Plagued Ash Trees Were Repurposed to Create This Charred-Cedar Clad Home on Lake Michigan
Can chopping down trees to build a house be an act of preservation? Mike and Barb Collins cleared about a hundred trees from the Leelanau County, Michigan, lot they bought in 2012 in order to make way for a vacation home. About 40 of them were ash trees, which, in northern Michigan and elsewhere, are being devastated by a beetle infestation that was first discovered near Detroit in 2002. The insect, known as the Emerald Ash Borer, apparently was an unwitting passenger when some wood pallets were delivered to the U.S. from Asia and has since spread to 30 states.
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The ash trees on the Collins lot, all roughly 30 to 70 years old, were considered doomed when planning for the house began in 2014. But by being cut down before the beetles completely infested and killed them, the trees experienced a second life as part of the new home. The bulk of the rest of the trees cleared were scrub and brush trees—not good for much except firewood—but the ash trees were special, particularly because one day they might not exist in the area at all.
The couple selected New York–based architects Katherine Chia and Arjun Desai, of Desai Chia Architecture, after seeing an article in the Wall Street Journal about a residence they had designed as an interpretation of Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House. Mike, a small business owner who’d studied the iconic structure in a history of architecture class in college, had saved the article and set it aside. When the time came to build, he called upon Chia and Desai to make their first-ever trip to northern Michigan. There they found inspiration to design a minimalist house with lots of glass that brings the outdoors in and takes advantage of the property’s pristine views.
The 17-acre lot fronts Lake Michigan in a wooded setting with a steep drop-off to a sandy strand. The objective was to make the home friendly for the clients’ three high-school-to-college-aged daughters so that the family could enjoy vacations together. The result was a four-bedroom house composed of three volumes connected by a breezeway and a soaring cantilever that extends the communal spaces into an outdoor living room.
The clients wanted something made of wood, steel, stone, and no brick. In addition to using the ash trees, the team agreed to a cedar exterior that employed shou sugi ban, the Japanese art of preserving wood by charring it. Having just returned from Japan, the architects were interested in the technique, but had never used wood treated this way before. Mike was intrigued because the charring process makes wood insect-, mold-, and rot-resistant. Austin-based Delta Millworks treated the cedar, which was then used as cladding and on parts of the interior.
A grand cantilever is supported by two large steel I-beams on the east and west sides of the house, creating a roof that shelters an outdoor fireplace and the large patio. When it rains, a series of scuppers and a metal trough direct water off the gutterless roof and into the ground.
"The overhang above the patio doubles the size of the living room." Katherine Chia, architect
The interior approach is minimalist and focused on the views. "The beauty of the space and how you use it is so dependent on how you store your stuff and how you unclutter areas," Chia explains. The firm did an inventory of the things the residents would want to hide away and gave careful consideration to size and location of storage. Among the many things they accounted for were the coffee maker and wine bar, the washer and dryer, and a mountain of snow boots, coats, and blankets. Closets run along the bedroom hallways and cabinets occupy an entire wall of the kitchen.
Spared from the chipper, the ash wood became the flooring and some ceiling panels, as well as trim and furniture throughout the house. The dining table is made of three 14-foot ash slabs.
Now that they’ve settled into their vacation home, the Collinses, who are based in a comparatively dense suburb of Detroit, love the wide-angle views. They can even spot five islands in the lake. "Looking in any direction, at any time of year, is captivating," says Mike. The design makes the residents feel part of the constant seasonal change. And while temperatures may fluctuate wildly, the house’s geothermal heat pump, which uses the earth as a heat source and transfers energy from the ground, makes the hulking home feel like a cozy cottage. The closed-loop system uses the difference between the air temperature and the relatively constant below-ground temperature to generate heat in the winter and to cool in the summer, using minimal outside energy. Michael spent only $2 on heat last year.