Rafe Maclean designs an eco-conscious home and studio in Wānaka that’s centred around a sense of enclosure.

Fortress of Zen

Fortress of Zen

When Bridget and David Owens decided to build a home in Wānaka, one of their main requirements was that they could enjoy the views, but not be viewed. Given that their 815-square-metre site was situated in a new subdivision and right beside a public laneway, striking a balance between openness and privacy would be a challenge. But, with the help of local architect Rafe Maclean, they’ve achieved just that.

They say your house is your castle, but this home is a somewhat literal example of that phrase. From the street, a large steel gate and a concrete brick wall that wraps around the perimeter give the impression of a fortress. Inside, however, it’s less of a fortress and more of an elegant retreat, with a Zen-inspired garden and a beautiful water feature. “We often have people come in and say, ‘Oh, I wasn’t expecting this,’” says Bridget. “It is lovely out there in the courtyard. It was really nice when [our daughter] Paige was little. We used to park her out here in her pram. She loves the house, she loves the water feature and she loves all the ups and downs and different levels. She got an easel recently and it’s a great spot for her to draw out here.” David adds: “Her favourite thing is probably putting stones down the pipe in the garden.” 

David certainly enjoys his commute to the Owens Building head office, which is located beside the garage in a separate building. “I walk through the forest, past the stream, turn left and in the door,” he says. 

That’s intentional. “The space between the buildings becomes just as important as the buildings themselves,” Maclean says of the separation around the courtyard. To preserve views of the mountains and ensure the home didn’t feel too closed in, it was also important to leave enough distance between the windows and the wall. “I love sitting and looking over the top of the wall at the view,” says Bridget. “It doesn’t feel like we have neighbours, really.” 

While New Zealand has historically favoured suburban setbacks and front yards, Maclean says they are often “too public and never get used”. In a way, blocking out the world (and the cars on the street) gives the house an international feel. With its outlook up to the brown hills on a scorching hot Central Otago day or snow-capped peaks in winter, the home is like a mix between a Palm Springs desert house and an urban compound you might find in Africa, South America or South East Asia. 

Owens and Maclean had worked together on other jobs before this one and developed a mutual respect: they have now collaborated on a total of six projects. “We knew how David and Bridget thought, and how David worked,” says the architect. He points out that David, who built the house and did the landscaping, is “very particular about things lining up”: the outside wall perfectly matches the top of the windows; the kitchen cabinetry lines up to the side of the window and flows into a bench seat; and every piece of western red cedar cladding was cut so that the grooves would line up directly with the window frames. “They’re small things that most people wouldn’t notice,” David says. “But the pain of looking at it over the years was going to be a lot greater than just doing it right at the start.” 

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Maclean says that when a piece of furniture is designed well, it just feels right, and the details, material palette and symmetry of this house add up to that same feeling of just-rightness. “Visually, the place feels quite peaceful,” and it certainly fits with the couple’s desire to create something that was robust and unfussy but still beautiful. At just 143 square metres (not including garage and office), the three-bedroom house isn’t huge. But, Bridget says, “I don’t think there’s anything we’re without.” She believes the use of timber, including on the ceilings, makes the house feel bigger, while Maclean says the spatial compaction in the hallway creates a distinction between the different spaces. The architect also singles out the bathing area as a special space. “The shower is awesome. It’s got a bit of a greenstone look and also a great connection to the garden,” he says.

Along with the emphasis on aesthetics, good thermal performance was an essential requirement for the Owens. “We weren’t worried about the cold, but we were worried about being too hot,” says Bridget. “The house we were in previously was very warm, but this is perfect. The house is so cool, even on these really hot days, and there’s always shade in the courtyard.” The home doesn’t reach passive standards, but it’s close to it, with triple-glazed windows, construction airtightness and a heat-recovery ventilation system. Bridget says some who saw the plans felt there weren’t enough windows, but too much glazing in a high-performance home can make it liable to overheat. In a place like Aotearoa, where houses have traditionally been oriented to get as much sun as possible, and in a place like Wānaka, where views are cherished above almost all else, limiting the amount of glass might seem counterintuitive, but it has ensured this house maintains a comfortable temperature, and served the couple’s desire for privacy.

“We drive past some houses here and think, ‘God, it’s going to be hot in there’,” says Bridget. “They have to put all the blinds down… We don’t have cooling in the house, there’s no heating in the floor, but there is still a feeling of warmth when you walk around in the winter.” The house is also light on emissions. “There’s nothing burning. No gas hobs. No fireplace. And that’s really important,” Maclean says.

From certain angles, cantilevers off two sides of the slab make the house look like it’s floating. This meant the foundation could be kept away from the edge of the slope and allowed a bit more living space. A rear deck also appears to hover above the street and native garden – its openness in complete contrast to the privacy of the courtyard. “It’s a wonderful spot in the winter,” says Maclean. 

Bridget says it’s not in her husband’s nature to be satisfied – he’s a perfectionist at heart and things can always be improved upon. But David admits he is happy with what they’ve achieved with their own house. While creating a place to live was the main goal, the project has also helped their business. “It takes a long time in building to get a reputation for doing good work, so when you get a little bit of a break project like this you can try to springboard off that and move up the ladder,” he says. “It’s definitely helpful when potential clients can come into a calm space like this, because they can picture themselves in something like it.”

For Maclean “it’s a design that everyone is happy with, it’s really respectful to the site and to the neighbourhood, and it’s a healthy, peaceful house to be in”. Despite the obvious quality of this house, the Owens family doesn’t buy into the idea of the “forever home”. They know their needs will probably change over time. “It’s more that there’s not too much for me to do here now, so I might as well go and do something else,” says David matter-of-factly. “Dave’s impatient, so we’ll probably do another one,” laughs Bridget. And if it’s anywhere near as good as this one, that will be something to look forward to.

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1. Entry
2. Office
3. Garage
4. Kitchen
5. Dining
6. Living
7. Laundry
8. Bathroom
9. Ensuite
10. Bedroom
11. Wardrobe
12. Courtyard
13. Garden
14. Deck

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