With singular vision, a young couple designs and builds a modular home on leased land outside Whakatū Nelson.

Bi Focal

Bi Focal

I should confess, first of all, to a certain fondness for an arched roof. Maybe it’s the sheer uncommonness, particularly in this part of the world. Put a barrel roof up in a country of villa and bungalow gables, modernist horizontals and rural mono-pitches and it’s bound to attract some interest. Their classicism has a certain appeal, too, evoking a sense of timelessness (and ironically dating many produced in the last century to the postmodern ’80s and ’90s). Someone else can psychoanalyse this penchant for arched roofs; all I know is that I was interested to visit this house by William Samuels just outside of Whakatū Nelson.

Samuels and fiancée Hannah D’Arcy met in Melbourne, where he cut his teeth working for architect Kerstin Thompson (a familiar name in Australian architecture). Samuels first sketched this house during an extended stay in Berlin, as he and D’Arcy plotted a move to New Zealand – a return for Samuels, originally from Nelson, and a first for Melburnian D’Arcy. 

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You drive up the valley from the sea, down a track and onto a paddock, and there, behind the harakeke, sits this small house. And it is small – just over 40 square metres. There are three “modules”: a covered deck with steps that lead up from the paddock; a first barrel, which houses the kitchen at right, and bathroom, desk, and a loft at left; and a second barrel beyond, which has a lounge area at right and bedroom at left. Despite its diminutive size, the layout of the home makes it feel spacious. On the day I visit, the sliding doors opening to the deck and lawn give a sense of expansiveness, with sweeping views down towards the sea. The deck and lawn have been used recently for live music and Shakespeare performances by a local theatre group. 

The house is lined in rimu from floor to ceiling, and your eye is led up and along the arch, and then out the high windows at either end towards tree canopies. The rimu and the arch of the ceiling lend a glow to the whole home, with light entering the spaces in unique ways. It’s a lovely environment to be in: calming, relaxing, uplifting. Architecture often does this, yes, but not very often in houses that cost $150,000 – but we’ll get to that. 

Samuels stresses the project’s minimal cost and its modular nature. “We looked at how to detach the house value from ever-increasing land values,” he says. To accomplish this, the plot is leased from his parents. “All available capital is invested in the construction of the house, rather than being sunk into the property,” Samuels explains. “Reducing these upfront costs provided us with the financial flexibility needed to focus our attention on the spatial qualities and liveability of the home.” Some elements of this home make most sense in light of affordability pressures and the opportunity to build on this land. For instance, it’s modular because it’s on leasehold land, meaning it could be moved someday should the couple find land elsewhere. You could also simply attach another module to the existing, if more space was required.

And that $150,000 price tag? The number excludes land (since it’s leased), site services, and building labour – the couple did the work themselves. “We tell people we built the house ourselves, but usually it’s only 10 minutes later when someone asks who the builder was,” D’Arcy jokes. It’s a remarkable feat, which involved trade-offs others might not be willing to make. Samuels also points out the simplicity of things like the Zincalume cladding, the Bunnings kitchen carcasses topped with black MDF (sealed with a clear coat in wet areas), and the deep-blue commercial vinyl floor, things that undoubtedly helped keep the cost down. In the context of the space, however, they read as practical, rather than cheap. The cladding suits the location perfectly, engaging in the tradition of rural dwellings. 

But to put so much emphasis on the trade-offs and the cost is to do this house a disservice. While affordability and sustainability are critical subjects, standing in this home, it’s all about the qualities and experience of being in these barrel-roofed spaces. Some of the small touches have outsized effect. At certain times of the day, light can be filtered through a shade pulled across the high windows like a fan, bringing to mind Richard Leplastrier’s barrel-roofed Palm Garden House in Sydney. There’s a rimu-lined vertical slit window in the lounge and a rimu handle that can be pulled to shade it. All the openings end up feeling more like sculptural objects than standard house features and contribute to the home’s sense of calm. 

There are many signs here that Samuels’ time in Australia made an impression, with lessons learned from Leplastrier, as well as Glenn Murcutt, the late Ken Woolley, and their younger contemporaries, such as Peter Stutchbury and Virginia Kerridge. But while those architects could be seen to have specialised in very expensive houses that look humble and down-to-earth, Samuels has applied many of their lessons to create a genuinely affordable first home. This is a house of ideas distilled; an exercise in choosing the right trade-offs to enable the best quality of life within one’s means. 

Despite my hopes, this house’s legacy might not be more arched roofs after all. It might instead be encouraging others to make radical compromises in pursuit of high-quality space, and perhaps, too, fostering a little more dialogue between the architectures of Aotearoa and Australia. But still, D’Arcy tells me she found some of Samuels’ sketchbooks from a decade ago, “and they were filled with arches”.

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1. Deck
2. Kitchen
3. Study
4. Bathroom
5. Loft (over bathroom)
6. Laundry
7. Living
8. Bedroom

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