To listen to Charlotte Ryan's playlist inspired by this house, click here. A few years back, Paul Robertson decided he needed a couple of new water tanks on the rural Waipara property he shares with partner Sue McGregor. As he got to work building the necessary retaining wall, he took a break and took in the view. Looking out through the trees to the farmland and hills beyond, a thought crossed his mind: perhaps the site wasn’t reaching its full potential. Calling McGregor and their cat, Mouse, up to the platform, they all agreed that the outlook was wasted on water tanks. Cabins, on the other hand…
The couple knew there was a market for unique, luxury accommodation in the area. Just up the drive from this site is Kumiko’s Guest House – their Japanese-inspired home and garden, popular with visitors and wedding parties. The intimate cabins were to be a new offering and complete departure in scale and style. “We didn’t want to deal with council consent, so initially decided to keep them under 10 square metres,” explains Robertson. Resolute on the size and site, the pair just needed someone to design them.
The brief called for a design that could meet their budget, short timeline and restrained footprint, while championing that motivating view. Although the couple intended to rent the cabins out, they also needed to feel comfortable staying in them when Kumiko’s was booked. After early talks with a couple of Ōtautahi-based studios, Prue Johnstone and Mike Callaghan of Johnstone Callaghan Architects got the gig. “They just got it right — that’s all there was to it,” says Robertson.
Less than an hour’s drive from Christchurch in North Canterbury’s Waipara wine region, the cabins share a driveway with the celebrated Black Estate. In fact, the property was once owned by the organic winery’s late founder, Russell Black, who built Kumiko’s Guest House for his wife. As visitors turn off the highway and hit the gravel road, the neighbouring vineyard spreads to the right while a bank of trees approaches on the left. Nestled among them, a squat, square face looks back, followed by another, and another: three cabins stepped up the hill.
“We didn’t want them looking too twee,” says Johnstone when discussing the design. “A gabled roof wasn’t ever going to work, so the monopitch came quite naturally.” One cabin houses a sitting area while the other two are bedrooms, each flanked with decks and linked via a stone path. Although near-identical in form, the cabins are positioned to frame independent aspects of that view, with each picture window offering a fresh perspective. This considered arrangement also affords the cabins a sense of privacy, despite their proximity. “It means that even if you’re staying with another couple, you still get that isolation,” says Callaghan. With no power on site, clerestory windows filter the natural light through, and hinged timber shutters on opposing walls serve as passive ventilation. “Or if you want more air, you just pin the door back,” says Robertson.
The architects turned to the surrounding rural vernacular for touchstones in their design. After exploring materials that would fit within the landscape and tolerate the North Canterbury climate, they settled on a eucalyptus timber interior, macrocarpa cladding and corrugated-steel roof. Due to the weathering patterns of macrocarpa, a mitred exterior finish wasn’t an option, so a folded aluminium trim was deployed where the timber meets, giving the cabins a clean, crisp edge. The aluminium is echoed in narrow interior skirting and outside the windows, where it neatly frames these openings. “Because it was small in scale and simple in essence, with repeated forms, we could really put some time and effort into elevating the craft and the detail,” explains Johnstone.
The architects engaged Clive Barrington Builders early in the concept phase to ensure their design was feasible and affordable. After viewing the plans, Barrington proposed he build the cabins in his workshop, then transport them, completed, to the site. “Because he didn’t need to worry about getting them weathertight, he built them from the inside out,” says Callaghan. “He framed them, lined them, insulated them, then put the cladding on.” Barrington kept the architects up-to-date with regular reports on this unconventional process, so they were able to oversee the entirety of the build and get detailed insight into his methods. “It was really collaborative; he brought a lot to the project,” says Johnstone. Barrington has since employed the architects to design his own home.
This project is infused with ingenuity. A good example is the recessed metal shelf, introduced in lieu of bedside tables, which gives guests a place to rest a candle or glass of water in the sleeping cabins. It was inspired by a candle sconce Johnstone saw in a DOC hut on Rakiura Stewart Island. “They’d basically just folded a metal sheet and hung it on the wall so that the candle didn’t burn down the hut,” the architect remembers. “But it also gave this beautiful, diffused light.” Bringing the idea to Barrington, the builder already had the perfect prototype – a cake tin he’d fashioned for his wife out of steel roofing scraps during lockdown. These unorthodox, unique solutions are fast becoming a trait of Johnstone and Callaghan’s work: customised features born from far-reaching references and delivered with precision and craft.
When the cabins were complete, they were hoisted onto a single truck-and-trailer unit, driven to the site and craned into place. The only groundwork (apart from landscaping) was the six pile holes required to anchor each one into the hillside. This low-impact approach is perfectly in keeping with this refined off-grid escape; it’s an elegant return to analogue. There’s a barbecue for cooking, lanterns for light, hot-water bottles for warmth and, in an outhouse – built separately and much more agrarian in approach – you’ll find a composting toilet and outdoor shower. “There are provisions so that they can be wired if Sue and Paul want that in the future,” says Johnstone. “But I think they want to encourage people to switch off when they stay."