Creative design solutions

18:56, Jan 07 2013
Queenstown house
The Queenstown house uses the slope well.
Queenstown house
Inside the Queenstown house there is a feeling of tranquility.
Queenstown house
The architects used the land to its capacity in Eastbourne, by modifying the existing house and adding structures.
Queenstown house
The architects used the land to its capacity in Eastbourne, by modifying the existing house and adding structures.

In an abridged extract from a book showcasing New Zealand architecture, Big House, Small House author John Walsh profiles two very different homes.

Ian Athfield knows how to spread a house across a slope; he has been doing it at his own property on a Wellington hillside for more than 40 years.

Like a mountain goat, he can pick his way down a contour, reaching for footholds, resting at a shelf. He understands all about working with the topography to produce a variety of intersecting private and public places. Indeed, rising ground encourages Athfield to follow his natural inclinations; I suspect he has a strong desire to turn every house into a community of spaces for a community of people - and he prefers them to be vertical.

This house, on the south side of Lake Wakatipu, was commissioned by a client who often has guests to stay, and the design accommodates sociable use and habitation. It's a sibling house to a sibling's house, also designed by Athfield more than 15 years ago, and the eastern neighbour is still owned by the client's brother. Keeping it in the family has allowed Athfield and project architect Ashley Hide to treat the new dwelling as a related part of the same constructed environment.

A visit is a voyage of discovery that begins at the driveway, bordered by the south-facing wall of the guest house and the upper-level garage.

Between these structures a gate opens on to steps - Athfield does a good stairway - that drop down the eastern side of the property to the main house, passing a courtyard sufficiently sheltered that it can serve as a cinema. The steps stop at a terrace that wraps around the east and north sides of the kitchen/dining and living rooms; the next level on the descent down is a swimming pool. A path continues to the foot of the site and the edge of the lake.


It's quite a journey, from top to bottom, offering a range of landscape and architectural diversions. The tussocks and reeds around the house match the region's native flora and pass the self-reliance test of a client who is self-admittedly more garden appreciator than gardener. There are contrasts in built form, between the gables over the guest house and the bedroom wing of the main house, echoing the gables of the neighbouring house, and the mono-pitch roof over the living/dining wing. (Wary of leaks, the client had proscribed flat roofs.)

At the client's request, rusting steel has been used as the cladding on the dining/living wing; the steel sits well against the Oamaru limestone that clads the other structures. The stone has heft and depth, and an off-white warmth and luminosity. It would be hard to find detractors, but a few years ago planning bureaucrats tried - unsuccessfully - to ban the use, in Central Otago, of a stone sourced in coastal Otago.

The material richness and tactility of the exterior is complemented by the surfaces and finishings on the house's interior. Concrete block walls have a plaster render, and the ceilings are lined with tongue-and-groove timber. The effect of this expensive simplicity is solidity and tranquility; a thick skin is an appropriate defence against the Central Otago climate, and so is the geo-thermal system that draws the earth's heat up and into the building. A long career's worth of experience underpins this house; it's complex, intriguing and rather idiosyncratic.

This project manages to be both conservative and curious. Stretched along a littoral between the southern end of the Rimutakas and the Wellington Harbour coastline, Eastbourne still retains something of its historic character as a day-trip escape from town.

Modern Eastbourne is more dormitory than destination. Demand for dwellings exceeds supply: the skinny space between the rocks and the steep hills offers few sections for new houses.

The purchasers of this house, sited just back from the pebbly beach, chose to go with what they had bought, altering the building and adding new structures to form a mini-complex.

An itinerant professional life has taken them to many places - over the years, they've clocked up more than 20 residences - and semi-retirement presumably could have been spent in any place. But a holiday on a cruise ship brought them into Wellington Harbour and, even on a grey and rainy day, it was love at first sight.

Project architect Simon Hardy says the clients had few but particular requirements. They wanted to turn the 1930s four-bedroom house into a one-bedroom house, thus providing a large west-facing "living bedroom" and ample space to accommodate books, artwork and dozens of personal computers.

The other items in the brief were a covered pool and a guest house. Hardy says the desired aesthetic was "unexpected, quirky and highly crafted".

One gets the impression that, having been rationed in inventiveness by the decision to keep the existing house, the architects found an outlet for their creative instincts in material expression and experiment.

A lot of wood has been worked into the existing house, giving it a richness and, by virtue of insertions such as the bespoke shelving and window seats, a comfortable solidity.

A "thin" house has become deeper on the inside, and has also gained a little weight on the exterior with the addition of vertical screens of sculpted timber members.

The guest house and the garage are clad in zinc (a material with a strong appeal to architects), and the pool enclosure is clad in brick (a material with a strong appeal to just about everyone).

The pool building is the most clear-cut structure on the property. On its south side it has a nice slot window, set low, with a clerestory above. The architects have bridged the gap between this building and the house with brick steps and planters, but the dominant effect of building separation and material difference is disjunction, not unity.

Deliberately, the buildings read as a complex of discrete elements rather than a sprawl of accretions. The advantage of this site-filling strategy is that it connects the house to both its landward and its seaward side, and provides views in both directions.

It's a reassuring arrangement; when you live with your face to Wellington's waves, it's good to know that the hills have your back.

Big House, Small House, by John Walsh & Patrick Reynolds, Random House NZ, $80.

The Southland Times