"It's one out of the box, literally," is how Masterton builder Dave Caldwell describes the award winning Masterton home which last week picked up New Zealand's richest architecture prize.
Named the ‘Signal Box' for its proximity to Masterton Railway Station, the home won architects Gerald Melling and Allan Morse of Wellington's Melling Morse Architects HOME New Zealand magazine's Home of the Year award.
The home is owned by Stephanie Chilcott, an art enthusiast and former fashion designer who decided to move from Wellington to Masterton after purchasing the large section on which the Signal Box stands.
The one-bedroom home's angled top floor references a railway station signal arm poised half-way between 'stop' and 'go'. The top level of the home accommodates the master bedroom, which is a series of stepped platforms that culminate in a small balcony.
Mr Caldwell, of DAS Construction, says the design made for his most challenging building project yet.
"For two weeks I studied the plans at night and worked it out in my head. The more I become familiar with it, it didn't seem so bad."
While it may look complicated, the architects are adamant the design is also practical.
"The house needed to get up above this little neighbourhood and have a look around, that's where the idea of cranking the top floor up like a signal came from," says architect Gerald Melling. "But we didn't want our client to suffer any inconvenience for the sake of a metaphor. It's a rational, functional house."
The compact 100-square-metre home includes environmentally friendly features such as solar panels, double-glazing and wool insulation, as well as being designed to attract and retain solar heat in its concrete floors and blocks. Throughout the design process, Stephanie Chilcott worried that it would be too small.
"Now I wonder why I complained," she says, "because everything seems to be the right size," Ms Chilcott says.
The judges praised the Signal Box for challenging assumed notions of what New Zealand houses should look like, without sacrificing practicality or comfort.
"Its form is fresh and interesting and inspired by its site close to the railway station," says Jeremy Hansen, editor of HOME New Zealand and one of three members of the Home of the Year award's judging panel
In an essay in HOME New Zealand's Home of the Year issue, Victoria University of Wellington lecturer Peter Wood praises the Signal Box for the way it breaks the mould. "New Zealand houses tend to avoid drawing attention to themselves, and our suburbs suffer from the bland predictability such modesty produces," Wood says. "The Signal Box shows no such insecurities. It throws coyness out its stop/go windows and blows steam from its steam-whistle chimney.