Mr Hallyburton Johnstone was a retired farmer from Ngātea. In 1921, he bought a large holding of land on Dignan Street in what is now Rangi-mata-rau Point Chevalier in Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland. He subdivided it for housing, keeping an old homestead, known as The Pines, and four acres in the middle of the block. A keen bowler and sportsman, he eventually – after some judicious lobbying from members of the community – placed the house and land into a perpetual trust for the Hallyburton Johnstone Sports Club (bowls and tennis) and a croquet club. “The property is situated in a commanding position and an uninterrupted view of the harbour can be obtained from the broad verandah,” reported the New Zealand Herald in 1927.
Nearly a century later, on a recent Tuesday, I’m standing on the second floor of a house designed by Guy Tarrant which overlooks both the sports clubs and the Dignan Street Community Garden – a more recent addition which practises regenerative agriculture. You can’t see the harbour any more, thanks to liquid amber trees and a proliferation of inter-war bungalows on the street, but you can hear the cheerful thwack of tennis balls, and the sound of spades in the earth from what was Johnstone’s land.
Looking down through tall, mullioned windows beneath a generous gabled roof, the view is akin to Sims, all activity in miniature. “To me, that’s what is really special about this site,” says Tarrant, surveying the gardens. “But also there are no development controls on that side – so we could be a metre off the boundary, basically.” Tarrant lives across the road. You might know his house, a curving brick courtyard design which fends off a busy main road and features a floating roof. When his clients – a mother, her son and his partner, who will eventually occupy two houses on this site – went looking for an architect, they needed only glance across the street.
This project’s brief called for something slightly more compact than Tarrant’s home, though – two houses on 650-odd square metres – and on a more modest budget. The rear house was to be occupied by the son and his partner; his mother may one day move into a new, one-level house in front. “It was interesting,” says Tarrant. “It was about how small can we make it and not make it feel impoverished? You’re on the precipice of banality, and it’s a question of how do you make it beautiful?”
Tarrant’s plan was to push right up under the recession planes with a generous gable, partly inspired by a neighbouring church he has long admired, and which made for a practical, generous roof. At 38 degrees, it’s flatter than a church’s, but it creates a lovely echo of its white-painted neighbour. (It also, possibly unintentionally, mimics a glasshouse in the community garden, whose Facebook page features a shot of lush growth, a glasshouse, and this house being built and already feeling very much at home.) Under that roof, he arranged solid brick walls to screen neighbours, opening the house at either end with tall stretches of glass. In one direction: garden, tennis, bowls. In the other: trees.
To get to the house, you walk past the original bungalow in front down a wide path that isn’t quite a driveway (the consent requires a standard-width driveway once the site is formally subdivided) and past a building that is legally a garage but functions more as a studio or gatehouse. Then, you might go through the front door, or you might come through a metal gate and into a compact, lush courtyard featuring a garden designed by Andy Hamilton and a sheltered outdoor living space, with an open fireplace, positioned under the soaring roof. (Side note: a peculiarity of the brief was that the courtyard be cat-proof, to prevent the escape of the couple’s beloved feline.)
The ground floor is meticulously planned with spaces that circulate around the outdoor living area and bleed into each other, but still give you distinct experiences. The front door leads into the kitchen-dining area, which features a long built-in banquette that wraps around one corner of the room and transforms into a window seat. On the other side, there’s a small living area and stairs to the first floor; in between is a laundry and guest toilet.
Upstairs, there are two compact bedrooms and an airy study that could also function as a bedroom, and a small bathroom under the eaves. The stud is high: at its peak, it reaches six metres, which gives relatively modest rooms a sense of scale and light. Downstairs, the sun drops in through light wells above, creating a complex pattern of shadows throughout the day.
While the budget was somewhat restrained, it did extend to some beautiful materials and fittings. White New Zealand clay bricks feature inside and out, and the custom oak cabinetry feels solid. This fit the brief for a house that was as small as it could be, while still being premium. “We made some intelligent decisions, but we discarded anything that would have compromised the main idea,” says one client.
There are some lovely details, including a couple of timber shutters in the bedroom that match the sarked timber wall; exposed rafters in the ground-floor area; and a particularly lovely steel piloti at the intersection between living and dining-kitchen zones. They are familiar details that have previously featured in Tarrant’s work, but they feel evolved here, stripped back.
The house was designed under a previous planning regime – the Auckland Unitary Plan – that forced them to excavate down a little to obtain the right height in relation to the boundary. Then, not long after the house was finished, the government introduced new medium-density rules that allow you to go a little higher, and one house denser, than you could previously. Both sets of rules have created a fair amount of consternation in the leafy suburbs of Tāmaki Makaurau. This little house shows that it’s design and commitment to an idea, rather than rules, that make good architecture. “It’s a really simple little plan,” says Tarrant. “On paper it looks reasonably tight, but I’d like to think it doesn’t actually feel like it.”