Set on a waterfront peninsula, this Cass Lake residence is a warm and artful interpretation of a contemporary seaside villa. There is a careful courtship as one moves from the limestone-and-iron front gate featuring a custom design by an artisan in the Middle East, to the circular drive before the grand entrance, where lush, tropical greenery, cement tile roof, glass, and a warm, textural stone exterior greet the viewer in V-shaped layout.
At a glance, it is defined by its more than 1,000 feet of lake-frontage, low-sloped rooflines, unique massing and rounded corners, and an exterior of Minnesota-sourced Vetter stone and commercial-grade, aluminum-sash, bronze-tinted glass windows and doors. Its distinctive entry—complete with grand pillars, skylit canopy, and glass-covered koi pond underfoot—offers a compelling dialogue about the interplay between environment and home. There is a dissolution of boundaries as the residence leverages both glass entrance and expansive glass windows on the lakefront-facing side of the home to not only create an immediate connection to its dynamic interior design, but also to Cass Lake beyond.
“When you step in the front door, our waterfront homes have expansive views that take your breath away,” said Louis DesRosiers, president at DesRosiers Architects in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. “Upon entering this warm and inviting space, you feel as though you are a part of the natural outdoors.”
Yet, the indoor-outdoor relationship speaks to more than the oft-lakefront-living experience as an integral design aspect for the homeowners, who envisioned a welcoming residence that not only fostered a strong sense of family, but also a design that supported an ability to entertain large groups throughout the property.
“We entertain a lot. Every year we will have a summer party with about 300 people in our home and throw multiple events in between,” said Ammar Alkhafaji, son of homeowner Shakir Alkhafaji. “We have political fundraisers, birthday parties, and pool parties: our house is basically an open invite at all times. The whole idea was to keep that indoor-outdoor living as well as big open spaces where we could fit as many people. That was the design intent.”
Designed and built by a collaborative team of architects, designers, builders, and talented craftspeople, this Cass Lake renovation-and-addition project breathes with rich materiality and an intention to its landscape as its open floorplan looks to the lake on multiple sides. It also integrates elements that pay homage to the homeowners’ homeland of Iraq, from the tropical landscaping and deep-honeyed, textural limestone. Team members comprised: DesRosiers Architects, architect; Walter Herz Interiors Inc. of Bloomfield Hills, interior design; Vogue Furniture of Royal Oak, custom millwork; Gethsemane Corporation of Rochester, landscaping; and Stefani & Co., custom metalwork; among others.
Ammar Alkhafaji noted while DesRosiers and Susan Winton-Feinberg, ASID, president and principal designer of Walter Herz Interiors were given free rein on the project, the family was heavily involved in every step of the process.
“We actually built the home ourselves; we were essentially the general contractor on the job and the all the trades we used were people that were the best in the industry,” Alkhafaji said. “We started building back in 2012 and 2013 and the economy wasn’t great at the time, so it allowed the [tradespeople] to spend a lot of time designing and working with us on the process. Everyone really put their heart and soul into it.”
DesRosiers Architects is an award-winning, full-service architectural firm specializing in distinctive residential, institutional, and commercial design. Led by DesRosiers, the firm’s nine-member staff—five registered architects, technical draftspersons, and designers—works with clients to provide comprehensive architectural design services from schematic design, design development, and construction documents, to construction management—ultimately addressing the functional, economic, and aesthetic demands of each project.
“The firm’s philosophy is to design around your lifestyles and your personalities using creativity and talent to accomplish those goals,” DesRosiers said.
“However, you will always get our professional opinion. I’m certainly going to bring all the options to the surface that you need to be aware of to make your decision…but the house is really supposed to be an expression of [the clients] and their lives. It is supposed to function the way they perceive their lives functioning and not some rigid plan,” DesRosiers added.
DesRosiers, who is a third-generation registered architect, graduated from the Lawrence Technological University in Southfield, Michigan with a Bachelor of Architecture degree whereupon he designed and built his own 6,400-square-foot residence in 1972 at the age of 28-years-old—and arguably launched his auspicious career. By 1974, DesRosiers founded DesRosiers Architects and was inspired by his late father, Arthur DesRosiers—the architect of St. Hugo of the Hills Church—to build upon a rich architectural legacy in traditional and contemporary design.
Since its establishment nearly 45 years ago, DesRosiers Architects has developed a portfolio of stunning residential architecture that reflects a pursuit to create physical statements through a harmony of art and structure. The majority of custom home projects completed are set on the waterfront throughout the Great Lakes region, as well as in Oakland County, Michigan; Beverly Hills, California; Jupiter, Florida; and Telluride, Colorado.
“Design to me is all about making people feel comfortable and relaxed when they are in the spaces we have created; that is what is important,” DesRosiers said. “I want people to feel at ease in my homes and I’m always trying to complement what nature has to offer. Even when I do a small home in an urban area, every lot, somewhere, has a view worth looking at and the most desired rooms favor that view, even if it is a sunset, a wall with a pool in front of it, or ivy growing on the wall; something that makes people feel close with nature.”
While the design and style of each project varies depending on client lifestyle—or company branded environment—DesRosiers Architects leaves its signature in both residential space and architectural structure from the custom, rimless, commercial-grade registers and designing outlets to be hidden, to sculpting grand staircases and unique ceiling details.
“Whenever you are changing levels in one of my homes, I often make the stair a very special feature. It is like a piece of sculpture that takes you from one level to the next,” DesRosiers said. “It is a significant aspect of the home. Utilizing the stair is a pleasurable experience as is viewing it from a distance.”
In the case of the Cass Lake project, DesRosiers Architects was brought into the process early on to help bring the Alkhafaji family vision to residential life. The peninsular site, which is located on the eastern most shore of the largest lake in Oakland County, happened to be located across the lake from property already owned by the family and went up for sale as the Alkhafajis were finalizing blueprints on the other lot.
“We have always lived in the area and always planned on building a home on the water. This home went for sale—it was an older home—but the property was just beautiful of terms of the shape of it. This is one of the only properties on the lake that has more than 1,000 feet of frontage and you can’t find better views,” Alkhafaji said.
“It also had a boathouse. At least in this area, you can’t build them anymore and are grandfathered in. We were able to retrofit it. It is a really beautiful feature of the home. It has a really different type of experience; you don’t feel like you are in the hustle and bustle of Oakland County,” Alkhafaji added.
DesRosiers said his process begins by meeting clients at the property to discuss programmatic goals, functionality of the home, and understand the nuances of the multi-generational family of seven’s lifestyle.
“The goal is to understand their family, how they function, and how they perceive themselves,” DesRosiers said. “Their desire was to have large areas for entertainment. Their house on the main floor basically has three large entertainment areas, which allow access to the patios and lakeshore.”
What began as a small remodel, quickly turned into taking the home down to the existing footings and studs and expanding the footprint with an additional wing that nearly equals the size of the original structure to feature a total of six bedrooms, eight bathrooms, a large kitchen and pantry, two-story great room, kitchenette and bar, exercise areas, and a study, among other spaces. Due to the site’s location on a peninsula and on grade with the waterfront, construction of the home required a great deal of engineering and use of helical piers to support not only the new addition and four-and-a-half-car garage, but also the outdoor pool and brick paver driveway—which is supported by four inches of concrete.
“The water table is so high, because you are so close to the waterfront. It makes the property a little bit harder to build on, because the soil is not strong enough,” Alkhafaji said. “This house had to be built on helical piers. Everything is super sturdy so you won’t have any issues in terms of the foundation.”
It also influenced the spatial plan within the interior of the home in terms of the master suite’s location on the main or upper level, which the number one question DesRosiers asks his clients.
“In this case, they had no option. There wasn’t enough room on the site to add an entire master suite wing on the main level,” DesRosiers said. “In the final design, the master suite became a separate wing; accessible from a balcony overlooking the great room.”
The residence’s plan also features an outdoor cabana structure with a recessed cooking area to allow for a more traditional table height seating area. The outdoor bar and grill is also complete with an integrated television which can swivel and be hidden away; as well as a material palette reflective of the main home itself with Vetter stone, pillars, and a cement-tile, skylit roof. It also overlooks a negative-edge pool with a built-in spa, which is flanked by descending patio stairs with gas-lit torches upon custom pedestal pavers that match the limestone. The stairs also lead down to a nearly 14-foot-long linear fire pit near the water’s edge.
It was during the conceptual phase of the project that Winton-Feinberg also became involved. Winton-Feinberg, who has collaborated on multiple DesRosiers Architects projects in the past, believes in being involved from the earliest planning through completion of construction—and values the importance of space and its spatial flow.
The interior designer
Winton-Feinberg—whose signature design eye transcends styles—has established herself throughout the years as a highly-acclaimed interior designer with a portfolio of sophisticated installations that reflect a sense of balance, scale, proportion, and classic, glamorous elegance. While admittedly artistic from a young age, Winton-Feinberg noted she initially pursued interior design when her mother encouraged her to pursue the field as a senior in high school.
“My mother, who is very wise and brilliant—and now 102-years-old—said to me: ‘My dear, you will not be a school teacher, you would not be good at that. You are going to go to art school, you are going to become an interior designer, and you are never going to rely on a man,’” Winton-Feinberg said. “That is how I became an interior designer.”
The small, three-person team led by Winton-Feinberg has developed a portfolio of projects that reflect a number of different design aesthetics and periods, from a Louis XV- or Louis XIV-inspired chateau, an 18th Century English home, and Country-French residence, to a European contemporary condo, and more modern medical office.
“I think you have to appeal more to the emotions and the eye. Every time there is a different set of circumstances; it is totally different every time you talk to a client, be it an office, a country club, or a retail store,” Winton-Feinberg said. “It is a different set of circumstances with a bunch of different rules you have to contend with; I have to be incredibly flexible. In one week, I can be doing five different areas of design. It doesn’t exactly get boring, because my mind has to be able to multi-task.”
When working with new clients, Winton-Feinberg said it is important to listen and within about five minutes can typically distill their tastes, and what they do or don’t like from a few initial questions.
“I always ask what [they] don’t like. There is not a human being in the world who knows what they like. I work negative in essence; in asking what they don’t like, tells me what they do like,” Winton-Feinberg said. “My philosophy in all these years I’ve been designing—and I design big houses and big jobs—there is never one I would want to live in myself, because I don’t live their life. Every single client lives a different lifestyle.”
Winton-Feinberg also said even when comparing two similar projects at face value—the same condominium units or building like homes—when it comes to the interior design and the interior working of the family, each person has a different way of how they want to live and what they want that to look like in reflected tangible form and style. From there, Winton-Feinberg will collaborate with the architect to ensure some of the more intimate details on the interior will work with the structural integrity.
“I would say my forte is space. I work with [DesRosiers] very closely, because I get more intimate with the clients on what they want. The inside is my baby,” Winton-Feinberg said. “By space, I mean is the room in the right place, does it makes sense that it is next to the living room, and does it open into the kitchen or dining room? It is so involved. I don’t get plans from an architect and just show my clients fabrics and a piece of marble. That is not what I do. I start with the ground and go up.”
Noting the homeowners liked a more contemporary design, Winton-Feinberg created a color scheme she likened to honeyed banana due to the depth and richness of the darker, creamier hues—and to ensure the palette didn’t take away from the land and the views from the expansive glass found throughout the home.
“The fabrics, the textures, and the materials are what make the house,” Winton-Feinberg said, in reference to the interior. “It is not cold. It is very warm. You walk into this all-stone house with marble floors and it is still inviting.”
Alkhafaji also noted the color scheme was intentionally neutral due to the blue of the water surrounding the home—including the interior window framework in the two-story great room as it overlooks Cass Lake.
“The idea was to bring the color from the outside and keep everything in the house pretty neutral so that once people come into the house, the focal point should always go straight to the exterior,” Alkhafaji said. “That is the whole point of lake living.”
Though its warm-hued stone and cement tile exterior is distinctive in its own right, upon entering the home in the foyer, the careful curation of textures, woods, fabrics, marble, brass, modern-inspired Art Deco furnishings, and glass achieve a balance of rich welcome. From the wide, mahogany front door with frameless side light windows, the foyer sets the stage for the rest of the home to unfurl in its splendor.
There are ribbon-cut mahogany wall panels with sconces, Art Deco-inspired French mirrors overlaid large reflective panels that line the Crème Marfil marble floor—complete with in-laid stainless steel and brass features—in the foyer. The indirect lighting in the stepped ceiling and complementing chaise lounges complete the overall welcome.
“Because there is so much glass and the main floor is all Marfil stone that automatically is cold, I had to use a lot of materials and fabrics,” Winton-Feinberg said. “We used a lot of beautiful wood, I upholstered the walls to help with sound in the great room, and we did big area rugs to help absorb sound.”
The marble floor leads to the two-story great room just beyond, where expansive, bronze-tinted glass panels decorate from floor to ceiling with a horizontal onyx fireplace, and genuine mahogany planks line the floor in a warm complement to the marble and 12-foot-diameter helical mahogany staircase with brass balusters that ascends to the second floor. The marble floor, installed by Jay Thompson of Thompson Marble, utilized epoxy in the joints to create the appearance of a single piece of uninterrupted stone when the sun hits it in the right way, according to Alkhafaji.
The curved wall enveloping the staircase also features a leather-and-wood paneled pattern that not only is intended to soften the acoustics of the large space, but also can double as the infrastructure for a circular elevator in the future.
“The central focal point, aside from looking through and seeing the lake, architecturally is this magnificent staircase that is made of mahogany, glass, and bronze. The shape of the stairs is reflected in the ceiling,” DesRosiers said. “Our ceilings designs are very interesting; they are stepped with indirect lighting that gives a very dramatic feeling when you are in the house—it is almost celestial.”
It is an effect that in part is due to the strategic use of light, which was also installed on the underside of each stair tread as it leads to the upper level. The use of light and stepped ceiling is also integrated in the great room—and reflects the firm’s design philosophy that the ceiling is an area of the home looked at much more prevalently than common perception.
Alkhafaji also noted there isn’t too much variation throughout the home, since there was an intention to create consistency in color—the same crafter who stained all the panels for the walls and cabinetry was on-site staining the staircase. On the upper level, where the two wings of the home are connected by a walkway that is open to the great room, the master suite is complete with a walk-in closet with custom built-in cabinetry by Greg Bartlett of Vogue Furniture.
“We really wanted to make sure everything was very cohesive and the same thing goes for the master bedroom, where the master is unique in a way,” Alkhafaji said. “The house is meant to be more art deco, so it is modern, but it has a little bit more of a cleaned-up, traditional feel as well on the inside where you have some of those 1920s and 1930s furniture without all the ornate details. [Winton-Feinberg] is just great with Art Deco.”
Winton-Feinberg said while the main level features marble, wood, and textures such as nubby fabrics, wool, rugs, and velvet, the master suite is “all onyx and satin and silks.” The suite also features hand-painted walls by a local, Michigan-based artist—including the flowers visible on the ceiling in the bedroom and walk-in closet.
“It is a very romantic master suite,” Winton-Feinberg noted. “We did a floral painting on the ceiling and we upholstered the walls and its looking out at the water.”
Onyx is also used in the kitchen, where hanging pendant light fixtures suspend over an under-lit onyx counter top complete with custom-textured metal below with brass inserts. The ceiling is once again stepped and adds dramatic flair to the ribbon-cut mahogany cabinetry, Crème Marfil marble floor, Miele appliances, and curved, stainless steel range hood with custom-designed textured stainless steel.
“Those custom built-in cabinets start to go down the hallway to the right and down the entire length of the house,” DesRosiers said. “There is an entire paneled wall system and it has touch latch doors for all the closets and one of the doors is a secret door into the powder room and one into his study.”
In the end, it is a residence of nuance and detail, where its design and ambiance is open and welcoming to those in the tight-knit community surrounding Cass Lake.
“This is one of the most important features in homes that I do,” DesRosiers said. “I think it is important for human beings to always feel comfortable—that old-fashioned phrase: warm and cozy. I work very hard at doing that and one way is using a lot of natural materials—wood and stone usually indigenous to the region. I think human beings are naturally drawn to the warmth and textures of wood.”
For Winton-Feinberg, the concept of comfort is an important aspect of a well-designed space.
“Your home is your haven; it is where you feel safe. There is aesthetics and beauty, but comfort warms your heart,” Winton-Feinberg said. “You want to go home and walk in the door and smile.”
Photography: James Haefner Photography