Adele McNab redesigns a rammed-earth home in suburban Tāmaki Makaurau for modern family life.

Earthen Ware

Earthen Ware

Someone once told me architecture is a bit like cooking: no more than three ingredients feels about right. It’s a rule I’ve applied to many things since, including writing. I’m extending the metaphor, but it’s even more true when you’re working with great ingredients: a nice steak, a beautiful piece of fish, a ripe heirloom tomato. The smartest thing to do is as little as possible.

For Adele McNab, a Sydney-based New Zealand architect who occasionally takes on a projects back home, her alteration work often involves decidedly compromised ingredients – 19th-century cottages or heritage apartments, with functions in the wrong place and spaces that turn their back on the sun. Fixing these often involves flipping layouts on their head and upgrading structures to modern standards – undertaking wholesale interventions to make them work for modern life. (That was certainly true of the house she redesigned for her mother in Grey Lynn, Tāmaki Makaurau, which featured in Here 12.)

But when old friends got in touch back in 2019 about a rammed-earth house they’d bought in suburban Auckland, she immediately knew they were dealing with something quite special. “I was just blown away by the spaces,” she says of her first visit to the home, designed in 2003 by architect Megan Rule, “especially how earthed the house was.”

Rammed earth isn’t a material you often find in cities. Its walls are, by necessity, thick, and they require wide eaves to keep the elements off them so they often take up too much room to be practical on a standard suburban section. But they are delightful to look at, with beautiful textures and colours. They also create houses that are cool in summer and warm in winter: this most ancient of building techniques has existed for thousands of years in other countries.

In this case, the section was generous, both wide and deep, so Rule created two offset pavilions – one containing an open-plan living area closer to the back of the site, the other containing garage, bedrooms, a bathroom and a living room. In between, there was an entry and a dining room inside a glazed link. Above the link sat a main bedroom suite with a view of the harbour.

Determined not to have too many wall section joints – which create a deep “V” between panels – she used the rammed-earth walls as standalone fins to define spaces, with full-height glazing or walls of rough-sawn cedar battens in between. The thinking is clear: in the bedroom wing, the fins run north to south, with narrow windows and lightweight walls between that create snug, private spaces; a garage occupies the opening at one end and a living room opens to the lawn at the other. In the living pavilion, they run east to west, orienting the space into a sheltered courtyard and the backyard, while a single fin separates the kitchen and dining area.

Seeking to celebrate the tactility and texture of rammed earth, Rule designed the walls at double the required width, using band-sawn boards to line the formwork. The result is walls of monumental thickness. “It’s interesting to think about the building deteriorating,” she told a magazine in 2009 when the house was not long built, “with the earth walls still here and the building being reinvented using them.”

McNab’s clients and friends loved the house, but wanted to make some updates. With three children, they wanted more bedrooms, as well as a multi-purpose room that could double as a second garage. They also wanted a separate laundry. And, after 20-something years and a succession of owners, the place was getting tired. That beautiful cedar cladding, at some point, had been painted a particularly nasty shade of pale blue and the specified copper downpipes had been swapped out for PVC when it was built. “You’ve got these beautifully designed spaces,” says McNab, “so it was crucial they were in the forefront of the design – that everything else was peeled away.”  

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That said – and enamoured as she was of the house – McNab felt it needed one major update. To get to the front door, you walked down a long concrete path between the garage and an exposed square of lawn, before stepping straight into the dining room. “The journey to the front door is so important,” she says, “and I’m always out to slow anyone down.”

So she designed a lightweight box, clad in cedar battens that reference the originals, to fill in the lawn. Upstairs, connecting to the original staircase, there are two new bedrooms, a bathroom and sitting room with views of the Waitākere Ranges. At ground level, there’s a new entryway, flanked by a new multi-purpose room and a laundry.

Arriving at the house now, you come under a sheet of steel that pulls you in and through the new front door, a full five metres in front of its previous location. “You’ve got that compression,” she says of the entry sequence, which now takes you down a wide hall, with a rammed-earth wall on one side and a lightweight polycarbonate box on the other. “You come in under that canopy, and it opens out into this beautiful high stud where it’s light and bright. Having that moody entry really makes the dining room extra special once you get to that space.”

McNab has both delineated the addition, and blurred it with the original. The two feel subtly different, and clearly articulated. The extension has a squared-off aluminium top to the existing home’s sweeping roofs, but it’s clad with timber battens matched to those on the original design. Where windows and doors in the original are natural clear anodised aluminium, in the addition they’re anodised dark. And while she wanted the entry to feel contemplative and slow, she didn’t want it to be gloomy – so the multi-purpose room is lined with crisp polycarbonate.

By day, it brings filtered light into the entry, and by night, it glows. On the front façade, she continued the angle of the original eave across the front of the new box. “They work hand in hand, it’s not just one over the other,” she says of the two structures. “The eaves are 950[mm] wide and to make sense of that it felt right to extend it. It merged with the existing quite nicely.”  

Elsewhere, she left the plan of the original house almost unaltered, updating bathrooms and living spaces with a deft touch. In the living room, she redesigned the fireplace around a Cheminees Philippe wood burner, setting it into a nook in the rammed-earth wall that had previously been plasterboard. Bathrooms were updated with minimalist tiling and hardware, and the plan called for newly finished flooring and plasterboard throughout. Towards the end of the construction period – with McNab stuck in Sydney behind Covid-induced closed borders – the clients also arranged to replace the original kitchen.

Despite the radically altered street presence, the house feels like a purer, more essential version of itself – and that was very much the goal. “The rammed earth is so important – it’s the bones of the house,” says McNab. “I felt we could play with the materials and the structure to highlight the earth walls – it gives it a beautiful lightness.”

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