August 22, 2020

Desai Chia Architecture Infuses a Serene Connecticut Residence with Contemporary Drama

A standing-seam, factory-coated aluminum roof and charred cypress siding compose the exterior of a 2,400-square-foot weekend house in Cornwall, Connecticut, by Desai Chia Architecture. Photography by Paul Warchol.

It came with a ramshackle cabin. But the property, six secluded acres in northwest Connecticut, was perfection. Situated off a winding road halfway up a mountain in Cornwall, it affords vistas of the Housatonic River in one direction and forested parkland in the other—with no sign of civilization in sight. This was part of what was presented to Desai Chia Architecture when the clients, a Manhattan couple seeking a weekend getaway, hired the firm. 

The owners bought the place for its location and view, but the existing structure, erected without insulation and added to haphazardly over the years, wasn’t worth saving. It did, however, offer a singular worthwhile element: its foundation. Grafted to a granite ledge over a steep drop-off, it was in good shape, according to a structural engineer called in to inspect, and well positioned to take full advantage of the extraordinary site. Re-using the foundation would reduce construction, time, and waste. Once the cabin was demolished, it became the base of a striking 2,400-square-foot, three-bedroom house by Katherine Chia and Arjun Desai.

In the open-plan living and dining area, precast concrete panels clad the double-sided gas fireplace. Photography by Paul Warchol.

The architects took cues from an earlier project of theirs, a glass-walled guesthouse, which, after spotting it on Pinterest, was what led the clients to track them down. Creatives themselves—one is a partner in a media production company, the other an art director—the couple liked the guesthouse’s horizontal lines, openness to its surroundings, and expansive great room. 

For this house, Desai Chia also took inspiration from the barns and covered bridges populating the rural location. Although simple in form like those A-frame structures, the residence is meticulously crafted and detailed, with nods to Asian influences. Consider its shou sugi ban siding, which almost certainly had never previously been used in the area. The torching of the cypress—a Japanese technique used for centuries—highlights its grain and renders it bug- and rot-resistant, and therefore low-maintenance. The siding is attached with tidy horizontal rows of nails, adding subtle embellishment to the matte, charcoal surface. The roof, meanwhile, was set at a steep pitch so winter’s snow easily slides off and “stiffened up with plywood and nails,” Desai says. Its weight is borne by the short ends of the structure, allowing extensive glazing on the house’s long sides. 

The A-frame form is in keeping with those of the barns in the rural area. Photography by Paul Warchol.

The roof system also eliminated the need for roof ties or horizontal cross members on the interior. As a result, the great room at the center of the home is one big sweep of space capped by a 19-foot peaked ceiling. It’s divided into kitchen, dining, and living areas, with a freestanding double-sided concrete fireplace separating the latter two while not interrupting the overall flow and a pair of generous 48-inch-diameter Isamu Noguchi lanterns illuminating overhead. “When designing a big, open space, it’s good to have a few anchoring devices,” Chia explains. Flanking the great room on one end of the house is the master bedroom suite; on the other are two guest bedrooms and a full bath. 

In the living area, e15’s coffee table stands between a Carlo Colombo sectional and an Ole Wanscher daybed. Photography by Paul Warchol.

Carefully calibrated exposures give each room a unique vantage point. “If you place every window facing the same view, eventually you don’t even acknowledge it,” Chia continues. Instead, the floor-to-ceiling windows and sliding doors on the great room’s long sides—adding up to 45-foot-wide spans—open the space to the river valley on the west side of the house and woods on the east and provide natural cross ventilation. In the bedrooms, vertical windows frame tree trunks and rock outcroppings. “It’s like a camera lens that helps you focus in on things you didn’t notice before,” she adds, comparing the approach to traditional Japanese and Chinese landscape paintings, which present a microcosm of idealized nature. In fact, the window treatment is so successful, the owners decided that hanging any art on the walls was unnecessary. 

On the Housatonic River valley side of the house, Matthew Hilton chairs perch on the pine deck, which incorporates stadium seating and steps down to the rock ledge. Photography by Paul Warchol.

The clients also took the lead in selecting furnishings, taking great care in obtaining contem­porary, streamlined pieces that harmonize with the architecture and hew to a calming palette of natural materials. They ordered Børge Mogensen’s oak and paper cord dining chairs only after one of them, on a business trip to California, was able to stop in at a design store and test one out. They likewise held out on ordering Ole Wanscher’s white oak and leather daybed until the other saw it in person in London. They also chose the European oak floor planks, the master bathroom’s Japanese soaking tub, and the 1-inch penny-round Carrara marble tile enveloping both bathrooms. “They were much more involved than most clients,” Desai recalls.

E15 also designed the dining table, which is joined by Børge Mogensen chairs and an Isamu Noguchi Akari lantern. Photography by Paul Warchol.

For several months after the project was completed, the couple spent weekends there just as they had intended, finding it exactly the antidote to urban frenzy they’d sought. Then the house became something more. When COVID-19 hit and the city became a hotspot, they relocated here to wait out the crisis. Late winter turned to spring and summer. Every morning, mist blankets the river valley until the sun burns it off. Every evening, the sunset dazzles. The house has given the new owners a front row seat to the cycles of nature and is, they texted their architects not long into their sojourn, “the best place they could escape to.” 

Carrara marble penny tiles wrap the master bathroom shower. Photography by Paul Warchol.
European oak planks extend up from the floor to form a built-in bench and niche in the entry hall. Photography by Paul Warchol.
Next to a toilet by Sieger Design, the wall-hung vanity in the guest bathroom is custom. Photography by Paul Warchol.
One of the two guest bedrooms features a Michael Anastassiades pendant fixture and a Faye Toogood chair. Photography by Paul Warchol.
The master bath’s ofuro, or Japanese soaking tub, is hinoki. Photography by Paul Warchol.
On the forested side, the property’s existing boulder was left in place as the focal point of the gravel courtyard. Photography by Paul Warchol.
Throughout, windows, all framed in anodized bronze-finished aluminum, are strategically placed to capture different outdoor views, like in the master bedroom, where the pendant is also by Anastassiades. Photography by Paul Warchol.

Project Team: 
Brad Isnard; Troy Lacombe: Desai Chia Architecture. AB Landscaping: Landscaping Consultant. David Kufferman PE Structural Engineers: Structural Engineer. Arthur H. Howland Associates: Civil Engineer. Bartenschlager Woodwork: Woodwork. Classic Renovations: General Contractor.

Product Sources: Ortal: Fireplace (Living Area). Get Real Surfaces: Fireplace Surround. Noguchi Shop: Pendant Lanterns (Living Area, Dining Area). Poliform: Sectional (Living Area). ABC Carpet & Home: Rug. Carl Hansen & Søn: Daybed (Living Area), Chair (Master Bedroom). Through Stillfried Wien: Tables (Living Area, Dining Area). Design Within Reach: Benches, Tables, Chairs (Deck), Beds (Bedrooms). Fredericia Furniture: Chairs (Dining Area). Bulthaup: Island (Kitchen). Sawkille: Stools. CEA Design: Sink Fittings. Peter Brooks Stone Works: Solid Surfacing (Kitchen), Cus­tom Sinks (Bathrooms). Kallista: Shower Fittings, Tub Fittings (Master Bathroom), Sink Fittings (Bathrooms). Through Pirch: Shower Drain (Master Bathroom). Duravit: Toilet (Guest Bathroom). Hem Design Studio: Rug (Guest Bedroom). Please Wait To Be Seated: Chair. The Future Perfect: Pendant Fixtures (Bedrooms). Muji: Bench (Master Bathroom). Zen Bathworks: Tub. Pinch Design: Tables (Master Bedroom). Calvin Klein Home: Rug. Throughout: Delta Millworks: Siding (Exterior). Arcadia: Custom Windows, Custom Doors. Alcoa: Roofing. Velux: Skylight. Flos: Track Lighting. Madera Trade: Wood Flooring. Kebony: Decking. Fourth State: Custom Deck Railing. Builder Depot: Penny Tile. Environmental Lights: LEDs. Benjamin Moore & Co.: Paint.

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