Grand Designs NZ: Clifftop 'lighthouse' for a mere $440,000 all-up

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A lighthouse home has to have a lamp room at the top - Grand Designs NZ presenter Chris Moller checks it out.

REVIEW: Who hasn’t ever had a dream about living in a lighthouse? On a clifftop, or maybe even on the rocks where the seagulls squawk and the storms push waves right up against the walls.

For most of us, it’s a fanciful idea from a storybook – we know the reality could be harsh, lonely and unforgiving.

Former cops Cameron and Sumita Dale of Whanganui come on Grand Designs NZ because they have this dream, and a history – Cam’s great-great-great-great-grandfather was a Swedish lighthouse keeper. They have found a stunning clifftop section at Kai Iwi Beach; they’re selling their cute riverbank cottage in town, and they’re going to live the dream – in a caravan at first.

Built like a fortress on the clifftop above Kai Iwi Beach near Whanganui, this "lighthouse" cost a mere $440,000, including land.
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Built like a fortress on the clifftop above Kai Iwi Beach near Whanganui, this "lighthouse" cost a mere $440,000, including land.

“I’ve always liked the idea (of lighthouses),” says Cam. “And when we saw it was right on the edge, Sumita was the one who said, ‘Why don’t we do a lighthouse’?”

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And then we see the model for the house they’ve designed themselves, and it’s not so much “lighthouse” as “light station”. I was rather hoping it would at least have a stripey tower. But it does have a lamp room on top that will be a beacon.

But, they are planning a nautical theme throughout, which could be a problem. Themed houses can date very quickly. One could get very tired of stepping up through a bulkhead door to get to the bathroom. But Sumita says: “It seems like a good idea right now.”

More importantly, they are sacrificing much of the stunning view for narrow windows to reinforce the lighthouse aesthetic. This could be too much of a compromise.

But I’m loving the idea of the inside ladder up to the octagonal, domed lamp room, with a wrap-around balcony. But I wonder what the locals will think of a bright light shining out to warn ships at sea?

Stairs on the outside lead up to the lamp room. There is also ladder access from inside the house.
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Stairs on the outside lead up to the lamp room. There is also ladder access from inside the house.

Grand Designs NZ presenter Chris Moller says: “Great location for a bonkers idea.”

And the budget seems like dreamland. They paid “about $150,000” for the site, which seems ridiculously low, and they plan to build the house for around $220,000, by doing a lot of it themselves. That’s one cheap house. And because Sumita is studying and Cam just working two days a week, they can’t get a mortgage, so there can be no cost overruns.

The build gets underway, under the direction of project manager Wayne Marshall, “Weasel”. An old proverb comes to mind about the wise man building his house upon the rocks. But this is one is being built on sand, and the engineer demands they fill in the big holes for the concrete as soon they have been dug. So they have to order a short-notice concrete pour – in pouring wind and rain. Why wasn’t this worked out in advance?

Cam just says it would have been like this in the “old days” when lighthouse builders had to battle the elements. And, just like the old days, they end up tipping in the concrete barrow by barrow. Moller thinks the former lighthouse keeper would be “proud of his eccentric grandson”.

The crowning glory is that room at the top, and the wrap-around balcony.
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The crowning glory is that room at the top, and the wrap-around balcony.
The 120-year-old light once graced one of the lighthouses in the Whanganui River.
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The 120-year-old light once graced one of the lighthouses in the Whanganui River.

We get to see a wonderful lighthouse in Wellington, built in 1994 as a studio and now a B&B. It’s a lot more traditional, and fun – it was the lighthouse that inspired the couple to build their own version. And it turns out Cam has no head for heights, which is funny for a lighthouse keeper.

Cleverly, they set a large metal compass into the concrete floor “to remind us where we have come from and where we are going”, says Cam, although they take a stab at the actual direction, which kind of defeats the purpose of a compass. “Sumita is my true north.” Cheesy, but lovely to see how well suited these two are, helped no doubt by Cam’s sense of humour: “There are three types of people – those who can do maths, and those who can’t,” he says.

WE MEET THE LIGHTHOUSE KEEPER

And we get to meet a real lighthouse keeper – Ray, who was the last keeper on Tiritiri Matangi in the Hauraki Gulf. He’s a real old salt, and he thinks Cam and Sumita are “true romantics”. Ray has a museum collection of rare lighthouse machinery, which is very cool.

A metal compass was inset into the polished concrete floor in the entry. The bulkhead door for a boat opens to the main bathroom on the ground floor.
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A metal compass was inset into the polished concrete floor in the entry. The bulkhead door for a boat opens to the main bathroom on the ground floor.

Talking of old stuff, the couple source a wonderful, 120-year-old lighthouse lamp that used to be in the middle of the Whanganui River. That’s a great touch. They have also had a wood replica made of the finial that sat on top of four-times-great-grandad’s lighthouse in Sweden. Perfect.

Then Moller turns up for the grand reveal, which was just last month. Does it feel convincing as a lighthouse? Moller calls it the “real McCoy”, and “a briny beacon of hope”. I wouldn’t go that far. We see neighbouring houses rather close, which detract from the look from certain angles.

But, it’s a strong, concrete-block, fortress-like building, as planned, and the lamp room on top is realistic. It seems a lot more substantial than the modern houses nearby.

The main living area on the first floor is a single, open space. The narrow windows frame slices of the view, leaving the full vista for the lamphouse on top.
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The main living area on the first floor is a single, open space. The narrow windows frame slices of the view, leaving the full vista for the lamphouse on top.
The Swedish antique clock was built in the same generation as Cam's great-great-great-great-grandfather who was a lighthouse keeper.
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The Swedish antique clock was built in the same generation as Cam's great-great-great-great-grandfather who was a lighthouse keeper.

The reveal starts with the green-blue bathroom with that bulkhead door: “We’ve kind of gone for Taiwanese fishing trawler chic,” says Cam, who has a way with words.

The bedrooms are tiny, with those narrow windows, but they do seem to work – you get framed slices of the view, just as you would on the lower floors of a real lighthouse.

And their simple living space with its exposed beams feels authentic, crammed as it is with odds and ends of antique furniture, a baby grand piano and seating. It does have the look of a lighthouse room. And the second bathroom, with its antique stained-glass domed roof and exposed copper piping is quaint.

A study on the ground floor also looks out to sea.
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A study on the ground floor also looks out to sea.
Concrete blocks have been left exposed on some walls, and plastered on others.
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Concrete blocks have been left exposed on some walls, and plastered on others.

Then we’re up the stairs to the lamp room, an “unintentional, but eerily exact replica” of grandad’s lighthouse, and this is the wow moment. It must be wonderful to sit up there while a storm rages in from the west.

“Any port in a storm,” says Cam, and he pours three glasses of the stuff. “To the lighthouse!”

Of course the spend went skywards, to $290,000. They couple now owe Cam’s mother and brother, and Sumita’s mother, her father and his partner. “Pretty much everyone we know from our family.”

Sumita and Cam have had a difficult year - Cam lost his dad, and they their budget has blown. Family members have come to the rescue.
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Sumita and Cam have had a difficult year - Cam lost his dad, and they their budget has blown. Family members have come to the rescue.

This project was a great watch – one of the best – and seeing them sit out there looking out to sea, it’s hard not to feel a little envious.

But also sad. We learn Cam lost his father this year during the build, which makes for an emotional scene at the end.

Moller (who loves this house) says: “It just shows you that a grand design doesn’t need a pot of gold, especially when you have a positive attitude and a creative mind.”

They got this house and this view for a mere $440,000. That is simply staggering.