A Christchurch couple tame a steep Port Hills property

Last updated 05:00 28/04/2017
Alison Poulter and Ian Chesterman

Alison Poulter and Ian Chesterman rigged up a camera to capture their house being built on a steep slope on Huntsbury Hill in the Port Hills of Christchurch.

Danielle Colvin
Sloping northeast-facing windows, inspired by boat design, have sweeping views of the city, Port Hills tracks and the ocean.
Danielle Colvin
The compact kitchen and dining room open on to the lounge.
Danielle Colvin
The wooden decking with a glass balustrade is reminiscent of a boat.
Danielle Colvin
The sole bedroom is simply furnished, so the rural views dominate.
Danielle Colvin
The north-facing decking is a blissfully quiet place to enjoy breakfast or a wine.
Danielle Colvin
Cushions, stools and door provide pops of colour.
Danielle Colvin
The Huntsbury Hill section had superb views but no-one had the vision to build on it.

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For seven years, the steep section at the top of Huntsbury Hill sat empty, despite its sun-soaked position and views stretching to the city and the ocean.

No-one had the vision, or the courage, to build on it.

Ian Chesterman and Alison Poulter's geotech engineer friends told them not to buy the section, but the couple are now drinking wine there, on the deck of the home they helped design.

The house seems to hover, rather than sit, at the end of a short driveway, the strong natural colours of the walls and roof blending into the hills behind. The distinctive sloped northeast-facing windows give even passers-by the sense of standing at the glass with the golden tussock falling away beneath their feet.

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The house's unusual design has sparked many a compliment from people walking past.

"It's something about it; it makes people smile. It's a cool space," Ian says.

That is not to say it was easy. It took a year for construction to start after the couple bought the property in 2015, and then there were a few delays with the building, and a bigger final bill than expected.

But, mostly, the punt they took in buying the tricky section paid off.

Ian, a boat designer from Britain, has lived in New Zealand for six years. He met Alison, a social media marketer from Central Otago, almost three years ago.

The couple lived in Alison's house in Shirley with housemates until they decided they wanted their own space.

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They first thought about building a tiny house.

"But we both work from home. I thought: 'We're going to kill each other in a tiny house'," Ian says.

Alison adds: "You can't get a washing machine in a tiny house and I didn't see myself going to the laundromat."

They decided they would go for a small, eco-friendly house instead and started looking for a section.

It took two months and a lot of visits – once, they visited 30 sections in one day – to find "the one".

What sold them on the Huntsbury spot?

"The view, big time," they reply in unison without hesitation.

The section, surrounded by golden hills, offered easy access to tracks for the keen bikers and runners.

It was also close to the city, with a bus stop a few metres from the house, and the central business district a 20-minute bike ride away.

"It was the feeling that we're right on the edge of the city, but also have a DoC reserve nearby," Alison says.

But it wasn't the easiest section to build on.

"It was one of the less sensible sections we looked at," Alison says, laughing.

"Our geotech engineer friend said he wouldn't buy it: 'You don't know what you'll find underneath', he said."

"We spent a fair bit of time thinking about the design before signing the section," Ian says.

The solution to the steep, uncertain ground, was to build the house on poles.

The builders, from Keystone Construction, drilled massive holes, in which they put steel bars with cross-braces, Ian says.

Building a small house was a lifestyle choice.

"We thought 'what's the smallest house we can live in?' "

Ian and Alison considered how big each room needed to be, based on their habits and furniture measurements.

"We measured beds, bedside cabinets, how much space you need to get changed, et cetera," Alison says.

The bathroom is just the width of a bath plus a vanity and a toilet. It could not include a window, but a solar-powered skylight lets the sun in.

"We knew we didn't want corridors, because they use space, so we just have a tiny square in the middle," Ian says.

An architect drew the plans based on the couple's concepts.

"He convinced us to make it slightly bigger and I think he was right. He just relaxed everything slightly," Ian says.

The result?

"We can vacuum the whole place with one plug," Alison says.

The front door opens directly into the study, where two standing desks face the wall.

"The view would be too distracting," Alison says.

The other end of the compact study opens out into a combined open-plan lounge and kitchen, where the view from the tall windows is indeed spectacular.

At the left, the city occupies the foreground, framed by the plains and the Southern Alps beyond. Montgomery Spur, to the right, shines in its golden glory. Rapaki Track offers a passing parade of walkers, runners and bikers, almost like a moving painting. And beyond the hills, the ocean sweeps all the way to the Kaikoura Ranges.

A small hallway connects the main living area to a small bedroom and the bathroom.

Every detail was designed to achieve a living space of just 70 square metres, the washing machine hiding in a kitchen cupboard, a narrow pantry and the hot-water cylinder placed outside to save space.

"We wanted the house to be flexible. The study can be turned into a bedroom; the kitchen bench can be a dining table or a workbench and can be moved around," Alison says.

"Everything almost has two purposes."

High ceilings, large windows and plenty of natural light make the space look much bigger than it is.

The minimalist decor is consistent throughout the house, with a colour palette of pale wood for the floor and ceiling, and a dark grey and a warm off-white (Resene "Eighth Ricecake") for the walls.

XLam cross-laminated timber flooring matches the sloped ceilings.

Kitchen cabinets, windows, tiles, the bench's legs and gutterings are painted dark grey, as is the outside of the house.

"It keeps it really clean," Ian says.

Bright blue, orange, yellow and red stools add a splash of colour.

The same colours make appearances throughout the house, in cushions on the light grey couches and on the doors, including the red hatch going to the storage room beneath the house.

The 30sqm storage room is full of mountain bikes, hung from the ceiling.

"We have no room to hang any more," Alison says.

The space could be turned into a study or bedroom, but for it to be a living space, a proper staircase encroaching on the living space upstairs would have to be built.

The couple didn't want skirting boards or architraves, so the builder suggested negative detail. The walls fold seamlessly above the floor and recessed channels surround windows and doors.

From the outside, the house looks like a boat with its front wall sloping on a 10-degree angle.

It was Ian's idea, inspired by boat design.

"On commercial ships, the bridge windows slope outwards to keep the sun out and reduce reflection."

The garapa timber decking with its frameless glass balustrade is also reminiscent of a boat.

The colour palette of dark grey and wood continues outside with Colorsteel and cedar timber. The roof and most of the walls are corrugated iron.

The couple were hoping that building a small house would keep costs down, but it turned out to be more expensive than they thought.

"We don't want to know the total cost," Alison jokes.

They have not yet calculated the grand total, but building costs, excluding architect fees, came to about $3000 a square metre.

"Building on a hill is expensive, but we don't have dead space: no garage, no hallway.

"When you make a house small, you throw away the cheap bits to build, but you still need a kitchen and a bathroom, which are expensive items," Ian says.

The couple are hoping to save on heating costs, though. They are yet to experience their first winter in their home, but so far it's been warm without heating, with 140mm walls, instead of the required minimum of 90mm, to fit in more insulation.

Facing northeast, the house gets plenty of sun throughout the day. It also cops its fair share of the prevailing easterly wind, but mornings on the deck are usually blissfully quiet, Alison says.

The eco-friendly theme is reflected in the landscaping, with No Mow grass – a low-care mat-forming plant – growing on the lawn besides the deck.

They plan to plant the sloped front section with natives that would have grown on this hill originally, with a path to walk down.

Alison and Ian started planting natives, grass and fruit trees as soon as they bought the section – a year before construction started.

"We had to come up to plant and then to water the plants, so we started bonding with the section," Alison says.

A few months after moving in, the couple are delighted with the house. They say the only thing missing is a waterproof shoe box at the front of the house, and a carport, which they plan to build.

And they haven't killed each other, despite sharing a small living space day and night.

"We got the size about right I think," Ian says.


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