To listen to Charlotte Ryan's playlist inspired by this house, click here. When RTA Studio’s Richard Naish and project architect Tim Sargisson first visited this site at Matapōuri, three hours north of Tāmaki Makaurau, their clients were camping in portable cabins on the land: one for cooking and a couple for sleeping arranged facing each other, creating a sheltered, private space in between. “It was that feeling of encampment and living outside with shelter for the necessary functions,” says Sargisson. “They had really enjoyed it – so that informed the design.”
The white-sand beach at Matapōuri is one of the North Island’s finest and, in the past couple of decades, the village has grown around its edges. The original bit is charming – all hedges and flat, grassy sections and tumble-down baches; there are almost no footpaths and you can walk to the beach at the end of the street in bare feet. More recent additions have included much bigger beach houses on suburban cul-de-sacs with the same lack of view but distinctly less charm.
The site the clients bought a few years earlier sat in the latter category, and is something of a paradox: while at the end of one of those suburban cul-de-sacs, it’s remarkably close to the beach, which is reached down a track worn through the dunes. You can hear the sea, you can smell the sea – but you can’t see the sea. “You come to the end of the roundabout and you’re right in the dunes,” says Naish. “But they have houses next to them and there’ll be some behind, so it’s quite a suburban situation.”
From that situation came the idea of a self-contained box – in essence, a courtyard house that would look inward to a sheltered space rather than outward at other people’s houses. It was to be one level – “we didn’t want to do a two-storey house” – with an intimate connection to the ground and an easy blurring of indoors and outdoors.
Fairly quickly, Sargisson (who has since moved to another practice) conceived of two concrete-block boxes, one to the south and the street containing bedrooms and bathrooms, and one to the north containing an open-plan living area and a covered outdoor dining area. To get from one to the other, you go outside, through courtyards and an open breezeway. Concrete walls on the side enclose a courtyard, and sliding timber screens close the whole thing down for security and privacy. There are no internal hallways and each room opens into fresh air. “They were quite open to the concept of most things happening outside, and having to go outside to get from one place to another,” says Sargisson.
While generally supportive of the idea, as the design came together, the owners started to wonder if they were missing a trick by not having a second storey. From the second floor, there’s a peep of a view out to the heads over the beach – and it’s hard to resist a view, right? Philosophy aside, the design’s concrete perimeter walls were pushed right to the planning limits – fine for a one-storey building, but problematic if you add a second.
Instead, Naish and Sargisson proposed a lightweight viewing platform, reached up a staircase from the courtyard; its balustrades just skate in under the height-to-boundary rules. Lined with recycled fibreglass mesh, the platform lets light and rain through to the plants below, and provides a spot for a gin and the view in the late afternoon sun. “It’s that point of release or relief,” says Sargisson. “That’s quite important in a space that’s inward looking.”
From the street, when the owners aren’t there, the house gives very little away – concrete block walls and screens close the place down completely. “It makes sense, but I was a little worried about it not being particularly neighbourly,” admits Naish.
Upon arrival, though, you go about unlocking the screens and opening it up, and the place transforms. At the front, they swing outwards, revealing an open, decked breezeway between bedrooms in the front, running through to the courtyard in the middle, and then onto the rear living pavilion. The side screens slide back; doors open up. As Sargisson notes, the clients are pretty social at the beach, and the house signals when they’re open for business. “It’s actually quite welcoming,” he says. “It’s really clear if someone’s home or not, and when the screens are open it makes that big gesture.”
It’s not a big house. The bedrooms are modest and there are no wardrobes because... well, you’re at the beach. But there are four bedrooms including one that will eventually be a bunk room, but which is currently used as a second living area. The open-plan living area is just big enough, a four-metre by eight-metre box with a view of surrounding hills and trees to the north. Materials are simple – concrete, cedar lining and black steel. It’s hard-wearing and practical.
But romantic, too. Holidays and retreats are all about rhythm and rituals, the slowness of days marking time with distinct moments, and that’s concentrated here. By day, and especially in summer, you pack up and go to the beach, and then you return to the courtyard. As the afternoon winds on you might adjust the screens a bit, manage the light and the wind, pop upstairs for a sundowner. As night falls, lights come on and you pull some of the screens closed in the courtyard and the place starts to look a little like a lantern, filtered light blinking through the screens. You light the outdoor fire, and settle down at the table, sheltered from the wind until long after dark.
It’s a rhythm that will be intimately familar to anyone who’s spent time camping, moving between the grass of the campground and the sand of the beach, managing wind and shade through the course of the day. “It’s just a different experience,” says Naish. With a beach-front house you’ll spend time in the house and on the deck. You’ll look out to sea and maybe go for a swim, and then come back to the deck. “Here, you make the beach an experience and an event – and then you return to the house, which is quite different again.”
4. Outdoor Living
6. Stair to Lookout