Asian Flare article


Before + After                                             


Asian Flare

Joseph F. Schuler Jr.  SENIOR EDITOR


A Japanese stroll garden inspires and addition that’s ultimately tied to the outside.


The late Minoru Yamasaki, a second-generation Japanese born in America, is known for designing New York’s World Trade Center, which he saw as a symbol of man’s limitless potential. Yamasaki lived in Michigan and designed his first high-rise there. About his home, near his Troy office, he said, “Buildings should not awe and impress but, rather, serve as a thoughtful background for the activities of the contemporary man.”

            Like Yamasaki, Lansing, Michigan remodeler/designer Jim Magnotta respects the thoughtful backgrounds of contemporary man.

            In his case, his client, third-generation Japanese, was a tireless, dedicated pediatrician born in Chicago and affectionately known as Dr. T.

            Dr. Mark Takagishi had provided loving care to Magnotta’s youngest children for 18 years. Dr. T told Magnotta that while the “Asian-style” addition he wanted on his East Lansing home was important, not damaging the moss that laced the pathways in his Japanese stroll garden was more important. After all, it took years to cultivate the moss. It was then the remodeler knew Magnotta Builders and Remodelers would have to handle the job as attentively as the doctor had handled his children. And he knew he had to foster the same level of trust the doctor had given him.

            The garden – an international menagerie of flora – is Dr. T’s escape. It’s where he and his wife, Rhonda, a neonatal intensive care nurse, slip away from the stress of their jobs, losing themselves in the tranquil Zen garden, koi ponds, waterways trickling over smooth Mexican beach stones, weeping cherry trees, Japanese maples, Austrian and Scotch bonsai pines, and the luxuriant Irish moss, which in the spring is “ like a carpet,” says Dr. T. “It’s magnificent. The moss develops little white flowers as the season goes on.”

            That’s where the design started too – outside.

Dr. T, in Japanese tradition, sought to bring the outside in, so from his kitchen, living, or dining rooms, he could find serenity in a place teeming with colorful, ever-changing life. Jim Magnotta, with 27 years of caring for client’s “thoughtful backgrounds,” was perfect for the job.




          A black belt in karate, Magnotta has deep respect for Asian arts, but he never studied Asian architecture.

            Dr. T’s vision was “something with an Oriental flair, as a transition, so when you sit here, you feel like you’re in the yard.”

            Dr. T met Magnotta at a home show and remembered he had cared for the contractor’s now-grown children. Their connection formed a foundation for all that followed.

            Dr. T drew sketches of how he wanted his addition to look, and Magnotta researched how the structure might come together.

            “I call myself a designer, but I really am an interpreter,” Magnotta says. Besides researching Japanese roofs, inspiration came from the large gate with a flared roof cap that leads into the garden. “I love that gate,” says David Frost, Magnotta’s lead carpenter. “It gives privacy but invites the world to look in.”

            Japanese roofs are works of art, crafted with incredible precision. Many castle roofs were made of bark, but copper and clay tile eventually replaced cypress to protect for fires. The Japanese used gables to decorate their roofs. Chidori hafu (plover gables) and kara hafu (exotic gables) were triangularly shaped. Historians believe decorative features of Japanese castle roofs were a form of defense. The gables confused enemy invaders, who would have trouble determining how many levels the tenshu, or castle tower, had.

            Magnotta “translated” this style to American vernacular, realizing these gabled roofs were Boston hip roofs with flared hip ridges.

            For Frost, constructing this roof profile would be one of the most challenging parts of the $214,000 job, because it required radius framing, tied into an existing shed roof. He had to slope the back half of the ridgeboard down, toward the house, so it didn’t interfere with second-story windows.

            But first, Magnotta needed to protect the moss from invading excavators.



            The backyard garden left little room for staging and didn’t allow for the large equipment needed to excavate a full basement and foundation, so Magnotta convinced Dr. T a slab foundation would be best. Michigan’s ever-changing weather promised to turn any raw jobsite into a mud pit, so Magnotta needed to get the foundation in quickly.

            To protect slate and vegetation from equipment, Frost covered the area behind the planned 720-square-foot addition with a 1-inch layer of Styrofoam for cushion, then ¾-inch OSB to help spread the weight of the small rubber-track excavator. He also barricaded a bonsai pine at the jobsite’s periphery.

            The excavator placed soil into the bucket of a small waiting bobcat, which made trips to trucks in the street. Magnotta’s monolithic slab and footing trench allowed him to dig close to finish grade and complete the foundation in one pour. Excavators used earth as the form so they didn’t over-dig, with some forms placed above grade. Crews pumped in 26 yards of concrete. From June 30 when they began excavating, the rain held off long enough to allow the complete pour by July 3. “Only two patio stones broke, and they looked good enough to Dr. T that they did not need to be replaced,” Magnotta says. The grass in the back yard came back so well it needed no attention. The precious moss was spared too.

            But Magnotta, who visited the job nearly every day, and Frost still experienced glitches. Despite their plastic tent over the slab, water leaked into the basement. Luckily there wasn’t significant damage. When they removed a tree, they discovered a root had grown into an underground power line. After they poured the concrete, it cured and worked its way to the wire. The wire shorted out, requiring the electric company to provide a patch. The utility had backup power to Dr. T’s home in 30 minutes.

            “Jim always comes with confidence; OK, there’s a problem and we’re going to figure it out,” says Dr. T. “And so you’re happy.”

            Magnotta’s subcontractors, many of whom had children in Dr. T’s care, brought the same philosophy, caring for the doctor’s needs as carefully as the pediatrician had cared for their kids.



            Once the addition was framed and sheathed, Magnotta’s cedar shake subcontractor installed hand-split cedar on the three-sided, gabled portion of the addition, using full inch-thick shakes, weaving the roofs planes as carefully as ancient Japanese craftsmen.

            “This side of the ocean, we don’t have the flare on the roof boards,” Magnotta says. “We didn’t have the whole roof frame flared. We duplicated the detail by building up the ridge cap with shingles.” It’s enough of an effect to mimic the entry gate and the tenshus of early Japan.

            The Ipe deck was designed in the spirit of a Japanese veranda, or engawa, a transitional space for entering the house. Doors, windows, and alcoves offer advantageous viewing of the garden. The tropical hardwood columns outside mimic maple columns inside.

            Those columns posed challenges because they taper from 9 ½ inches at the bottom to 5 ½ inches at the top. The clean, minimal lines desired by Dr. T required a Lansing cabinet shop to mill the boards with a rabetted, half-lap joint. Frost made sure the ¾ inch boards had a consistent 3/8 inch half lap, so the joints are of furniture quality. “this is amazing work,” Magnotta says, admiring Frost’s craftsmanship. “The compound angles and finish details – they’re just meticulous.”

            “People with no architectural background love those columns,” says Dr. T. “Then they walk outside and say, aha! The same column is outside as inside … that’s exactly what I wanted.”

            The column at the center of the remodeled space wraps a 4 inch steel lolly column, which supports the mid-span of a 34 foot microllam that helps tie the addition to the house. The beam is actually three LVLs nailed together in an engineer-specified nailing pattern.

            It was no easy maneuver to carry those beams and drop them into place. “They used good old-fashioned manpower,” Magnotta says of his lead and two helpers. “David is ingenious working alone or with minimal help.”

            Dr. T researched shoji screens to cover the sliding glass doors and found a custom manufacturer to work directly with Magnotta, who provided dimensions to make sure the shojis fit. The shojis’ synthetic cloth looks like the rice paper traditionally used, but is washable. Frost designed maple valances on site to hide the tracks at the top of the screens. The doors allow light while providing privacy, a strong component of Japanese culture. Three circular windows, each 3 feet in diameter, also offer privacy while letting in light and suggesting the simple geometric designs of the Orient and the rising sun of the Japanese flag. The window facing east, shaded with a small shoji, gets morning sun, while those facing west let in the setting sun through two orbs.



All of the interior finishes – the 5 inch beveled edge beech flooring, the earth tones of the walls – blend to create the sense of order and serenity of the outside garden on the home’s southern exposure.

            While helping to install the stove hood, a laborer scratched it. No problem, Magnotta told Dr. T. The contractor researched the solution: kerosene and a plastic scrub pad. Used together, the scratch was blended in with the finish.

            “It was just items like that,” says Dr. T of Magnotta’s constant desire to set things right, “He wouldn’t say, ah, live with it.”

            In the end, Dr. T got exactly what he wanted. His outside in inside; his inside is outside.

            “With the waterfall in the back yard, you crack one window and it’s like a megaphone into the house,” Frost says. “The sound of the waterfall just pours in.”

            As for Magnotta, he has delighted one more client and has added to his portfolio another project that clearly serves as a thoughtful background for contemporary man. R

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