It started with a garden. To be precise: a rolling expanse of lawn in St Marys Bay, Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland, with a tall house originally built in the 1890s, all white weatherboards and wide verandahs, tucked away in one corner of the section.
When the owners, keen gardeners who had recently bought the house, approached architect Jack McKinney, they’d already started working on the site with landscape designer Jared Lockhart, planting up the boundaries with a mixture of lush subtropical species and natives. The brief was clear: they wanted to modernise the house and connect it to the land, but they didn’t want to lose any garden.
The original house is delightfully idiosyncratic and slightly wonky: its white weatherboard form and tall skinny chimney remind me a bit of something you might see on the coast of Maine. It’s tall, but instead of the dramatic high stud you’d expect, the scale of the rooms inside is pleasantly less grand, more intimate. Legend has it that it was once owned by a ship captain who had 13 children; the third-floor attic was converted to house them, with dormer windows that allowed the family to watch out for his ship. “It’s quite rambly, so it doesn’t really have one identity,” says McKinney. “It’s a compendium of spaces.”
Previous renovations had removed much of the interior character, replacing it with generic villa details that didn’t quite fit, and an over-egged wooden staircase with “intense” square balusters. After two decades working in and around the inner west of Tāmaki Makaurau – including on a couple of houses a street away from this one – McKinney has become adept at dealing with heritage controls, and fond of old houses. This one was conveniently sited to one side of the garden, with a big north-facing space at one end – the obvious place to build a new pavilion.
McKinney was both conscious of the brief, and mindful of hiding cars: his response was to dig down into the lawn to create an underground garage, fronted by a porte cochere, which pulls the garage door right back under the house, with a sweeping driveway in front. It gives the addition weight, and a little bit of glamour. On top of the porte cochere is a flat grassy lawn; on top of the garage, an airy pavilion with a green roof planted out in mounds of ivy. “The garden was quite a rarity and we didn’t want to lose it,” says McKinney. “So we’ve got the same amount of garden as we had before, but we’ve got more house.”
The pavilion is horizontal instead of vertical, low instead of tall, open and glassy with one big room instead of multiple small ones. It sits lightly next to the original house, opening out on two sides through steel-framed doors. The roof form is elegant, with a thin edge and no visible gutters – it’s also entirely separate from the back wall, creating a slender skylight which dapples sun down the bagged-brick wall over the course of an afternoon. Remarkably, the entire structure is held up by slender steel posts in between the doors.
There’s an 18-metre bench which stretches the length of the room and back into the original house, its materials changing as you move through different functions – dark-stained oak in the living area giving way to porcelain in the more functional kitchen; at the very end is a laundry.
On the ground floor of the original house, McKinney left one bedroom as it was, but rearranged the kitchen and opened up a wall into a living room. In the middle of the floor, he inserted a new staircase, which travels past a steel cabinet with brass mesh inserts and oak shelving into the subterranean basement of the original house. Upstairs, it’s all white and dark timber; downstairs it’s concrete, with the stairs getting darker with each step.
To connect the old house with the new pavilion, McKinney worked with contractor Willie de Gruchy to introduce a new language inside the original home – it’s less contrast between old and new, more a subtle connection that talks to the elegant steel-framed doors. As well as white-painted timber, there are subtle brass and steel details throughout; there is some exquisite formwork on the porte cochere that you only appreciate when you get up close. “It’s all those lessons we’ve learned from doing restaurants,” says McKinney, “bringing in texture and materiality and patina – thinking about how it’s going to age. It’s already getting better.”
Throughout, he introduced full-height doors and slightly abstracted timber detailing that has an almost interwar feel, along with band-sawn timber on the walls that flows out around the back of the original house and up across the new ceiling. The staircase was stripped back to its structure and risers, and wrapped in sinuous white panelling with subtle timber beading in semi-gloss white paint. “It had all been stripped out,” he says, “so we had to make it again but in quite an elevated way. I wanted it to flow.”
On the levels above, he reworked the floor plan. At the very top, he created an attic bedroom lined with rough-sawn timber (“They’re fence palings, essentially – we wanted it to feel like a proper attic”) and a tiny ensuite tucked into the eaves behind a frosted glass wall. On the floor below, he enlarged one bedroom to create a main bedroom that runs the full width of the house, connecting to a verandah with a magnificent view of the Waitematā Harbour.
Now four years old, the all-important garden is lush and established, with a path designed by Lockhart wending through and around, connecting a series of outdoor spaces and courtyards that run off almost every room on the ground floor. There’s a small round concrete plunge pool built from a manhole riser, and layers of planting that bring a richness to the interior of the house. “I guess we wanted it to feel very green and interesting,” says Lockhart. When he first visited, there was a big lawn with a bit of planting around it, and as the house plan evolved, Lockhart and the owner held planting sessions together. “We’d spend time walking around the garden and talk. It was quite loose.”
Back upstairs, standing on the verandah, McKinney pauses slightly when asked what the driving idea was. It turns out it’s a delightful accumulation of things rather than one baller move, and it fits the idiosyncratic nature of the place. “The house works to give you everything you need – but not all at once,” he says. “And that’s kind of its character.”