The Murphy house is described by authors David Mitchell and Gillian Chaplin in The Elegant Shed as the ‘most thorough and extreme example of applied decoration in post-war professional architecture in New Zealand’.
The post-modern design by Mal Bartleet was built for a young couple – the Murphys – in 1983 and won the architect a Monier Design Award in the same year. The house was festooned with a cross-pine timber mesh façade, a multi-coloured pop-out window, as well as circular and triangular windows. It had a lot going on – too much for most buyers, which put Didi Lagerqvist and Tony Palm in a good position when they bought it seven years ago. At the time, the surrounding bush was an overgrown tangle but Palm was confident he could wrangle it and Lagerqvist was enamoured with the leafy view from the big window at the landing stair.
Tucked into the end of a cul-de-sac that merges into native bush, the setting is more Titirangi than Grey Lynn, Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland. The multi-level house is like a black tower at the edge of the sprawling reserve. A little stream – a partial moat if you will – fringes the property. To complete this idyllic picture, a rustic footbridge crosses the stream and leads into the reserve.
The house has come a long way since the 80s and had undergone a string of interventions by previous owners, most recently “a lipstick job done by a developer who had bought it – very rundown is my guess – in October 2013,” says Lagerqvist. “The trellis was long gone by that stage – I think it was ripped off in the late 90s.” The downstairs flat was constructed in the early 90s and dug out by hand due to difficult access.
All of the windows were original, including five leaky louvres in the atrium, which made the house impossible to heat. The couple’s first electricity bill topped $600 and their energy supplier called to understand why. Double glazing was the first thing they resolved, but with access being a serious undertaking at the top levels, there are still a few more to go. Additionally, an enormous oak tree, with a girth of about a metre, stood between the house and the creek, blocking access down the side to the back.
Despite its complications, seven years into living here, the couple was still engaged and enamoured with their house – there’s no shortage of charm and quirk – but it lacked the capacity to sufficiently serve a family of four. The house is a series of partial levels, with self-contained guest accommodation at ground level, which has a deck and garden at the rear.
The main home’s living area is above, with bedrooms, bathrooms and study stacked across several more levels. The living area, a scrap of space off the kitchen, was particularly problematic. The couple approached Andrew Meiring, who they knew of through friends, and whose work they admired. Ironically, Meiring was sharing a studio with Bartleet at the time.
Meiring deadpans that “Bartleet was furious and threatened to sue” when he found out about the commission. But when he stops joking, he says “Mal was delighted that someone was doing something with the house. He pulled out all the old drawings and magazines and talked me through it. Mal was at that point half retired, probably exhausted by his dealings with council, and he probably would’ve turned it down anyway,” he says.
Meiring describes the renovation as simple. It is, but he’s possibly being modest in the transformation that it renders its inhabitants. A cantilevered floor-to-ceiling glass box immerses the dining area within the bush setting and gives the family the living area they lacked.
“The project wasn’t enough of an extension to justify anything substantially architecturally different – it needed to be in keeping with the existing. We’ve essentially added a box to the house and it made sense to go as glassy as possible. The area we worked on – the living zone – was too small for the house and didn’t connect to the park. It was a little bereft, with a triangular door leading out onto a doggy deck. The idea was to enlarge the space so we pushed out into the tree canopy – not quite overhanging the creek, but getting pretty close to it.”
To enable access to build at the rear of the site, Meiring had to gently talk the couple into removing the beloved oak tree. He eventually did and $10,000 later their old friend was no more. “Once it was gone it was absolutely apparent that we had done the right thing. The site became far more about the bush than one tree,” says Meiring.
Peripheral remedial work has updated the house in line with its new addition, including changing doors and windows, laying new oak floors in the living area, re-roofing and painting. The deck off the kitchen has been improved and a flat roof above the box addition is a future project – a deck where the family can sit surrounded by trees.
Lagerqvist is even more enamoured with the house and, treating it as an ongoing project, expects to stay that way. “This is such a special spot and a home for life for us,” she says.