Using cross-laminated timber and a little chutzpah, Cecile Bonnifait and William Giesen overcome a site others might consider unbuildable.

Break Water Harmony

Break Water Harmony

For many Ōtautahi Christchurch locals, Banks Peninsula represents the holy grail of holiday home destinations. Sheltered bays, bountiful blue waters, countless hikes and an abundance of artisan businesses. It may lie an hour or so from the city, but it’s a world apart. The only snag? Most people have been completely priced out. Property in this coveted headland is far from immune to the country’s escalating prices, which have dashed many a dream of the idyllic bach. But not for the creative-thinking couple behind this cliff-side escape.

Having spent years holidaying at their friends’ house in Robinsons Bay (two bays over from Akaroa, Banks Peninsula’s star attraction), the couple had eventually resolved not to buy their own getaway. Then their friends approached them with a proposition: what if they were to carve off an unused piece of their section so they could build? They agreed, despite the feasibility of building on the treacherous cliff presenting a number of challenges.

To call the site difficult isn’t just an understatement: it’s laughable. Evidence of the near-impossible terrain: the site stretches across a generous 1700 square metres, but the home’s footprint is only 73 square metres. “Steep to an extreme, difficult to access and covered with bush,” says Cecile Bonnifait of Wellington’s Bonnifait + Giesen Atelier Workshop Architects. “I doubt anyone else would have been interested in taking on the site,” she says. But Bonnifait’s clients were unperturbed. The views, proximity to the water and bush were the stuff of their dreams. Their intention to tread lightly on the environment made them the ideal occupants.

The owners gave a straightforward brief: they wanted a second home, close to nature where they could eventually stay for more extended periods. Bonnifait and William Giesen upped the ante with some additional requirements. Namely, the house couldn’t detract from the environment but had to settle among the trees while still basking in the winter sun. “Our design approach is always about minimising earthworks and maximising thermal gains,” says Bonnifait. This one delivers on both accounts.

No items found.

Comfortably settled at the cliff’s top, the tree-shrouded house is only properly revealed from the water. A robust, single-form structure with an asymmetrical gable roof, the bach is charming in its subtlety. Clad in a soft lichen-green corrugated steel, it’s almost reminiscent of a DOC hut, albeit a very sharply dressed one. 

The house is accessed via a wooden staircase from the carport. Combining design restraint with a double-height ceiling gives a sense of space, and allows views to take the lead. Nature was the drawcard of this site, and the design doesn’t compete but complement. On a fine day, the outlook across the harbour takes in Akaroa township and the sea beyond. Windows are large and in no short supply here, flooding the home with light and framing the landscape’s diversity. From these sweeping water views to the surrounding native bush and farmland, every aspect is explored.

Design is controlled; nothing is superfluous to requirements. The open living, kitchen and dining space has only the essentials: a wood burner, dining table, kitchen island (with storage) and living area. The mezzanine contains a guest room, while the main bedroom is tucked into the bush below at the back of the house. 

The home is primarily formed of cross-laminated timber (CLT), known for its sustainability, strength, versatility and insulating properties. It evokes a relaxed, bach aesthetic, which belies the challenges it brought. Manufactured offshore, measurements had to be precise, allowing no margin for error. Despite its popularity in Europe, CLT is still new here and regulations surrounding its use are yet to be defined. This meant many decisions were left up to the council’s judgement, which took a toll on the timeline. “The process was complex,” says Bonnifait, who had used the material on two previous projects. “But hopefully, it will get easier and quicker because it [CLT] answers many of the questions being asked in construction right now.”

A narrow deck reaches seaward, extending the living area substantially and allowing you to stand above the waves as they lap beneath. The little green bach might be at its finest come dusk. Illuminated with characteristic restraint by three hanging rice paper lanterns, it glows like a modern-day lighthouse. Seen from the water, it is quite simply beautiful.

No items found.
  1. Parking
  2. Deck
  3. Entry
  4. Living
  5. Dining
  6. Kitchen
  7. WC
  8. Shower
  9. Main bedroom
  10. Bed platform
  11. Guest bedroom

Related Stories: