Designed for the Dunes

Crafting a castle in sand deemed a Critical Dune Area by the State of Michigan requires more than a bucket of cash. Rights of ownership call for a special level of care and commitment — and architectural ingenuity.

View from the DunesBy Lisa M. Jensen

Along Lake Michigan’s shoreline and parts of Lake Superior, the steepest and most spectacular dunes in Michigan are also the state’s most fragile — and challenging — places to build home. 

From the shore and myriad beach grasses to fluctuating wetlands and mature forests, all habitats in this unique environment are linked and sustained by moving sand into one dynamic ecosystem. Impacting any part of it — such as cutting off the sand supply blowing inland from the beach — will affect the dunes as a whole, including rare and endangered species of plants and wildlife. 

For the many public benefits they provide, about 70,000 of Michigan’s 275,000 acres of coastal freshwater dunes are classified as Critical Dune Areas (CDAs) under the state’s Sand Dune Protection and Management Act. Those who own private parcels within these CDAs need to respect restrictions set here and obtain permits for regulated activities, from putting up a fence to new home construction.

After adhering to these guidelines, the extent to which property owners protect their piece of glacial history is a matter of personal choice.

Preserve the Dunes (PTD) is a non-profit group dedicated to dune conservation in Southwest Michigan. Recognizing that residential development has become the biggest threat to these fragile ecosystems, PTD held its first Critical Dune Residential Design Awards in 2006.

Interior view of the homeTheir goal: To honor architectural designs that made the most of dune settings while minimizing environmental impact to them — and to educate other landowners and architects about better ways to build in the dunes. Each of the four projects awarded in 2006 (including the Studio Pavilion featured on page 60) illustrated different and unique ways to do this.

“The top two lessons I would want landowners, architects and builders to take away from this contest are first, to have a small footprint (including the house, accessory buildings and all impervious surfaces) and second, to preserve existing vegetation and landscape with native plants best-suited for the dune ecosystem,” said Marcy Colclough, president of PTD and a senior planner for the Southwest Michigan Planning Commission.

“One of the reasons residential development is such a threat to the dunes is because of ‘decorative landscaping’ — the introduction of non-native plants that can dramatically change and quickly upset the balance of this unique ecosystem that has developed over thousands of years.”

As a media sponsor of PTD’s 2012 Critical Dune Residential Design Awards, Michigan BLUE Magazine is proud to present three inspirational designs cited by this year’s judging panel (visit for each juror’s bio). All projects submitted for 2012’s awards program were also reviewed and evaluated by a panel of scientists and experts in dune construction.

To learn more about each of these projects and PTD’s other initiatives, visit sos Go to or for a statewide map of Critical Dune Areas.

Lisa M. Jensen is editor of Michigan BLUE Magazine.

2012 Winner

Lake House in the Woods, Coloma

Davis Associates Architects & Consultants, Inc., Chicago (

“Primary design objectives were to step lightly on the site, to preserve and honor
the natural setting and to enable enjoyment of this place’s natural beauty.” 

— Charles F. Davis, AIA

Completed in 1992, a number of distinctive land use elements contributed to PTD’s top entry. A few include these:

• To lessen dune disturbance, this multi-story home packing 2,200 square feet of living space was developed on the 871-square-foot, previous site of a log cabin. 

• Only one tree larger than six feet was removed for the house. Remaining trees were protected during construction and continue to flourish, providing protection from wind erosion and shade: “Even during the hottest summers, air-conditioning is turned on no more than two to three times per year,” said the homeowner.

• A shared driveway further lessens impact to the dunes.

• All excavation was done by hand, and all excavated soil was used on-site: No additional soil was brought onto the property. While the tree canopy remained intact, native shrubs and ferns were used for landscaping.

From the beach, this “tower” home almost disappears into its wooded dune environment. While darkly-stained cedar shingles and trim blend with tree trunks and oak branches, glass windows reflect forest and sky; throughout the house, windows placed for cross ventilation also bring the dune environment as well as natural light into every room. 

A highlight of this home is its third-floor master bedroom and bath: With giant oaks just inches away from views out, the serene retreat offers tree-house appeal.

2012 Honorable Mention

Yellow House in the WoodsLaketown Residence, Holland

Allegretti Architects, Inc., St. Joseph (

“Many weekends were spent visiting the dunes until the homeowners found and fell in love with what they call ‘the Hug’: a bowl-shaped, high dune formation 400 feet from the lake and approximately 40 feet above the access road.” — John Allegretti, AIA

This 2.41-acre, west-facing dune offered an approximately 1,200-square-foot, less-than-one-third-sloped buildable site area approved by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. The solution to this park-and-walk site was a Swiss Family Robinson-like retreat connected by a curving stair on the lake side and a two-level screen porch on concrete piers further ascending the dune: At 809 square feet, this entry had the smallest footprint of all those submitted for 2012’s PTD awards program.

Natural lake breezes under the forest canopy along with a closed loop geothermal heating system conditions the seminal LEED Platinum home. Additional noteworthy green features include low-maintenance cement board and sustainable timber surrounding a concrete and steel interior; FSC wood, urea-formaldehyde-free medium density fiberboard and recycled 1850 blacksmith shop timber cantilevered wood stairs.

“The owner, a fabric artist and her family, had often dreamed about living in the dunes near Lake Michigan,” noted architect John Allegretti. “She had spent summers north of Ludington at her family’s home and wanted to share the passion she had developed for art and the environment with her husband and two children.”

Supported by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, Preserve the Dunes is developing, printing and distributing a brochure showcasing winning designs and the design elements that protect this fragile environment.

2012 Commendable Aspects

2012 Commendable Aspects Nominee Beachfront Retreat, Covert

Booth Hansen, Chicago (

“Rather than create one large structure, two smaller structures were designed with small footprints, allowing for contiguous natural habitat to be preserved.” — Larry Booth, AIA

While elements PTD’s jury expressed as important included hiding or limiting views of dune homes from the beach, the panel appreciated this submission’s modestly-sized, graceful and compact design and its preservation of existing trees: The supporting piers of raised walkways allow natural habitat below to remain undisturbed, and the buildings — positioned on the site’s low- slope portions, with the first floor of the main house cantilevered four feet over the basement to maximize the floor plate — minimize erosion as well.

Clerestory windows over the main living space and bedroom utilize natural chimney effect, allowing hot air to rise out, while the concrete floor’s thermal mass holds in heating and cooling.

“North-facing solid walls of the home contain high R-value spray foam insulation…and supplemental heat is provided in winter by two large stone fireplaces,” noted the architect. “Completed in 2006…the owner’s goal was to provide a space for relaxing and recharging, in tune with nature, away from the city. The nearly all-glass east façade allows for panoramic views down the shoreline.”

Clockwise, from right: A raised walkway connects the home to garage and gallery, leaving natural habitat below undisturbed, while the master bedroom features clerestory windows, a fireplace and covered porch. And though placing a home within sight from the shoreline isn’t favored by judges, this house’s position on the site’s low-slope portions reduces erosion.

2012 Critical Dune Residential Design Awards

Scientific Panel Considerations

Studio Pavilion
Studio Pavilion, Wilderness Dunes in Covert: One of four projects to win a Critical Dunes Residential Design Award in 2006, this studio pavilion designed by Kathryn Quinn Architects, Ltd., in Chicago sits atop heavy timber piers so drainage from surrounding slopes can span naturally across a small ravine. Rough-sawn, Western Red Cedar siding stained a bark-like color and a river rock core help merge this personal retreat with nature.

Preservation of habitat. The overall key is density/scale of the building on the lot and the context of the home. Specific efforts should be taken to minimize the footprint or reduce existing footprint from previous buildings.

Measures to control erosion. With wind erosion being a big culprit it’s important that there aren’t any exposed/bare/un-vegetated areas. What side of the dune is the home on? It’s best if it’s not on the beach or in front of the tree line. Is there the potential for new blowouts to occur? Take every measure to avoid steep slopes. The less sand removal and/or cut/fill during construction the better. Like to see efforts to reduce impervious surfaces as much as possible (i.e., sharing an access drive; avoiding concrete or asphalt, etc.)

Resource-conserving design. Was an existing foundation reused? What about alternative energy use or use of energy efficiency practices?

Minimal removal of native plant materials. These are adapted to their environment in the dunes. They support other native species and provide habitats. By preserving them, human impact to the ecosystem as well as erosion is minimized.

Landscaping with native plants  (especially those already on-site). Be sure to plant trees around the house to increase the canopy. It’s best to create different habitats by planting a mixture of grasses, shrubs and trees. Awards were not presented to applicants that planted non-native invasive species.

To learn about actions and additions that are regulated in critical dune areas, go to

Natural Dune Systems

There are two major dune types in Michigan: parabolic and perched. Most parabolic, or U-shaped, dunes are found along the Lower Peninsula’s Lake Michigan shoreline. They are shaped by wind, water, and native vegetation. Perched dunes are found atop bluffs of varying heights. They are not all sand and can be found mostly along the northwest shore of the Lower Peninsula.

Dune and Swale Complex 

A series of roughly parallel, sandy ridges and low, wet troughs of land formed from irregular cycles of high and low water levels, dune and swale complex is globally rare, occurring only along the Great Lakes shoreline and dominated by open marsh with grasses, sedges, and ferns.

Coastal Bluffs 

Steep faces of sediment or soil composed of sand, gravel, or clay along the Great Lakes shoreline, coastal bluffs supply large amounts of sand to perched dunes and other dune formations through erosion and subsequent natural movement of sand along the shoreline.

Coastal Forests 

Michigan’s coastal systems feature many different types of forests, an important stabilizing element for the dunes as they help slow the erosion process. In dune systems, forests naturally grow over time. In fact, Michigan’s oldest forested dunes were once open and sandy.

Great Lakes Marsh 

Michigan is home to a special kind of wetland unique to our region: Great Lakes marshes. They regulate floods, filter water, and provide breeding grounds for numerous species. By protecting Great Lakes marshes, we protect the very waters that lead into our precious Great Lakes, the world’s largest freshwater system. 

— Michigan Dune Alliance,

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