July 22, 2013

The Simple Life: Desai Chia’s Weekend Getaway

Silver-gray shingles, shiny black shutters, and hydrangea hedges in the yard, dual dishwashers and Roman tubs in the house. It’s an all-too-familiar recipe for country McMansions—overstuffed with luxury and wrapped in nostalgia to satisfy the Gatsby-esque appetites of certain affluent New Yorkers. Whatever happened to the charm of rural simplicity, the chance to explore the outdoors and commune with nature, as rewards in themselves? That neglected ethos was what Desai Chia Architecture brought to a conspicuously low-key glass-box house in Dutchess County, New York. There is only one bathroom, and the majority of the beds are bunks. “Not everyone gets their own room, because it’s meant to be informal,” Katherine Chia explains.

The 365-acre estate was certainly scaled to take a bigger house. Split off from a working farm, the unspoiled property boasts a trout pond and still produces hay. The owners, an Australian-born financier and his wife, a lawyer for nonprofits, originally intended to construct a far more elaborate family house, using beams reclaimed from a barn in Allentown, Pennsylvania. Of course, such ambitious undertakings should be studied, not hurried. So the couple decided to first build the glass box, intended for guests once the main house was finished.

Chia and her husband, Arjun Desai, envisioned a pavilion set on a bluestone outcropping above the trout pond—a site chosen with Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates. (Walking the undeveloped property, Michael Van Valkenburgh was delighted to hear the financier refer to the trees by their botanical names.) The architects also en-visioned an exposed foundation. To make sure that the concrete would be poured just right, they traveled across the Connecticut line, to New Haven, to analyze the exquisite concrete work of Louis Kahn’s seminal Yale University Art Gallery from 1953.

The pavilion’s floor slab now overhangs that exposed foundation—but only slightly, since the outcropping lies on a migration route for rattlesnakes. No sense in creating shady spots where the vipers might linger. Above the slab, the building envelope is spectacularly transparent. A high-tech prefabricated window system allows for monumental glass panels almost 11 feet high by as much as 20 feet wide. Unlike at Philip Johnson’s Glass House, the cantilevered roof negates the necessity for structural columns between the glass, not even at the corners. Black gaskets only ¼ inch wide suffice. The window system lends a bit of structural stiffness; just four steel columns, buried in the core, actually hold everything up. There was an anxious moment, before the glass arrived, when a construction supervisor who ventured to the edge of the cantilevered roof caused it to quiver. No one else was able to repeat the effect. Still, for safety’s sake, the structural engineers recalculated and added bracing to the core. The mechanical engineers meanwhile perfected the rainwater harvesting, photovoltaic panels, geothermal heating and cooling, and radiant flooring.

At 2,100 square feet, the house can sleep six people: two in the bedroom and four in a pair of alcoves outfitted with bunk beds. They’re white oak, as are the ceiling and floor’s 5-inch-wide strips and the slats of the screens that provide privacy for the bedroom, alcoves, and bathroom. Views into the bedroom are further blocked by a freestanding white-oak divider that serves as a headboard on one side and a bookcase on the other. As a contrast to all the wood, Desai Chia specified liberal amounts of white solid-surfacing for the kitchen and bathroom. Joints in the material were fused to prevent dirt from collecting in them.

Furniture received as much meticulous attention as the architectural detailing. But not right away. “The family sat on beanbags in the living area and ate at a table outdoors for a while,” Desai says. “They were camping.” Now, the two school-age kids swivel on steel-and-maple bar stools, while the parents lounge in a couple of vintage Joaquim Tenreiro caned armchairs. Poul Kjærholm painted-steel shell chairs on tripod legs appear both in the living area and in the bedroom. In the latter, they flank an exquisite Tenreiro cocktail table. Tongue in cheek, the bunk alcoves got replicas of the humble three-legged milking stools once found at local dairies.

You might think that, with the furnishings finally in place, the family would be itching to start their big building project. Actually, the studied simplicity of Desai Chia’s pavilion may have succeeded too well. The beams from the disassembled Pennsylvania barn lie at the ready, but any further design development on the main house remains stalled. How about taking the rendering and adding a couple of Roman tubs? Perhaps it could work for a family that also wants a hydrangea hedge.

Project Team
Emily Anderson; Ian Mueller: Desai Chia Architecture. Christine Sciulli Light + Design: Lighting Consultant. James Gainfort Consulting Architects: Waterproofing, Insulation Consultant. Arup: Structural Engineer. Paggi Martin Delbene: Civil Engineer. Geodesign: Geotechnical Engineer. Salamone Group: Mep. Descience Lab: Woodwork. Daniel O’Connell’s Sons: General Contractor.

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