Life follows the sun in this open yet introspective Maungawhau home by Natasha Markham and Alex McLeod.

Guiding Light

Guiding Light

For 10 years, interior designer Alex McLeod jokes, she watched her three boys playing on the cracked driveway in front of their home in Maungawhau Mt Eden, while she and architect Natasha Markham mulled what to do with the site. “It was highly iterative and really collaborative,” says Natasha, who went to school with Alex before they studied architecture together. “We like and have shared interests in the same things, so I use the term client very loosely.”

Alex, of interior studio, and husband Greg – of Artisan and Eco Outdoor  – bought their house in the leafy Tāmaki Makaurau suburb back in 2011 when Alex was pregnant with their third child. It’s on what Australians would call a battle axe block – a long driveway leading to a wide and quite shallow section. North-facing, it had the potential to track the sun from east to west: from the local maunga to the Waitākere Ranges. Only it didn’t. The house was built in the 1950s, in a kind of V shape, and opened onto the driveway. It ignored the sun, the view, the north-facing lawn, and a sunny western lawn to which the family was intuitively drawn – that’s where the trampoline went, and the plastic swimming pool in summer. “You know how you have groups of friends and some have renovated or built, and they’re living in nice houses, and some haven’t, but you keep talking about the fact that you’re going to build anyway?” asks interior designer Alex McLeod. “Yeah, that was us.”

They explored subdividing, before Alex and Greg decided they wanted to build a home that would become the nexus of their family life. In this, Alex was inspired by vivid memories of her grandparents’ home in east Auckland, which her grandfather had partly designed. Long and low, with a central courtyard paved in terracotta tiles, it had built-in furniture and lots of wooden cabinetry. “It was a beautiful, ambient, cosy home that was really subtle,” she says. “It wasn’t ostentatious at all.”

Alex and Natasha, director at MAUD, developed a scheme that drew on these memories without being overly referential or derivative. “I felt quite excited when Alex brought all of that thinking to the table,” says Natasha. “We didn’t want it to be slavishly modernist, but we did have that idea of creating a structural grid that starts to order the home, which is a clear modernist principle.” That grid is based on a 2.4-metre module set up by the exposed timber beams of the two-storey wing: this rhythm carries on throughout the house. And in this, Natasha drew on her own memories, of her early years working with Marshall Cook, whose houses were both effortless and highly disciplined.

It is, as Natasha puts it, “a gift of a site”, and creating some self-imposed constraints was a way of organising all the references and ideas into a coherent form. Key to it was a combination of rigour and softness; orthogonal design mellowed with texture. The plan is so complete that when you go to explain it, it can be elusive: start with materials and you wind up talking about spaces; start with the spaces and you end up discussing materials. But I’ll try.

The house is mostly long and low, with a two-storey tower at one end and clearly rationalised spaces that revolve around two courtyards, which capture the sun over the course of the day. One is on the north-eastern corner, the other is in the centre of the site with a swimming pool. At each edge, Natasha used the bulk of the building to gently push up against the boundaries, creating a house that looks inward, and captures long, high views.

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As you come up the drive, you’re greeted by a long, almost blank brick wall with a high clerestory window. So often, the effect of driveways is to speed you up, but this wall slows you down, makes you pause. You enter into a two-storey atrium with carpeted wooden stairs leading up. Past the stairs you turn into the open-plan living area, with a snug a couple of steps down. Back through the atrium, there’s a long gallery formed by that aforementioned brick wall. The gallery overlooks the swimming pool and leads to the boys’ bedrooms; upstairs, there’s the primary suite with views to both Maungawhau and the Waitākere Ranges.

The house is made up of solids and voids that interlock in a particularly sophisticated way – buildings and open spaces that blur into each other quite deliberately. The atrium provides a dramatic entrance around which all the other spaces revolve, and it also brings light and air circulation into the middle of the house. “It’s really nice to look through spaces,” says Natasha. “Everything borrows from somewhere else.”

Throughout the ground-floor living spaces, Luca Crazy Paving runs inside and out. “That was the part where I wouldn’t budge,” says Alex. “That had been a dream for ages, to have it everywhere.” That meant, logically, that other surfaces would need to be textured and soft, rather than hard and shiny, and they knew they would have almost no painted surfaces. To balance the paving, they devised an intuitive, textural approach that combines cedar sarking inside and out with stacked Pendell limestone batons – technically a flooring product – on the walls. Here, they have a beautifully pale, soft feel.

There’s a consistency of materials, and of tone: there are no hard edges. As well as timber and stone, Alex specified the same mosaic tile, in a range of soft, muted colours, in the kitchen and bathrooms. She was adamant there would be no black. Instead, downpipes and metalwork are powder-coated to match the lichen-coloured joinery. “The house has this softness to it, this richness of texture,” says Natasha – and please note that you can’t see the gutters, thanks to an elegant steel shroud that she designed. “Having the same materials going inside and out in a seamless way means there are these quite soft transitions.”

The family moved in just in time for Christmas last year, unpacking boxes that in some cases hadn’t been opened in a decade, and retrieving furniture that never quite fit in the old place, including a classic Noguchi coffee table Alex bought 20 years ago that had been in storage almost the entire time. In the living room, there’s a sofa that designed in collaboration with Woodwrights, and a pair of chairs which used to sit in the living room of Alex’s parents’ house. New dining chairs are arranged around the dining table Alex and Greg got for a wedding present.

In some ways, the difficulty of the driveway – and the resulting wall to create privacy – give the house its poetry. Rather than a slavishly north-facing living space, the plan is broken into experiences to be enjoyed at different times of the day – you actively move around the house depending on where the sun is. “It pours into the living space in the mornings,” says Alex. “And then as we move through the house over the course of the day, so does the sun. That’s what makes it so enjoyable to live in.”

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1. Entry
2. Garage
3. Dining
4. Living
5. Snug
6. Kitchen
7. Bathroom
8. Laundry
9. Terrace
10. Pool
11. Bedroom
12. Gym
13. Wardrobe

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