It’s a well-worn story in this country of ours: a family with young children wants a place to retreat to. It doesn’t need to be large or expensive (in fact, it shouldn’t be). Keep it off-grid if you can. Somewhere near the sea. Some grass on which to throw a ball. A bedroom, some bunks, a simple kitchen. The bathroom doesn’t even really need to be inside – keep those luxuries for the city. It’s summer and what matters is coming together to relax. In the words of Harry Croucher of Hamilton-based Edwards White Architects, the dwelling should be a place “for groups to sit around together into the evening, spinning yarns and having laughs”.
This bach in Māhanga, near the Māhia Peninsula in northern Hawke’s Bay, is a quintessential version of that story. The family bought bare land here after moving out of Auckland. They tented on it for a while, thinking and planning, before contacting Croucher with the request for something more permanent. Croucher says they asked for “a simple small building to offer utility and shelter, to enable the family to occupy the land in winter and also allow them to host groups of friends and family in the summer”.
Arriving here, you drive off a narrow road onto a dirt road and then onto a grass driveway, winding your way up a modest incline until you see a platform with swing seats swaying in the wind, the hills and sea beyond. It’s all of a piece, the arrival part of what’s to come. My directions for finding the place were based more on local landmarks than an actual address, with a street number leading me only so far.
The bach itself is down to your left from near the swing seats, nestled into a field. With its corrugate cladding, it reads as much as a utility building as it does a bach. You pass a firepit beneath an established willow tree before arriving at the “door”, which is really a latched timber screen – there’s no front or back door here. Unlatch this screen and you’ll find yourself in an inside-outside space; shower to your right screened by patterned timber; toilet through a door to your left. Another door straight ahead leads past bunk beds into the open-plan kitchen and living space, and eventually out onto a large deck.
That’s the grand tour, and in sum, the dwelling becomes a kind of passage between the outdoor spaces. The interior is just 45 square metres (74 if you include the covered outdoor areas). All going well, the owners retreat inside only at night to sleep, having cooked outside at the firepit. They can even watch movies under the stars, projecting onto a sheet hung from the building’s exterior. The design keeps the emphasis on what’s around the dwelling, the outdoor space to be enjoyed, rather than the space within. Which, if ever pressed to offer a definition of a bach, would probably be my answer.
All this is not to say that if you’re inside – on a rare bad-weather day in Hawke’s Bay, for instance – you’re without comfort. A couch designed by Croucher sits on castors in the living area so it can be moved closer to the fire or turned into an additional bed at night. A built-in seat connected to the kitchen delineates the interior dining space. There’s a sliding door between the living space and the bedroom, so the area can be opened up if you’re stuck indoors all day. And the bach is lined with plywood, which provides a softness and warmth that is too often missed with painted plasterboard.
Externally, the corrugate cladding is interrupted in a few places with polycarbonate, illuminating the interior during the day without electricity. Internal trusses are left exposed, which gives the living space a distinctly rural, laidback feel (and offers a nod to the familiar Hawke’s Bay shed you pass frequently while driving here). The use of patterned timber on the door (a great touch suggested by the owner) adds a textural element that, when seen from a distance, indicates this is a dwelling and not just another shed. Cleverly, the same door clips back to form a screen to the shower area, creating privacy when campers are accessing this space from outside. These are small moves made within a constrained budget, but the result is a feeling of warmth and craft.
A place like this – one designed around the enveloping warmth of friends and family – has come to mean something more in these Covid times. This humble bach in Māhanga reminds us how such a place is more about thought and planning than the depth of one’s pockets.