Ohinetahi Valley home

Owned by an interior designer, this home is beautiful inside and out.

Gone bush

Most people who live in Governors Bay position their houses to look straight up Lyttelton Harbour. But after a bereavement initiated a move from her grand former family home, Jane Swinard's preference was to be surrounded by bush.

Before Jane's husband, Geoff, died more than a decade ago, they decided she and their two girls ought to buy the smaller property next door and build another home there.

Jane had not wanted to move from the Ohinetahi Valley. An adjacent empty property she and Geoff had enjoyed exploring, with its dense bush and twisting trickle of a stream, was the ideal solution.

The property was part of the area planted in English specimen trees and shrubs in the 1860s by botanist Thomas Potts, who had brought a bagful of seeds from London's Kew Gardens with him when he travelled to New Zealand.

Before Jane could build, she needed to clear a platform for the house among the old oaks, ashes, walnuts and tangled undergrowth, without altering the nature of the woodland setting. "I wanted to maintain the sense of wilderness," she says.
The house was designed by the late Jonty Rout, of award-winning architects Sheppard and Rout.

"Jonty was a close friend, and he knew how I lived. As soon as I saw what he'd designed, I liked the first drawing," Jane says. "He knew me so well."

There is peace and privacy here, and the horizon is the dramatic line of Lyttelton Harbour's volcanic crater rim, scribed on the skyline, which can be seen from many of the windows.
The harbour is just over the back and when the autumn leaves drop, a portion of ocean is visible from the upstairs office window. It is a mere two-minute stroll to the foreshore, so Jane and her partner, Philip, and their blended family - 13-year-old Jak and three daughters in their 20s - are never far from the invigorating sea air.
Now more than a decade old, the triple-tier cedar house has assumed its own soft mantle of age, its black-stain finish and greying decks echoing the tree trunks surrounding it.

"I stained the house black, because I wanted it to appear as a shadow on the trees," Jane says.

And so it does, except for the defining slashes of Mondrian-like primary colours against the black: a strip of chrome-yellow glass that lights up the stairwell; a cobalt-blue garage door; the scarlet front door. There's also a burnt-orange letterbox at the top of the driveway.
Jane is an interior designer, who also has a flooring business, and her heightened visual acuity is evident throughout. The interior might be neutral, but there is nothing colourless here; tone, hue, texture and cultural influences play off one another. As she says, "The walls are white, but it is not minimalist in any way."

If it is not a painting or sculpture catching the eye, it's the three-strand sea-grass matting, the crocodile imprint Marmoleum, the whitewashed French oak floors in the office or the bamboo flooring in the living room. Then again, it might be the black-and-white striped wallpaper in the upstairs loo, the black stairs, bookmatched wooden cupboard doors, a Rajasthani cabinet painted with tropical fruit motifs, or the small fire-engine red fridge, which provided the initial impetus for the colour-flash highlights.

Once through the front door, you step into a double-height void. A slim shelf on one side was purpose-built to display a John Reynolds small-canvas artwork, but it might just as well feature flowers or other small artworks on alternate days.

From this light-filled foyer, you take a small step up into the living room, a space that is open plan, yet enveloping, with bi-fold doors, french doors, and large windows to maximise all possible sunlight. Its versatile, accommodating layout lends itself to several seating areas, and the furniture - a meld of retro-futuristic pieces and comfy couches in harmonious fabrics or leather - is moved seasonally to maximise sun or the cosy heat from the central woodburner. And the dining-room table is always a family focus, whether it's placed beside the kitchen servery or seated for summer to catch cross breezes from the open doors.

The kitchen features graphite-painted MDF walls, a red-tiled splashback, and open wooden shelving. Kitchen designer Ingrid Geldof tweaked the working-space design, with a food-preparation area and long bench behind the servery, an under-bench dishwasher, and gas oven. It is small, but serves the family well, except, Jane admits, the small scarlet Bosch fridge - "a widow's whim" that was more for looks than capacity. Another fridge downstairs doubles cool storage.

There are surprises and visual delights everywhere: an antique life-size child's mannequin; a dainty retro console and wire-back chair; a picture window that frames the skyline in the office-cum-guest room; and a wall of books. ("I like books and flowers. Flowers add freshness and books say something about a person's soul.")
One of the most surprising features is the metal-grille landing with glass balustrade at the top of the stairs, connecting the office and the northwest deck. This is both delightfully unexpected and innately practical, as it does not interrupt the light flowing from the upstairs windows. The house might be in a wooded valley tucked beneath the high Port Hills, but it is light-filled and airy.

The three main bedrooms are on the lowest level and all face the bush - its mature trees and verdant native ferns enveloping the inhabitants in peace and privacy.

The master bedroom echoes classical Japanese style, with its stark white, black and natural-wood theme, platform bed and slatted-wood finish on the sliding wardrobe doors, similar to temple doors Jane saw in Japan. Built-to-order furniture completes the allusion and a large Corbusier reproduction painting at the end of the bed draws the eye.
A second bedroom next door, with a silver-painted antique bedstead and bird-silhouette wallpaper, currently doubles as Philip's office and leads to a downstairs deck overlooking the garden.

Rapid-fire electric boogie emanating from the end of the hallway indicates Jak's room. Jak is learning from Christchurch jazz pianist John Bevan, and playing the keys is just one of his interests. He is a keen surfer, skier and snowboarder, as is evident from the line-up of sports boots and paraphernalia, and posters covering every square centimetre of wall and ceiling space.

The house has three bathrooms, all with wall-hung porcelain, and glass doors create an inner wet-room in the largest of these. A tiny closet serves as the laundry and a small room off the downstairs hallway provides extra storage.

The house is served by three decks ("we're deck-dwellers"), one leading into the house, the upstairs deck on the northwest, and the downstairs deck.

Beyond this lowest deck is a wooden jetty-like structure, which hides the sewerage system. This is a self-regulating clear-water system that recycles grey water from the house to water the trees. Rain tanks provide the only water, which can be challenging, Jane says.

Fine art, funky art, family paintings and clever design pieces brighten walls and corners, inside and out. It might be a painting by Eion Stevens, a Graham Bennett print, examples of Jason Kelly's tongue-in-cheek signwritten poster-paintings or Deborah Walsh's flax-woven bullock skull.

Garden pieces are strategically placed among the trees, including some from the Sculpture on the Peninsula event, which Geoff  Swinard originated. Some of these pieces are hidden and others stand out, among them Alan Coleman's wire-woven Buddha, Stephen Gleeson's extraordinary concrete canoe-prow, and Darren Frost's anchor-like "Hook, Line and Sinker", which hangs on the wall by the downstairs deck.

The little stream that winds beneath an old mossy footbridge adds its own special atmosphere to this setting, quiet in the dry or roaring in the wet season. And if you peer through the foliage, you might just catch a glimpse of the tree house, with wooden shingles, designed with loving care and "engineered to perfection", Jane says, by Philip for, and with the help, of Jak.

The wilderness remains here, as the house becomes more and more part of it.