“Initially, you think it’s going to be a perfect white house cantilevered out from the hill to capitalise on the view. Then you realise there are actually four idiosyncratic white boxes around a courtyard, with a kind of path wending between them, inside and out, and an interior that is delightful and surprising.” — Simon Farrell-Green, rōpū
Geographically, Te Onepoto Taylor’s Mistake sits within the border of Christchurch city limits, but the place couldn’t feel further removed. With its sandy beach, consistent surf, craggy headland and century-old Rotten Row baches, the East Coast bay has been immortalised in song, poetry and artworks by the likes of Colin McCahon and Bill Sutton. “I don’t even know if we were actually looking for something to buy,” says architect Tim Nees. “But when we came across this site, we knew it was for us.”
His partner, freelance sociologist Lesley Patterson, found the overgrown section on Trade Me in 2015. It offered extensive southern views across the water to Godley Heads peninsula, and a level building platform originally occupied by a long-demolished 1960s crib. The goal was “to create something really tailored to the way we live”, remembers Nees. “I had no obligation to meet an external client’s needs, which gave us the freedom to explore and experiment.”
What transpired was four crisp white boxes on a hill: a home, an office, a dining pavilion and a carport. Though the obvious move would have been to build the house on the existing (flat) site, that position offered little natural light, so instead, Nees used a steel framework to cantilever it off the hillside, pushing the structure to the bank’s edge and into the sun’s path. The unconventional play created space for a sheltered northern courtyard and was partly inspired by the still-life paintings of Italian artist Giorgio Morandi. “I thought of that existing cut through the land like a shelf. So just like Morandi’s work, the house became several objects arranged on a shelf,” Nees explains.
The couple wanted the home to be modest and casual, yet still make an architectural statement, so Nees struck a balance between a formal composition and informal gestures. The pristine white rainscreen cladding that appears so sharp and precise from afar is actually quite relaxed. The timber boards move with the temperature, creating unexpected texture, while vents puncture its façade in a playful, flower-like motif. “It’s masquerading as perfect,” says Nees poetically. In a similarly laid-back statement, there’s no front door, just a series of glass sliders leading right into the home’s heart. While it may read like an architectural design, the experience is more akin to a bach.
Nees has always played around with open-plan layouts in his work, stretching back to his 1995 “vertically open-plan” family home in Breaker Bay, but the concept is exaggerated here. There’s only one internal door in the entire house (the bathroom), leaving the rest of the one-bedroom footprint free-flowing. “We didn’t need the private spaces that a family home does,” the architect explains. Using partial walls and furniture to separate the 140-square-metre space, his design still allows for privacy and moments of escape by tucking the bedroom, book-lined snug and sunroom into quiet corners.
The relaxed interior adds to this easygoing atmosphere. Plywood walls have been whitewashed to mute the grain, plywood joinery runs throughout, and the flooring is either concrete dotted with Banks Peninsula stone or painted particle board, colour matched to the surrounding clay cliffs. “We’ll eventually get around to putting a material floor in,” says Patterson, but the current solution is ideal for post-beach sandy feet. It’s the view that commands attention, though, and Nees has framed it in five windows that stretch across the building’s face. The south-orientated home gets hit by the cold easterly wind, so there was never any temptation to tack a deck on and interrupt the design’s refined simplicity. “Adding a deck doesn’t necessarily achieve what you want it to,” Nees reasons. “It can get in the way of the view.”
The key moment of separation is the two-storey office that flanks the home. Connected via a timber walkway, it was influenced by a pair of derelict timber baches that cling precariously to the rocks in the bay below. Initially intended for guests, grandkids and the odd jam session, the petite tower was repurposed into a workspace soon after the couple moved in and Nees’ commute to his central-city office became “somewhat less appealing”. His practice now occupies the ground floor, while Patterson works above, but the space could easily be repurposed again.
“I think the house has the flexibility to be whatever we need at that point in time,” says Nees of the design. The dining room exemplifies this adaptability. It’s intentionally narrow to emphasise the ceiling height (the rest of the house is relatively low-slung as per the height recession plans), which creates a gallery-like space for the couple’s extensive art collection. On summer days, the glazed doors fold back and the dining table is shifted out to the deck, creating an outdoor room of the sheltered courtyard.
“I really enjoy what a garden can bring to a house and the architecture, and the way it can knit the two together,” says Nees of this sunny northern space. The zen courtyard is critical to the design’s success and demonstrates how landscaping is just as important as the built form. It evolves with the seasons, bringing the sun streaming into the living areas. The almond trees are a beautiful and poignant focal point, bought with a small sum of money that Patterson’s late sister Carole left her. “I must admit that I wasn’t into gardening before this place,” says Nees, looking out to the blossoming trees. “But I’m a convert.”