Among the many and varied challenges of architecture in Aotearoa is one of the least obviously restrictive but seemingly difficult-to-answer questions, and one that is often not answered well: how do you build a house in a paddock? In recent years — even before the pandemic, but increasingly since — regional centres such as Central Otago, Hawke’s Bay and Wairarapa have become more popular among working professionals with families who previously might have been stuck in cities. Thanks to remote working, decent internet and prohibitive prices in our big centres, life in the provinces suddenly seems like a good move indeed.
At the same time, a profusion of rural subdivisions around the country has given rise to a particular type of house: expansive; on a piece of land big enough to mow but not big enough to farm; and close enough to amenities to be convenient but far away enough for it to be dark at night. Often, this leads to a stone-and-timber vernacular that might be at home in Colorado or Montana; at other times it leads to oversized suburban bungalows, all hallways and carpet.
It was to such a site that Tāmaki Makaurau-based Nat Beath and husband Jon Lewin came seven years ago, a gently sloping piece of land just outside Havelock North, with mountain views in one direction and the Tukituki River valley in the other. There are few neighbours and lots of old trees. There’s a charming crushed limestone driveway and post-and-rail fencing. In autumn, when I visited, the oak trees’ leaves were losing their colour, and there was mist around Te Mata Peak.
When it came to building a house, the couple found themselves drawn again and again to the work of Wellington architect Gerald Parsonson, who is known for sensitive houses that combine moves big and small, with lovely, easy planning and beautiful details. When their interior designer and friend Erini Compton suggested him too, it was a done deal. “We just really liked his houses,” says Beath. (To be clear: Parsonson does not design houses that look like they belong in Colorado.)
The couple have a longstanding connection with the area. Beath is in the wine industry, and the couple met while she was working at Craggy Range just down the road. Moving to Hawke’s Bay from Auckland was a lifestyle choice, but also a bigger statement about the life they wanted to lead: rural but not farm, urbane but not too polished. There was to be a pool, an orchard and an expansive vegetable garden. There needed to be space to store tools, places for muddy boots and somewhere to put the wine. That rural, pragmatic feel really stuck with Parsonson. “You could see Nat had a real connection with the land and growing things,” he says. “Not just your average vegetable garden, but something quite ambitious – growing nuts and echinacea, for example, and things that complement each other over the seasons.”
The long rectangular site was originally part of a bigger section connected to the house in front of them, down the hill towards the river. Previous owners had planted a boundary of trees around the edge of it as a screen, along with a single pōhutukawa in the centre. Parsonson immediately started thinking about sightlines and axes, along with access to sun for both the house and the gardens. The pōhutukawa was one; the peak another. How you arrive from the shared limestone driveway and move through to the light and the view was important too. “We spent quite a lot of time going from the top of the site to the bottom, and working out what it does to the sun,” says Parsonson. “The higher up you go, the more sun the gardening area got, but the darker the house got. If you slide the house down the site, it gets more sun but compromises the growing area. So it was just trying to find that sweet spot.”
The home’s form emerged from the gentle lay of the land: a long, sheltering roof over an H-shaped house, its rooms stepping gently down the slope and leading to arranged around courtyards and outdoor spaces on both sides. “It’s very thin,” says Parsonson. “I was thinking a lot about drifting a big roof across the land, so there’s a relationship between the landscape and the house.”
As you travel through the house, you pick your way a step or two at a time down the gentle incline, moving from the living areas through the kitchen, past the den and study, and down to bedrooms and bathrooms. It’s generally only one room wide, with clear axes and neatly articulated views. Key to the design was its slow entry. In this, Parsonson references the entrances of country houses by the arts-and-crafts architect Sir Edward Lutyens – notably, Deanery Garden. In these houses, the entry was oblique. You’d come down a path and into a garden, and then there’d be a door, and then you’d make your way through the house. Rooms and views reveal themselves slowly, as the logic of the plan leads you through and out.
With this house, you approach down a long driveway, and enter down a covered colonnade. There’s a screen of painted aluminium tubes, and a door, which brings you into one of the top levels of the house and the kitchen-dining area. The view reveals itself slowly, through carefully designed windows and openings. “So the house unfolds,” says Parsonson, “as opposed to that thing of walking in the door and, bang, there’s the view and some big glass windows, and it’s all revealed.”
Externally, the house is a mixture of black-stained cedar weatherboards, and white-painted board-and-batten cutaways. There’s a dance and a rhythm to them. Sometimes the white wraps around a corner, sometimes the black cladding comes inside. It’s a vernacular made popular by the modernist houses of Vernon Brown, which had a similar sensibility: long roofs; the plan underneath incorporating courtyards, porches and covered spaces at a time when most houses in Aotearoa had four walls and a hipped roof.
Internally, this house is soft, almost delicate. This is where it becomes less rural, more urbane family home. There’s a colour palette of blues and greens drawn from the landscape, along with timber and ply; Compton advised on a scheme of furniture and furnishings that is restrained and minimal, but warm. (And practical: chairs from Simon James move from the top living room in summer to beside the woodburner in winter.) Screens of wooden dowels reference the white-painted poles outside, but they’re warmer, softer here.
For the Beath-Lewin family, the house has fulfilled their dream of rural living to the letter. Lewin can commute to his office in Napier as he needs to, but prefers to work from home; the kids catch the bus to school in Havelock North from the front gate. Beath is studying to further her career in the wine industry and maintains the enormous gardens here. “It’s a 30-year project for us,” says Lewin. There’s a beat. Beath: “I think it’ll take me that long to get the garden done.”