It started with land, or more particularly, it started with trees – and the search for land on which to plant them, leading Kristina Pickford and Michael Wolfe to this long, narrow, steep piece of terrain above Ōtama Beach on the Coromandel Peninsula. “We’d both lived in Christchurch our whole lives and we wanted to do something different,” says Wolfe, “and do something that was environmentally based.”
There is a stream and 10 hectares of regenerating bush, and there is a ruru rookery near the house site. Each night, the birds silently swoop down to perch, watchfully, in the same spot – these days, one rests on the shade-cloth hoops in the vegetable garden, keeping an eye out for puriri moths. The view is through pōhutukawa, over a beguiling stretch of white sand towards the ragged, rusty rocks of Motuhua Point and out to the Mercury Islands.
Initially at least, the couple was almost more interested in the land than what they’d eventually build here. In Pickford’s mind, they were heading north to somewhere with plentiful rainfall, to make the planting of trees easier. Looking at Coromandel rain records, she calculated there was three times as much rainfall each year as in her native Canterbury – though what the maps didn’t show was that the wider Kūaotunu area has a particularly dry microclimate and severe droughts lay ahead. “We wanted to plant trees,” she says, “and we wanted to heal the land.” They sold up in Ōtautahi and headed north.
After buying the land, Pickford and Wolfe were introduced to Rory Kofoed of Pac Studio. They wanted a permanent home – not a bach or a beach house – for them, sensitive to its site. Materials were to be natural and sustainable and the house was to be energy-efficient and as self-reliant as possible. They didn’t want anything ostentatious, and the project was to be a collaboration between Pickford, an interior designer, and Kofoed.
Kofoed proposed to place the house on an existing clearing made by previous owners – partly, since that was already within a covenanted building area. There was an easier building platform further up that offered a more exposed, prominent site, but it would have meant removing more trees. “We all felt the bush had taken 30 years to get this far, and we didn’t want to take any more out,” he says.
On early visits, Kofoed spent time wandering up and down the slope, seeing how the view and the experience changed. “Because the land cascaded in such a way, you took five steps down the hill and suddenly it felt completely different. So each part needed a response to suit that changing typography.”
Built by Damian Percival of Percival Construction, the house is long and thin, the slope of the roof following the fall of the land, a series of timber portals stepping their way down the site through different levels and functions, unified by one roof and a spine of cabinetry. At one end, it’s anchored into the ground; at the other, it floats in the trees – a sort of see-saw balance with its pivot at the edge of the kitchen. At the top end, it’s one storey; at the bottom, it’s two, with a further guest room and bathroom downstairs. “The idea was that you’d pull it down,” says Kofoed, “so the height of the building didn’t fight against the line of the land.”
That environmental care extended through everything – there’s only as much concrete as was required, with the rest of the house built from timber. It’s clad not in cedar but in Lawson cypress, from trees removed from Department of Conservation land on Mount Ruapehu. An array of 26 solar panels on the roof provides most of the power needed year-round, and all of the power used in summer. Extra insulation in the ceiling and extra-thick walls moderate its temperature, as do double-glazed, timber-framed windows.
But let me just hold you there for a moment because, of course, you don’t experience the house in such a complete, easy way. “It was informed a bit by Japanese aesthetics,” says Pickford, who used to tutor on the subject, and you can see that thinking throughout the house. Here, the concept of miegakure, or 'hide-and-reveal', an aesthetic of Japanese garden design, has been used to design the entry.
The house is visible from the beach, but completely invisible from the road, so you approach via a glade of pōhutukawa. You walk across a little bridge over the Waimata Stream, before a long, winding path of concrete steps and timber sleepers brings you up behind the house, the light filtered through the trees. The form appears above you, and at this point it’s a blank timber box, slowly silvering off, with three black pods attached to the rear. Window openings are hatches rather than glass; and the quickly growing garden obscures much of the house. It’s quiet and still: the white noise and wind from the beach fades.
Ultimately, you arrive at a wide black door and a hand-made bronze knocker. Not for this house the porous approach of the New Zealand holiday homes. Through the door you are presented with a perfectly framed view of the ocean and the rocks beyond, in a wide-screen window. “I never tire of it,” says Wolfe. “You walk up that path – and it can be a bit of a grunt – and then you walk in the door and get that view over the ocean, and you get the smell of the Lawson cypress.”
To the right, a few steps down, is the main bedroom, open to the rest of the house except for a plastered wall, on the other side of which is an open dressing room. Straight ahead, the living room, with its exquisite view. To the left, a few more steps up, the kitchen and dining area. Beyond that, another flight of steps up, is a covered loggia with a tall timber door that slides across to block the wind – when it’s in the north, you sit in a sheltered outdoor dining area; when it’s in the south, you sit by the fire. “When you pull the house apart but keep everything under one roof,” says Kofoed, “then you get a lovely space in between as well, and that does something different to the outside.”
At the top of the slope, there’s the guest suite/study. Services (bathrooms, laundry, pantry) are contained in three black boxes, which Pickford charred by hand on site with help from friends using the ancient practice of shou sugi ban. In places, such as the main bedroom, your relationship is with the trees, and you step out onto decks and verandahs; in others, it feels more grounded, and you step out onto plastered concrete and the land.
As you move up and down the stairs, the roof, lined with sarked timber, dances above you. Sometimes coming in over your head, sometimes soaring away, its regular rhythm of timber portals creates a kind of marker of your path through the house. Each room has a different view, and a different relationship with the land. “I had a really big aversion to too big a view,” says Pickford. Kofoed agreed. “We all felt it would be too easy to do an ice-cream sandwich of glass,” he says. “And there’s a wonderful thing that happens with a view – if you capture it and frame it, it suddenly brings it immediately to you.”
The design process was long, and nuanced, with Kofoed steering away from the heroic presentation of a final idea, and leaning into a series of iterations and fine-tuning, a passing back and forth between Pac and Pickford. They tried various versions, but kept coming back to the long, draping roof. Early drafts had more – and smaller – windows, but when Pickford and Wolfe viewed the digital model in virtual reality, she realised, ironically, it needed bigger windows and fewer openings. Kofoed introduced large sliders, and a deeper verandah screened with timber battens to combat the sun.
Internally, Pickford employed a language of timber, most notably in the use of a spine of eucalyptus cabinetry that runs the full length of the southern wall that also frames thresholds into the main entry and service pods before transforming into the kitchen. She also used waxed steel, lime plaster, and honed and rough stone finishes. Particular pieces of furniture informed the design, including an old Belgian chocolate-maker’s table that defined the depth of the kitchen island, and a vintage Polish army gym mat that determined the depth of a plinth between the dining area and outdoor room. A photograph of Fiordland by photographer Haru Sameshima is placed inside a timber niche to one side of the living area. Other pieces were made for the space. For the red-oxide plastered wall between the living and bedroom areas, the couple commissioned artist Maureen Lander to weave a piece from harakeke. It hangs, delicately, moving slightly in the breeze; small pieces of perspex referencing sea foam on the beach.
Outside, the planting is bedding in, the mānuka waving in the wind, providing shelter for other endemic trees and plants, which they’ve painstakingly kept alive through several dry summers. They’ve poured hours into clearing the lower part of the property of pampas and wilding pines – and along with other like-minded members of the community they’ve taken action to eradicate pines from the surrounding hills, but that’s another story. The land, slowly, is healing, just as its owners had hoped.