The day Siân Taylor and Mark Read visited the section that would become their home, it was grey and grim, with sleet and low cloud. Yet the land just felt right. The couple fell for the site – there was no doubt about that. The question that did arise was affordability. “Mark said, ‘can we afford it?’, recalls Taylor. “And I said, ‘only if we build a smaller house.’ So that’s kind of what we did.”
It’s a special spot for Read. In the hills just outside Arrowtown, you look over a pond and a collection of farm sheds that were built by his grandfather, Graham Douglas, after the war. The buildings still sit on the neighbouring farm and until recently, the outlook took in a line of larch trees that were planted in the early days by his great-grandmother, Rose Douglas. The family sold the farm when Read was five – he has memories of the sheds, but little else. He’d never dreamed of coming back, but when he did, it felt like the only place to be in the world.
At the time, Read and Taylor were living in central Queenstown, in a house ill-equipped to deal with the region’s extreme climate, which plunges below freezing in winter and is seriously hot and dry in summer. By day, they run Team Green Architects, a practice specialising in low-energy designs, building ultra-insulated warm houses for their clients; by night they froze in their Fernhill home. “We were living in a typically cold, single-glazed Queenstown house and building these wonderful houses for other people,” says Taylor. “And we just wanted something better.”
When a real estate agent tipped them off to a small development that was taking time to sell, they went to have a look. The land is lovely – a couple of acres covered with established planting, including cabbage trees and other hardy natives such as hebes, coprosma, ribbonwood, matagouri, flax, beech and kōwhai – and it meets the boundary of the farm. The view faces due north and it’s sheltered: the wind shoots straight over the top. “I remember standing here and I was grumpy, something had gone wrong at work,” says Read. “And I just felt uplifted by the whole sense of being here.”
The couple played with a few design ideas, but eventually settled on two houses on one site. First up, a building they describe as a ‘guesthouse’, which is where they live now and will eventually become accommodation for visiting family, and a studio for their practice. In the future they will build a bigger three-bedroom house, connected to the guesthouse across a courtyard.
In the meantime, what they have is so good that it's hard to imagine they need more. The house sits beautifully on the site – angular, with its heels dug into the slope and a monopitch roof rising to a sharp point in the landscape, solar panels catching the sun. From the driveway, it gives little away – a black cedar box. From the front it’s almost completely open, with huge triple-glazed timber sliders opening up to the view. The palette is simple but striking, with dark-stained cedar, honey-coloured timber windows and a bright green front door.
From the get-go, Read and Taylor (who was one of the first Passive House-certified architects in New Zealand) were determined the place would be designed to be Passive House certified. The standard, originally from Germany, makes hyper-efficient homes that need little to no heating or cooling. As well as triple-glazed windows, the walls are super-thick and have masses of insulation. This house was built using structurally insulated panels and there’s an additional layer of insulation between the walls and plasterboard. The airtight house is ventilated mechanically by a Danish system that puts fresh air in without losing any heat. It gets cold here in the valley – below freezing most nights in winter – but they only use the 500w panel heater in the living area sparingly. There's solar gain in winter and in summer, the insulated walls keep the interior cool, while the eave at the front keeps the sun out.
All that amounted to a significant outlay, and when the early costings came in the couple had to pause and consider their approach for the whole site. If the guesthouse cost this much, then what would the main house be? How would they ever build stage two? “It blew our hair back completely,” says Read. “So that was part of the discussion we had: do we do another bedroom here and be done with it, or do we retain the integrity of the smaller house? It was a head or heart decision.”
They went ahead with their original plan to build the guesthouse. Downstairs, two bedrooms are dug into the hill and there's a bathroom and open-plan living area; upstairs a one-bedroom apartment (originally meant for Taylor's parents visiting from Britain) is now their home studio. The two are linked only by a ladder, which daughter Seren uses to access a small yellow playroom filled with craft and toys. The spaces are hard-working and hyper-rational with plenty of storage.
To manage the cost, the couple stuck to standard, off-the-shelf solutions including Ikea cabinetry imported from Australia; the interior is painted plasterboard and there’s no garage. Each bedroom has one smallish square window. “We talk with our clients about this a lot,” says Read. “If you’re saying yes to one thing, you’re saying no to something else. You create freedom with choices that allow you to have some special things – that’s what makes it work.”
In the case of this house, freedom also comes from living in a warm, dry home. On Friday nights, the family toasts marshmallows in the outdoor fireplace and spends time looking at the stars; and they enjoy crisp mornings and clear mountain air, before retreating indoors to a consistent 20°C. “Coming from the UK,” says Taylor, “I’ve never got used to the idea that you have to light a fire to get warm.”
The family connection really completes the picture. When Read’s mother first visited, she cried – and a few weeks ago the couple hosted a surprise 70th party for her overlooking the farm where she grew up. A while back, their neighbour needed to cut down that stand of larch trees, which were planted by Read's great-grandmother. Now past their best, Taylor and Read were happy to get the 60-year-old timber, which they’ve had milled and is now drying ready for a project. One day.