Henri Sayes and Nicole Stock were living above a Japanese minimart in Newmarket, Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland when they spotted the site that would become their home: an 1100-square-metre section in Onehunga, with a lump of a brick-and-tile house in the middle of it, and a huge established pōhutukawa towards the back. “You’ve got the park up there and the water down there,” says Sayes. “It just felt like a nice place to be, really.”
Sayes and Stock had not long sold their previous house nearby. Sayes designed the place for them in his mid-20s — before he’d founded his own practice, Sayes Studio. Built on a subdivided rear site from standard materials and with a compact footprint, the house nevertheless had generous volumes and surprising moments that set it apart from regular suburban housing. The new site offered a similar opportunity, albeit on a slightly larger scale — thanks to impending rules under the city’s new Unitary Plan, the couple had the opportunity to build three townhouses: one to live in and two to sell.
Happily ensconced in their urban abode, they set about planning houses for the site. The basic moves were reasonably straightforward: three townhouses accessed by a right-of-way down the southern side; two-storeyed with north-facing living areas, courtyards and a sense of privacy and light.
But it’s here that Sayes did something of a dance, riffing on the standard approach to create three individual houses, each with their own character. While the designs needed to be cost-effective – the couple were to fund the building themselves – they weren’t value-engineered in the way that a standard development would be. Together they offered an insight into what medium-density housing could be if approached a little differently. “It’s a different value proposition,” says Sayes. “What we were trying to do was something with a bit of poetry to it. It was still an experiment in typology and form.”
Before he’d got very far, Sayes’ mother Maurine expressed interest in the rear house: for her, he designed a light-filled house clad in black-stained cedar around that magnificent pōhutukawa. On the middle site, meanwhile, Sayes designed a house for him and Stock. Then, around the time they started to build, Stock became pregnant with their son Walt, now five, and slowly, the three-house project transitioned from ideas laboratory into family compound.
Their place is not an easy spot, sitting between two other houses, hard on the driveway. “There’s just a logic that this house always wanted to be,” he says. “But it’s one of the tightest sites I’ve ever worked on.” Added to that, he had to meet the rules of both the previous District Plan and the impending Unitary Plan, some aspects of which contradicted each other and which slowed the build down considerably.
You get the sense the constraints made it better. The house consists of two boxes, clad with red brick and offset from each other to create a crank in the middle for entry. In the spaces between the offsets are angled timber soffits that give the house a sharp, sculptural shape. One box contains a double garage at ground level and is pushed forward to create a turning circle on the driveway side; the other box is pushed back against the driveway to create a sunny courtyard on the northern side. Above the garage are three bedrooms and a bathroom. “It’s not trying to be a big suburban family house,” Sayes says. “It’s just pushing the constraints of the townhouse typology.”
The exterior gives it bulk, and a sense of strength. It deliberately presents quite a blank presence to the driveway – essentially, it’s a U-shaped brick wall with few windows other than those on the northern side. There’s one big window with a brick screen for privacy, and very little clue of what lies behind the front door, which sits seamlessly in a wall of cedar sarking in the crank between the two boxes.
You come in through that almost-secret front door, and you’re held, briefly, between the garage two steps down and the living area two steps up. You walk up into the living area, around a curved piece of cabinetry, and into an open space with doors all along one side, the ceiling curving up sculpturally above you. It’s minimal, crisp, with no skirting boards and a simple palette of timber floors, white plasterboard walls and brick elements brought inside. The kitchen is painted a soft mauve, and there’s a round stainless-steel island.
The latter touches emerged as the couple came to realise the house would be more of a long-term family home than they had originally thought. The volumes and walls didn’t change, but Sayes began to quietly elevate the standard materials into something more sculptural and generous, with a repeated language of curves and corners. “It’s not an applied motif,” he says. “It’s trying to do something – to soften a transition or bring you around a corner. There is something meaningful as to why they’re there.”
Once they finished their place a couple of years ago, Sayes and Stock took a pause before pandemic lockdowns and uncertainty underlined the enormous value of living next door to family: they’re not going anywhere any time soon. Both houses on the site are designed in such a way that they don’t feel on top of each other; each has private spaces and the rear house sits much higher on the slope without overlooking the lower house. “It’s just so easy and it works so well,” says Stock. “There’s this ease between the two houses.”
The front site still sits empty, but they’re in no hurry to fill it, despite being bemused by the view of their house from the street – a brick wall and one elegantly square window – which is not really meant to be seen. Eventually, there’ll be something in front of it, and this house will be even more private, even more of a surprise as you come down the driveway and in the front door. “We talk about this house being a retreat from the world,” says Sayes. “It’s quite insular, it’s quite internal – there’s a solidness to it, a stillness to this place that has been really surprising.”