In a ritual as relentless as the summer haze, the great migration begins in late December as swathes of Kiwis abandon their traditional habitats in the concrete city limits to make their way in determined drifts towards the sea.
When the hordes are on the move, this encampment of buildings on a Waiheke cliff edge overlooking the ocean becomes a well-frequented destination. One New Year’s Eve, some 24 émigrés gathered on the deck, with its protected view over Onetangi, looking toward new horizons as the moon illuminated the bay.
Of course, it came as no surprise to the owners that they would be accommodating not only their three adult children but their three adult children’s friends during the happy season. Forewarned is forearmed: a vital part of their brief to architect Patrick Clifford of Architectus had been to dedicate the lower storey of the holiday home to this cause. This was generous: two bedrooms, a shared bathroom, an outdoor shower and a vast deck from which to survey the scene. But they are also old hands. No internal stair exists between this and the main living quarters above. “When the tribes arrive, we invite them for breakfast and dinner between certain hours and the rest of the time they disperse downstairs or to the beach,” says one of the owners.
Clifford immediately understood the thinking behind this generational separation. For close to 20 years his family and the owners shared a holiday home at the opposite end of this short road, a stone’s throw from the white sand. When this 1870-square-metre section became available at the eastern end of the beach, the time was right to forge a new but still companionable future.
There’s no denying the section is steep, but with first-hand experience of how the family likes to live, and guided by the topography, Clifford allowed the architecture to evolve naturally. Seen from a distance, the dwelling, constructed by Whelan Building, folds in formation with the hillside. “It tucks into where the cliff turns a corner and becomes the headland,” he explains. Dark vertical cedar and metal cladding are robust within the marine environment but recessive too, the roofline running easily into the reserve behind. A dark, cool, timber stairwell that leads to the front door is an exercise in view management, revealing a sweep of sky and beach framed by a timber balcony.
With Victorian ash lining the interior walls and ceilings, and oak floors, the home requires minimal decoration. There’s no need for art when each day contains many literal sea changes and the sunsets are spectacular. Built-in features, such as a dining table that extends from the kitchen island, desks slivered alongside windows and a cosy reading nook, also mean little additional furniture is required.
The living zone is a geometric dance of compression, release and angular aspects that seem complex, but as Clifford again points out, they were driven by the site and regulatory framework. It may be awesome, in the proper sense of the word, but he is low-key when describing the kitchen and dining zone as contained within a simple lean-to that follows the slope. The owners, who asked for something “pretty simple”, admire their good friend’s design restraint but felt he perhaps experienced a brain blip, an aberration of architectural expectations, when he suggested a roof that flares up to four metres above the living room to the north.
After five years of living here though, they know they couldn’t have been more wrong. The high glazing embraces the trees, including an incredible tall oak, making for a cinematic experience as birdlife comes and goes. “This space explores the pleasure of volume and scale,” says Clifford. In the evenings, the occupants like to watch the tūī, kererū and kākā from the couch. It’s the ultimate hide for twitchers.
Committed conservationists, the owners commissioned landscaper Buka Woods of BBB Landscaping to design and implement an immense planting programme which ties the building back to the land. Punga logs retain the vertiginous slope, Waiheke stone swales help with drainage, and a tapestry of natives cover the earth in a great green garden where artist Paul Dibble’s bronze huia have found their forever paradise.
Crunch up the pathway to the rear of the site and you’ll eventually reach the sleepout, a mini-me capsule that the younger generation has dubbed “the love shack”. It pays not to ask too many questions of those who put their hands up to spend the night in this private elevated escape where the bedroom cantilevers above the coprosma.
“We love that the house is so simple and yet there are so many places to be in depending on the sun or your mood,” says one of the owners. While they haven’t yet made it to overnight in the love shack, one day, when the instinct takes them, they will migrate further up the hillside.