Flight of fancy inspires home

LIGHT BIRD: Stella Ramage and Chris Thorn's home is perched on a hill above Wellington.
LIGHT BIRD: Stella Ramage and Chris Thorn's home is perched on a hill above Wellington.
LUSH: Flooring is pale maple and cushioned brown linoeium.
LUSH: Flooring is pale maple and cushioned brown linoeium.
TASTEFUL: The house is modern and comfortable, thought was given to lighting and natural colours throughout.
TASTEFUL: The house is modern and comfortable, thought was given to lighting and natural colours throughout.

The day architect John Mills visited a section with a had-it house and a great view, he encountered two apprehensive prospective clients and a bunch of excited tui.

The clients, Stella Ramage and Chris Thorn, had picked Mills after trawling the internet for an architect whose ideas and manner they hoped might click with them. They did.

And Mills, watching a dozen tui darting around the Melrose property, immediately decided on the birds as the inspiration for the new house to replace a small 1950s box of a building.

The new house appears to hover over the site and, inside, its swooping ceiling has panels hand-finished with iridescent tui colours.

"I've been living in the house for 18 months and it still gives me a buzz to walk in," says Ramage. "It's lovely, comfortable, warm and welcoming. It's energising in a way. The ceiling in particular gives it that kind of energy. Some people say having nice surroundings shouldn't make that much difference. It has."

The house was a recipient last year of the New Zealand Institute of Architects' colour and local architecture awards, and a gold medal in the Registered Master Builders House of the Year awards. But its main triumph has been the happiness of client and architect.

Ramage says the original house was bought for its sun and views and they tried, over 12 years, to alter it to make it dry and liveable, including making it as open-plan as possible.

The idea of a new house gradually crystallised as they realised how much money they were spending on a place "that would never be quite right".

"At the end of the day we liked the position, thought about refurbishment and decided to knock it down."

The section is verdant with mature trees and lies across the valley from Zealandia. Kakariki and tui make it their playground.

"When John Mills came here, he was really taken by them."

Mills says most of the original house was recycled rather than knocked down and dumped. The section was drive-on, but the couple did not want a garage.

"They didn't think the car was important. They just wanted a car pad which enabled more time, energy and money to be spent on the house. That was their focus."

The new, stained, cedar-clad house has four bedrooms and is about 250 square metres. Mills says substantial earthworks were needed. Before he drew the plans, he gave the couple his usual quiz, asking each, separately, for their wish list.

"One of her wants was a modern, clean, open house. He wanted a woody, comfortable home. We tried to give them something better than both of these things. The clients were involved at every stage."

Both wanted building and furnishing materials to be as natural as possible and the house to be well-insulated and warm.

"They both wanted a lot of built-in joinery, and we tend to do crafted houses." Built-ins include window seats with pistachio-coloured leather cushions, comfortable spots for reading in the sun or becoming lost in the view.

The iridescently coloured and unusually shaped ceiling, he says "is an imaginative thing, theoretically like the wing of a bird, an expressionist view of the tui, a collection of different colours you might glimpse as a tui brushes past. It's twisted to one side with reference to the flight of the tui. The tui ceiling rises up as you walk in."

Flooring is pale maple and cushioned, coffee brown linoleum. A circular copper skylight in the living area brings in the light and glows with it.

"Moonlight and sunlight shimmer on the copper of the skylight," Mills says. "We've used brass and copper as feature elements for texture."

His influence on the decor extended to lighting and neutral linen curtains. "We do everything. We'd like to do more. We're keen on doing complete packages so clients dealing with us get continuity."

Ramage was impressed with Mills' interest in the interior of the house and how it could reflect its architecture and bush and bird environment.

"There is an extraordinary wooden kitchen island," she says. "John Calvert [artist and designer] came up with these carved aluminium branches, organic and knobbly, as legs of the island, really great, though I had to be talked into it. There's an organic thing going on there that makes a nice contrast to the clean, modern lines of the rest of the house."

Mills considers the section where the new house stands is one of the city's most attractive for views and sun. His intention was to grace it with "a house that looks as if it is poised, floating above the bush".

"We wanted to get it right, so they could spend the rest of their lives sitting back and enjoying it."

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