To listen to Charlotte Ryan's Spotify playlist inspired by this house, click here. For a couple who work as interior designers, Hollie and Tom Norman aren’t all that fazed about discussing their new family home’s aesthetic. They’re more interested in explaining the groundbreaking water-tank system tucked away out the back. That’s because ever since they began designing this house at the base of Ōtautahi Christchurch’s Port Hills, the conversation has revolved more around sustainability than style.
“We wanted to make a house that was healthy for us and healthy for the planet,” says Tom, an associate at Three SIxty Architecture. As they begin to delve into the finer details of their eco-conscious build, the list goes on. For starters, they used local and environmentally responsible materials where possible, kept earthworks to a minimum and reused a portion of the shifted soil in their landscaping. The house’s orientation was dictated by rooftop solar panels, while those aforementioned water tanks collect and treat much of the house’s rainwater and greywater before sending it back inside to be reused. They were guided by the Living Building Challenge – a programme that promotes peak sustainability in construction – but when I comment on their dedication to the cause, Tom shrugs. “Why not experiment to see if we could make an affordable house using those environmental ideals?”
The Normans spent six months looking for the right site. Sending each potential section to a structural engineer for approval (we’re talking Christchurch post-earthquake), this was the first one they truly fell in love with. It was close to the city but surrounded by hills, so it had a nice “country” feel. The previous earthquake-damaged home had already been removed, but several established trees remained. And though the ground was soggy, the engineers assured the couple they could achieve an efficient and affordable footprint.
Then came the issue of safety. “We didn’t want to make some grand architectural statement that could fall over on us,” explains Tom. Advised that a traditional rectangle would offer the most stability, they settled on a pitch-roofed shape clad in Douglas fir. “It’s not just a big open barn though,” he’s quick to point out. “There are lots of little nooks and crannies for you to have your own space.”
The home has been entirely designed and documented by Hollie and Tom. In areas that their expertise didn’t reach, like weatherproofing, they turned to their design office colleagues for advice, even hosting a couple of crit sessions. Walking in now, you’re immediately caught up in the warmth that only a family home can deliver. The open-plan kitchen, living and dining area is scattered with plants, books and personal belongings. A double-height void in the centre of the home creates a generous sense of volume and floods the space with light. The use of colour is purposeful and delivers a palpable element of fun. In the kitchen, birch-ply joinery and white tiles keep the space light and airy, while those looking for a quiet retreat can find it behind a plush red curtain off the living area. Here, in this book-lined snug, you’ll also find the home’s television and, more than likely, one of the couple’s three children. “With the red curtain and big couch, it feels a bit like a movie theatre,” says Hollie.
Heading upstairs, you arrive at a mezzanine that incorporates an office area and play space. The kids’ bedrooms, main bedroom and family bathroom are also on this level. “The rooms aren’t huge; that’s a conscious thing,” says Tom. “We want the kids to come out of their bedrooms and interact.” Up here, large-scale commercial carpet tiles cover the floor in a random arrangement of pink and blue. Laid by Hollie and the couple’s daughter, they’re not glued down, so the whole lot can be lifted and rearranged at will. These playful tones reach full volume in the two bathrooms; one encased in pale blue tiles, the other in baby pink. The effect is fantastic. “People are always surprised when we tell them the colours were inspired by the sunrise,” says Tom. “But if you look at a sunrise, especially in this valley, they have these really strong blues and pinks.” It’s a unique expression of biophilia, and here, in a home that doesn’t seem to take itself too seriously, it works.
That connection to nature played a vital role in the couple’s design, and Tom cites kaitiakitanga – the Māori concept of guardianship and protection of the environment – as an important principle. “We just wanted to look after the land and not disturb it too much.” In this vein, they eschewed a concrete foundation in favour of more eco-friendly timber piles and hand separated all waste on site. This included many hours spent cutting up wrappings from building materials until they were small enough to fit into supermarket soft-plastic recycling bins. “Actually, we’ve still got some big sheets of plastic that I haven’t got to yet,” says Tom.
The thing about this place is that, although it’s relatively new, it’s as if the Normans have been here forever. It feels lived in, comfortable and loved. In a time when contemporary architecture can swing in favour of minimalism and restraint, it’s refreshing to visit a house that instantly feels like a home. The facade is sleek, its silvering cladding the perfect complement to the tussock-dotted surrounds, but in the couple’s own words, it’s “simple”. “We’ve always seen the house as a bit of a shell,” Tom says. “It’s just the bit between the parts we live in – the garden and the home.”