A couple of months ago, not long after we’d arrived in our new hometown of Wānaka, my 10-year-old daughter, who often chooses Grand Designs for her allocated screen time and was given a premium subscription to Planner 5D last Christmas so she could tweak her various dream homes, pointed out a house as we were driving past.
“Do you like that house, Dad?” she asked. “I think it’s the best house I’ve seen in Wānaka.”
Each time we went past, she would point it out and her eyes would stay glued to it for as long as possible. Quite a few others also appear to have been captivated by it. “The number of people who have seen this house and said ‘can I have one?’...” says architect Barry Condon, of Condon Scott. “It is a bit unusual. But it has a lot of appeal.”
When compared to the big mid-80s alpine houses surrounding it, this house is very small, very smart and very striking. The owners live in Singapore and spent time holidaying in Japan in a small ski cabin, which they enjoyed for its efficient design. They’d seen another Condon Scott creation – a tiny house on the other side of Lake Wānaka – so they set about combining those influences to design something simple and unobtrusive.
One of the home’s most noticeable features is its armadillo-esque cedar skin. “The shingles are quite an international thing,” says Condon. “They are used a lot in Scandinavia and Japan and the beauty of them is that you get continuity. It’s a complete wrap and it keeps it all very clean and simple.”
Shingles aren’t used as commonly as they once were, often because of concerns around weather tightness. The architects dealt with that issue here by wrapping, taping, flashing and insulating the house, then adding the shingles – effectively adding a rain screen. The natural patterns and variations of each piece are set off beautifully by black steel elements.
In recent years Wānaka has evolved from a semi-rural holiday hamlet to a reasonably cosmopolitan resort town. Large sections were the norm for many years and houses were designed to fill them up, but as land and building prices continue to increase, and as higher-density developments turn out much smaller sections, there is increasing demand for cleverly designed, smaller homes like this one that are beautiful, efficient and, as Condon puts it, “as much as you need”.
The house was built on a 1084-square-
metre chunk of land that also includes the existing four-bedroom family bach. Before the world ground to a halt, the owners and their three kids returned regularly for holidays and while they wanted to be close to family, they also wanted their own space. At 96 square metres, the two-bedroom, two-bathroom home is much bigger than a tiny house, but it’s still compact. “You don’t need that much space but it needs to be considered,” says Condon. “They didn’t need a walk-in wardrobe because they’re going to arrive with suitcases, but it still needed all the comforts of a typical modern home.”
The double-height ceiling in the living area and kitchen creates a sense of space, and the mezzanine is designed to fit a sofa-bed (it also looks perfect for launching things at siblings and parents sitting below in front of the fire).
As many smart people have pointed out, simplicity is often much more difficult to achieve than complexity and the fireplace is a good example of that. It was cleverly designed to look like one big block of board-marked concrete, but it is actually thermally broken from the floor slab and from the windows that appear to rise up through the middle. “You can see the grain of the wood, the imperfections, the patterns, the craft of how it’s made. I just love the materiality. And because it’s such a small place, those details really stand out.”
The sleek steel chimney that extends up the exterior was custom-made to avoid rivets and only has two points of contact with the house. “We spent a lot of time thinking about that chimney,” says Condon.
As the shingles clad the exterior, ply wraps the interior. Getting the negative detailing right was time consuming but worth the end result. “With ply, you put it up, you seal it and it’s done. You don’t need to stop it and paint it and, in this case, it seemed appropriate. It’s more robust, you can screw things to it and hang things on it. And we just didn’t want to make it too busy. With something of this scale, you can quickly make it look bitsy,” he says.
It’s more than just a pretty place, however. Everywhere you look there are smart design features, like a shoe rack built into the wall, storage tucked away behind doors, drawers that slide out from the staircase, and integrated ventilation panels.
Structural insulated panels (SIPs) have been used in this build by local company Christie Brothers. SIPs have been available in the US and Canada for more than 30 years, and more than 80 percent of new single dwellings in Sweden are built offsite. While these products and practices are yet to become commonplace in New Zealand, change is happening. As Condon notes, homes built in a factory and assembled onsite are often higher quality, don’t take as long to put together and are cheaper.
Components modelled in 3D and cut offsite force decision making upfront and mean less flexibility onsite, but help control costs. “If you make variations onsite, the costs start ratcheting up,” says Condon. “Prefabrication is going to become more and more a part of what we do.”
Due to the insulated panels and energy efficiency techniques employed, the only heating required in winter is the wood burner and Old Brighty coming in through the well-positioned windows. “It’s a really nice place to hang out,” says Condon. “I’d live in it.” And so, it seems, would quite a few others.