A country classic

Oberau is an enchanting European-style villa offering elegant country living.

A country classic

A long, straight lavender-edged driveway leads to the two-storey country house Ohoka couple Sara and Rod Buchanan had built nearly a decade ago.

The home is as welcoming as a mellow, warm Italian villa. At its heart is an informal open-plan kitchen and living area, where Sara is busy making a batch of ginger biscuits. "I call them my earthquake biscuits. I don't know how many hundreds of times I've made them. I like to give them away to guests who stay here, or to people I know who seem as if they could do with a pick-me-up."

The five-bedroom family home, which is run as a B&B, has a homely, yet stylish, aesthetic. A warm yellow tone in the airy entrance hall is bright and inviting. A collection of green crockery on glass shelves in the kitchen includes treasured family bowls and other pieces. Blue glass bottles are arranged to catch the light on the stairway to the open upper floor, where a gallery of family photos can be glimpsed.

Sara collects china and especially loves to display heirloom pieces, giving the living areas a settled air. Generous amounts of sticky putty and quake wax ensure valued items are safe from earthquakes. A firm favourite is a ceramic horse Sara's grandmother bought while travelling in the Tyrolean Alps. A characterful pair of roosters also came from Sara's grandmother. "I'm a very chooky person," Sara says. "I've always had hens." Many other china chooks and hen-inspired objets d'art have made it into her collection.

In the kitchen, Sara pauses to show me a painting of the Amalfi coast in Italy by one of Rod's aunts. One of the couple's most-loved paintings, it seems entirely at home in this setting.

With wooden-shutter windows, creepers lazily making their way up to the roofline, a scattering of terracotta pots and a roof of terracotta tiles, there is more than a touch of Mediterranean magic to this solid home.

"It was while travelling in France and Italy in 2000 that we fell in love with the European style of villa architecture," Sara says. "That was when we decided we wanted that look for our new home."

Adjoining the kitchen and living area downstairs is a formal sitting and dining room. A beautiful chandelier over the dining table was a present from Sara's elderly godmother, who has moved to Nelson since the earthquakes. "It's one of those special things in our home," Sara says. This room, with its open fire, comes into its own during winter. It is also a relaxing place to sit and read a book and there is easy access to the outdoor entertainment area, which has its own open fire.

With its thick concrete walls, double glazing, and under-floor heating in both the kitchen and entranceway, this home stays a comfortable temperature year-round.

Upstairs, all of the homestead's five bedrooms open on to a spacious verandah above an attractive pergola. The master bedroom, with its generous ensuite and walk-in wardrobe, is at the home's northern end and is bathed in morning sun.

The spacious main guest bedroom - a  duplicate of the master bedroom - is popular as wedding accommodation, as is a second room, painted 'Resene Juniper', a distinctive blue. Another room is being used by daughter Annabel, who has returned temporarily to enjoy the comforts of home. The fifth bedroom is a small feminine room for single guests.

Sara and Rod previously lived on a small farming property nearby, running sheep and cattle and growing hazelnuts. It is where they raised Annabel and her brother, Guy. "They went to the local school and grew up as country kids. We were the typical lifestyle family of the late 1980s and '90s," Rod says.

Sara, who grew up in a West Coast farming family, remembers sometimes heading out "in dressing gown and gumboots" to check how many lambs had been born overnight.

However, after 15 years on the farm, and with their children grown, Sara and Rod knew it was time to move to a smaller property.

The vision that created this relaxing villa, now so settled in the landscape, began one sunny morning in 2002, when Sara and Rod cycled over to look at a dandelion-filled paddock with a 'For Sale' sign out front. They ended up sitting  in the middle of the paddock, smiling at each other and observing how little traffic noise they could hear. Soon their plans were made, but it was another 18 months before their house was built. In the meantime, the couple moved to a city flat and commuted regularly to check on the house's progress.

"We went from living on a farm with livestock to a one-bedroom flat, one cat and one dog," Sara says. She effectively became Oberau's project manager, working closely with architect Neil Armstrong and builder Neil Rich.

The home's concrete tilt slabs were poured in Christchurch and trucked out, so the basic structure was erected and bolted together fairly quickly. Sara and Rod painted the entire tilt-slab structure themselves.
The team's efforts were rewarded when Oberau won a silver runner-up award in the 2006 Registered Master Builders' Awards.

"The design is simple and yet, we have ended up with something quite individual," Sara says. "It is a lovely home to live in - it is very warm. We love the views from the upstairs bedrooms. It is in a great location and, to us, it is the ideal country house."

It has also withstood the earthquakes with barely a crack.

Sara has a love of good balance and fine sense of symmetry. "You can stand in the middle of the drive and, if you open the front door, you can look right through the house and through the pergola into the grounds. It's all in line."

The kitchen looks out through plantings of 'Burgundy Iceberg' roses to a potager (and adjoining flower garden), providing a plentiful supply of seasonal vegetables for the table. Artichokes are planted in garden beds at the rear of the home, mostly for their hardiness and good looks, but American visitors, in particular, enjoy their edible parts. Fresh eggs produced by nine hens are also appreciated by guests.

There are two courtyards on either side of the house, lined with cypress and edged with Mexican orange blossom. Sara designed the garden, while Rod did much of the breaking in and edge work. "I wheeled in around 27 tonnes of gravel for the pathways," he says.

The pergola was developed off the formal sitting and dining room during the past couple of years. It is hung with an ornamental grapevine that turns a brilliant hue of red in the autumn. Under the vine leaves, lazy days might be spent, perhaps with friends over a leisurely lunch or dinner. Sheltered from the southerlies by a wall on one side, the other sides are open, allowing views of a small lake, with resident paradise ducks and other aquatic birdlife, and a vista of oak and hazelnut trees. These are part of a 20-hectare truffiere, shared with other homes in this spacious subdivision.

While their truffiere has yet to provide any truffles, the property produces hazelnuts in abundance. Sara and Rod encourage two boys from a neighbouring property - with the blessing of their parents - to collect and sell them for pocket money.

There is a romantic story associated with the name 'Oberau'. The original 'Oberau' is a traditional Austrian ski village. Some 40 years ago, this is where Rod asked Sara to marry him, after a season spent skiing and working as ski instructors. "When we decided to build this house, we agreed that Oberau would be an appropriate name for it," Sara says. Above the front door, etched into old wooden blocks, which belonged to Rod's mother in her childhood, is Oberau's proud name.