they convey visitors over the gravel.
“It’s a little bit of a journey moment, a portal—walking on a natural piece of stone from a local quarry,” Kathy observes. “In architecture, there are big gestures but also small ones like going from a pea gravel driveway through a birch garden in a cleansing moment of arrival. In the forest, those are special moments when you see those white birch tree trunks among the darker trees. We thought they were a beautiful graphic moment against the darker exterior—almost like brushstrokes.”
While admiring the birch trees in the courtyard, visitors discover another layer of galleries just inside the house. Framed by the home’s dark shou sugi ban exteriors, window-lined sculpture halls flank the courtyard. They display the clients’ art against a backdrop of iridescent walls of handmade tile from Mexico. Turning the gaze a few degrees reveals sight lines through the house on each side leading back into the wooded landscape.
Aligned with the courtyard steps, there’s another sight line that runs from the front of the house through the great room, across the covered patio at the rear, and on to the meadow. The stacked perspective tantalizes, hinting at the broad sweep of the property beyond.
Walking west along the path from the courtyard takes you to the main entrance. Continuing past the entrance accesses the garage and separate guest house. Between the guest house, main house, and garage is another courtyard intended for outdoor sculpture that directly engages the meadow view to the rear.
During design development, the idea of an artist-in-residence emerged, and that guided the location and conception of the guest house. At just under 500 square feet, with a kitchenette, full bath, bed area, a sitting area, and a small workspace, it’s a flexible space that can serve the pool as an outbuilding, as a studio for artists, or as guest quarters for visiting artists or family. The guest house is detached but there’s a covered walkway that links it to the main house. “They could have an artist work and stay there, but not need to get into the main space,” Kathy explains.
“Our clients lived in the previous home for about a year before they decided what they wanted to do with the new house,” Kathy continues. “And we visited a number of times. We observed different animals coming in and out of the woods. And it was clear there were aspects we wanted to preserve, enhance, and support. They were all part of the experience and part of the view corridor.”
Capturing and focusing those view corridors was job No. 1 for the main house. The great room projects forward of the two bedroom wings into the view. Its glass window wall opens to a south-facing patio, shaded by a deep roof overhang.
Each of the main house components and the guest house have roofs that slope in different directions—to harness their best view opportunities, to protect from solar heat gain, and to guide water runoff away from undesirable areas.
“Managing water off the roof is a huge responsibility for the architect,” Kathy notes. “It can cause big problems for the owner and the building. And it’s something people don’t give much thought to.” Here, the team chose a standing seam roofing material and integrated a recessed channel at the low end of the slope. “Downspouts are embedded in the façade and lead to a series of outlets. We have drywells in the gravel pad where water is collected and dissipated underground at a very slow rate, so it doesn’t erode the ground. We worked really closely with the civil engineers on this. We have no visible gutters.”
Although the shou sugi ban exteriors are deeply charred—allowing the house to recede into the view—the interiors play with the entire scale of dark to light. Shou sugi ban wood in a lighter gray char comes inside the house as walls and ceilings, establishing a midtone for contrasts in either direction. “We worked with Delta Millworks to get the color just right,” says Kathy. “The lighter char and color bring a warmth and softness—an intimacy—inside. You feel that physical size is compatible with the space—whether alone or with 25 people.”
The showcase dark element for the interior is the fireplace wall. Kathy explains the design intention: “When not in use, fireplaces can look like an oddball thing, so we wanted to give it a presence that helps anchor the room.” Dark porcelain slabs and knife-edge details for the firebox give it that presence, which changes through the course of the day as light moves through the room.
At the opposite side of the great room, an all-white Corian kitchen is more self-effacing. “We thought it could be the quiet piece in the room,” she says. “We wanted it to still have a sculptural feel to it, but in counterpoint to the fireplace. When you have a kitchen in the living and dining room, you want it to have a quiet feeling when not in use.”
Bringing all the contrasts together are the warm hues of the white oak floors. “They are slightly desaturated,” the architect notes. “We had to balance out all these different tones and colors—mixing and matching different materials and curating which were dominant and which were subservient. We wanted the floors to bring in more light. They are intentionally not the same gray as the ceilings.”
Balancing visual and textural contrasts, interior views, and inspiring vistas of the site is a synergy of art and science that—in talented hands—has a surprising power to affect our spirits and well-being. Says Kathy, “The main house was an effort to create a beautiful flow.” And that it does.
Architect: Katherine Chia, FAIA, and Arjun Desai, AIA, Desai Chia, New York
Builder: Paul Reiss, Berkshire Wilton Partners, Darien, Connecticut
Landscape Architect: Christopher LaGuardia, LaGuardia Design Group, Water Mill, New York
Lighting Design: Christine Sciulli, Christine Sciulli Light+Design, New York
Civil Engineer: Paul Szymanski, Arthur H. Howland & Associates, P.C., New Milford, Connecticut
Structural Engineer: James Quinn, Murray Engineering, New York
Project Size: Main house (2,697 square feet); guest house (496 square feet); garage (320 square feet)
Site Size: 12 acres
Construction Cost: Withheld
Photography: Paul Warchol Photography
Cooking ventilation: Gaggenau
Dishwasher: Gaggenau; Miele (guest house)
Faucets: CEADESIGN (kitchen), Vola, Dornbracht
Garbage disposal: InSinkErator
Paints: Benjamin Moore (interior)
Refrigerator/Freezer: Gaggenau; Sub-Zero (guest house)
Sinks: Lacava Corian
Specialty Appliances: Gaggenau
Toilets: TOTO (main bath); Duravit (secondary)
Wine Refrigerator: Sub-Zero