Pride of the South

ROSA SHIELS
Last updated 08:52 25/01/2012

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In rural Harewood a Southern American-style mansion defies convention. 

Pride of the South

"Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn!"

Echoes of Rhett Butler's words to Scarlett O'Hara hang in the air before the colonnaded entrance of this Harewood house. Like a contemporary take on an antebellum mansion, the Oamaru stone-clad house stands tall and proud on the drive circle.

The Gone With the Wind allusion is not lost on the owner. An IT whizz who developed digital architecture in the form of silicon chips for an international company in England and then Texas, he chose Southern American style as the template for the house.

"I wanted a formal setting in an informal garden," he says. "I was working for four or five years in Texas and lived in a house that was broadly similar to this. The intent was that you couldn't tell whether it was designed last week, last year, or last century."

Draughted by Richard Dalman Architects to the owner's design concept and built by Image Builders, the house was carefully sited to trick the eye. "I purposefully positioned it and the garage in between old tall oak trees," the owner says.

Although it appears to sit roughly in the middle of the northwest-facing section ("it's  5.5 acres -  just about the right size"), it's angled almost due north, for light and sun.

"The morning sun comes into the kitchen." The sun then fills the rest of the house with light by the afternoon - and there's a whole lot of house to fill; its footprint is spreadeagled over 1800 square metres and it rises up three levels with a large basement below.
 
"Yes, it is a huge house, but it's also quite cosy, because it can be closed up at night into separate smaller areas."

This grand house, which took two years to design and a further two to build, was originally intended as a family home. Since a marriage break-up, the owner has lived in it alone full-time and his three teenage children - with friends in tow - live there part-time, with two cats and one pizza-stealing bichon frisé called Charlie.

"My middle daughter had her 13-year formal last night, so I had a bunch of kids here. A limo picked them up to take them to the formal and while we were out [Charlie] was in here, scoffing the leftovers. All his beard was orange from the tomato paste."

The basement houses a wine cellar, a billiards rooms and a fully stocked bar overlooked by a handsome pair of mounted Texas longhorns, a leaving present from the US firm. The bar services the billiards room and a soundproofed movie (and party) room beyond, with multiple leather couches lined up for viewing the wall-size screen.

The two wings of the ground floor, with casual and formal living rooms, kitchen, dining, and entrance, are separated by a sweeping, Hollywood-style staircase, perfect for teenage daughters to sashay down into the tiled, crystal chandelier-lit foyer on their way to a school formal.
 
In the communal living areas, a warm, clotted-cream colour predominates, providing a good neutral background for the many colourful framed artworks, made by the children, which hang in every room.

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The stairwell leads upstairs to the five bedrooms. The paired ones for the children have "Jack and Jill bathrooms" - separate toilets, but shared showers.
 
In the master bedroom, bedside controls allow the occupant to open the blinds and take in the view across the expansive garden from bed. Other electronics centrally operate the doors throughout, including those leading to the balconies.

Large windows in the main bathroom can be opened right back, so a bather can enjoy the vista.

There are corner cupboards and laundry chutes from the bedrooms, and cupboards on each floor with vacuum cleaner and cleaning products handy for the housekeeper. "One per floor makes such sense."

One more level up there is a self-contained attic apartment for guests, with a double bedroom, walk-in closet, tea and coffee-making facilities, and bathroom with bath and shower. This also houses the owner's office and the heart of the computing and electronics systems for the house and garden.

"It's my office and all my projects happen in here," the owner says. He points to a telescope in the corner. "I want to get this telescope installed so I can watch the stars from my basement."

Back downstairs, an internal hallway leads to the glass-walled pool house, with its 12.5m-long pool. There's a spa circlet and paddling area for toddlers at one end and the pool is deepest in the middle, so it can be strung with a net for water sports.

It's as warm as a hothouse inside and the water is heated, almost instantly, by a huge boiler next to the his-and-hers changing rooms. The pool house is equipped with wet bar, fridge, stove, dishwasher, fridge and stereo, and the large side doors open on to a deep tiled area with café tables and chairs.
 
"We use the pool all the time," the owner says. He and the children also use the inflatable river canoe that's stored in here on their many bush jaunts during camping holidays.

There is a tennis court behind the garage and a semi-circular area with a wisteria growing over its pergola "will be perfect for weddings".
 
Occasionally, the house is offered as a location for charity functions (with meals cooked by the in-house chef) and its extra bedrooms have proven beneficial for earthquake refugee friends.

"We engineered it properly to withstand earthquakes. It was known then, 10 years ago, that an 8.5 was overdue on the Alpine Fault and we designed it for a direct hit from that. We piled it back to the bedrock - 60 big steel piles sunk into the bedrock and screwed down as well. It's attached to the ground."

The internal walls are solid concrete, as are the external, 30cm-thick walls, and the owner used as many New Zealand resources and materials as he could in the building.
 
Of earthquakes, he says: "In here, things move, but it doesn't creak and groan. It just sort of moves with the ground."

The house has sustained no damage from any of the quakes and aftershocks since September, "apart from the pool, because it's all windows and that flexes, but not the swimming pool itself, and it's all minor".

If the house is impressive, the garden, although still in a state of development, is even more so. An amphitheatre with a fountain and reflection pool is encircled by half-grown liquidambars and there's a plan for an archway to be installed, as well as a large-scale sculpture. The circle is "just for looking at" at this stage, but the owner is keen to host a Pink Floyd evening with a Dunedin tribute band there for a looming important birthday.
 
When first bought, the property was chaotic and overgrown and dozens of the mature trees were moved so it could be approached as a blank canvas. "Then we sat down and designed the garden with the architects."

There was a copse of nashi pear trees, left over from an earlier era. "If you wanted a house on rural land, you had to show economic use, so they planted all these nashi pear trees. They were completely tangled, so we ripped them all out."
 
The immaculate parterre rose garden the owner has established has 140 roses, and elsewhere there are 200 camellias and about 1000 rhododendrons, which are being moved into colour co-ordinated plots as they flower and reveal themselves.
 
Roger Pollard, of Morgan & Pollard, previously the foreman at the Botanic Gardens, maintains the garden and is involved with its evolution.
Ducks, small birds and blue herons stop over regularly at the well-stocked fishpond, with its water lilies, clustering reeds, and volcanic rock landscaping.

An adjacent orchard is sorting itself into productive (to remain) and non-productive (to be removed) trees, and a thriving native garden winds towards the back of the garden, which is bounded by the Styx River.

Once the garden is fully developed, the owner plans to host garden tours. Until then, he is enjoying watching it all take shape.

There's a genteel, laidback calm to this house and property near the airport. And as you drive away, the large mature trees seem to close off behind you, and once more Rhett Butler's words hang in the air. "Frankly, my dear ..."

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