There’s a moment during the drive from Ōtautahi to the West Coast when your surroundings suddenly shift. After hours carving past farming towns, ski villages, inland lakes and deep ravines, the hills abruptly part and the sea is exposed. As you continue skimming up State Highway 6, the land falls to the ocean on one side while limestone cliffs tower out of dense green bush on the other. It’s an underpopulated and untamed place of raw and extreme beauty – just the spot for a cabin in the woods.
It was the kind of project architect Mitchell Coll of Fabric always hopes for. “We love the opportunity to design a building that will add to someone’s experience in a beautiful location, one that helps their connection with nature,” he says. Undaunted by the wild landscape, it was the prospect of designing for a fellow architect – Hong-Kong-based Mark Panckhurst – that “sounded a bit scary”. The pair had never met, but after coming across Coll’s own home in a magazine and connecting with the architect’s design and philosophies, Panckhurst got in touch.
His idea was to build a few high-end cabins in the Punakaiki bush. Designed as short-term accommodation, the first would act as the prototype, with three more to follow. “He was particularly interested in using some form of prefabricated construction and liked the cross-laminated timber (CLT) I’d used in my own home,” explains Coll. As they began the collaborative design process, Panckhurst would regularly fly to New Zealand. Then Covid hit and the borders closed. As Coll pushed on with the project, the pair fell into a rhythm, with 4am phone calls from Hong Kong becoming the norm. “I’m a morning person,” Coll shrugs.
Nestled in the bush, Biv (short for bivouac) is just that: a temporary lodging for travellers. Inspired by the historic gold miners’ huts that once scattered the coast, it echoes their simplicity and natural connection – in a modern sort of way. Wrapped in aluminium with generous glazing, the cabin’s off-centre roof tapers up into the trees, topped by a wide, flat skylight. The unique roofline was informed by the old hut chimneys and creates volume, flooding the space with light and making it feel far grander than its 44-square-metre footprint. “The geometry of getting the inside and outside to line up when you have all these crazy different angles….” Coll trails off. “I’ve done some pretty complicated building, but this was the hardest so far.”
A full timber interior reflects the materiality of the miners’ huts and counteracts the effect of the metal cladding. Both architects were committed to using CLT for its thermal performance and negative embodied carbon. Part way through the project, though, the New Zealand supplier shut down. “We’d spent years designing a building around this product, and suddenly it’s gone,” says Coll. “We were forced to ship it in from Australia.” The imported pine was different to anything they’d previously worked with and streaked with green and red tones. By whitewashing the timber, they were able to mute the colours. “It gave it a slight pinky tone which is quite nice against the green from outside,” he says.
The bush creeps up to the hut, where glazed walls and windows filter the dappled light in. The views take in the towering cliffs to the east, the overhanging trees above, the surrounding forest and, of course, the big hitter: that clear night sky. The flat skylight and two triangular windows on either side of the building’s fluted roof deliver various views of the constellations. This generous glazing is central to the hut’s natural-lighting strategy. Coll intentionally underlit the cabin to draw focus to the glow of the hanging wooden pendant light and central wood burner. Though the small fire is superfluous to the building’s heating needs – a mass timber interior, high-grade insulation and an active ventilation system manage the temperature – every self-respecting cabin in the woods deserves one.
Though small, the open-plan layout encompasses everything a weary traveller could desire, and unlike many cabins, this one doesn’t rely on multipurpose spaces. Each function has a dedicated – albeit compact – zone. The kitchen, dining and sitting areas occupy the core of the hut, while the bedroom and separate bathroom (with, impressively, a full-sized bath) are tucked in a lean-to off the back. There’s even a laundry cupboard and a storeroom. But the masterstroke is the mezzanine that the architects snuck into the turret-like ceiling. Serving as an extra sleeping or sitting area, this space plays into the hut’s winning formula for luxurious simplicity.
The directive was for Biv to tread lightly on the land, so to ensure minimal groundwork, the concrete floor was suspended above the forest by a handful of concrete piles. These all feature adjustable brackets in case the ground shifts, and the structure requires future relevelling. The entire construction followed in this considered and cautious vein. “At one point, the contractors were hand-lassoing boulders,” remembers Coll. There’s no formal landscaping around the cabin and not a single tree was removed during the build – the hut assimilates with the surroundings rather than adapting them. In the bathroom, a curving nīkau brushes past the window, lightly tapping against it in a strong wind. It’s been there for decades; no sense in getting rid of it now.
The hut has an easygoingness to it. Yet, as Coll reminds me, “It’s incredibly complicated to make something look simple.” It’s unpretentious yet refined and wholly unexpected in the West Coast bush. A future favourite stopover for all who pass through.