You see it a long time before you reach it. As you drive across flat farmland to the south of Wanaka, steep hills rise up at the edges of the plains, marking where high country eventually turns into a mountain range, with Mount Pisa at its peak. At the foot of those hills, but still high above the flat farming country, sits a low, earth-tone house with a slim rusted-steel line marking its roof.
Turning off the road onto a winding gravel farm track and up a steep hill, the house disappears and reappears from view. The owners found this piece of land in 2015, while living in Singapore on a long stint away from New Zealand. With family nearby, and Wanaka a favourite place to visit, it became an obvious place to build a home and establish their lives.
The land they found has spectacular views over the flats and up the lake to Mt Aspiring, with mountains all around. “We bought it and we thought we’d have it as a holiday home, but then decided to build [our permanent home]. It accelerated our departure from Singapore by about three years,” says one of the owners.
The owners were intrigued by building with rammed earth, an ancient technique that forms walls from damp soil tamped between shutters. The couple contacted Jimmy Cotter, a specialist who has built a number of rammed-earth houses in the Wanaka area. In turn, Cotter introduced them to architects Louise and Justin Wright of Assembly Architects, who have designed a few houses in the area using the technique. “We liked the texture and colour, the substance and heaviness of it,” says the owner. The in-situ walls are also relatively inert, warm in winter and cool in summer, with a low carbon impact – considerably lower than concrete.
The site was already well established, with a building platform dug into the hill. “The retaining was all there and it was already lovely,” says Louise Wright. Design covenants on the site envisaged something traditional with a pitched-roof, using materials such as stone and timber. Neither form nor materials were of any interest to client or architect.
In the Wrights’ hands, rammed earth becomes less rustic and more contemporary, almost akin to poured concrete, but with a completely different feel. “It’s soft, down to earth and not showy, it has built-in age and it’s from these hills – you’re building from the land,” says Wright.
Instead of an obviously rural timber-and-stone house with a pitched-roof, she convinced the council that a long, low rammed-earth home would be a better fit for such a visible site. “I felt it would be better for the district to have a low-profile house and see more mountain, rather than lots of roof,” she says. The council agreed.
The design is simple and relatively compact – after 10 years living in small apartments, the owners didn’t feel the need for a large home with multiple rooms. “They said they wanted to feel like they were all in together,” says Wright. “This is already massive compared to what they were used to living in.” And there is capacity to the rammed-earth walls – every one metre is an extra half a metre of wall. The scale makes you think very hard about how much space you really need.
The plan is a bit like a capital ‘F’. On the view-facing side of the house is a long wing with a monopitch roof, containing the main bedroom and bathroom at one end, with secondary bedrooms at the other end and an open-plan living and kitchen area in between. Off that are two boxes forming the arms of the F, with a roof sloping down to a central gutter between the wings – a small, almost windowless office and a double garage and laundry area. An open courtyard is located between the arms of the F, sheltered from the hot sun, and where the family eats most meals in summer.
A small TV nook behind the fireplace remains connected to the living areas and means the kids are not constantly disappearing to every end of the house. In the main bedroom, there isn’t a walk-in wardrobe, but a generous amount of cabinetry.
There’s a constant sense of solidity and a play of light throughout the home. Once inside the front door, you are in a comfortingly shadowy space between the office and living room. The house and view open out from there, progressing from shadow to light. In the office, a long slot window drops light along the walls; in the living area, tall narrow windows control the Otago light – bleak in winter, blistering in summer – and balance the openness of floor-to-ceiling sliding doors. In the bedroom, tall sliding windows on top of concrete nib walls lend a sense of enclosure and security.
It’s a warm, tactile, contemporary home. The interior walls take a beating – which suits a growing family – and need little decoration. When the family moved back from Singapore and into the finished house, their furniture was still in transit. They camped for a few weeks on airbeds with a plate, a bowl and some cutlery each. “But it still felt homely,” says the owner. “It’s almost like artificial ageing, using that big heavy material. I suppose it is old – it just hasn’t been in that particular shape for very long. We really like that.”