To listen to Hudge''s playlist inspired by this house, click here. If you ever needed proof of the value of a robust design process, look no further than the home of Clem and Phoebe Devine in Westmere, Tāmaki Makaurau. The couple, who are both graphic designers, found the section during the first Covid lockdown in April 2020. Faced with a small site, a tight budget and pandemic restrictions, they wrote a design strategy for the house that included materials, approach and key thinking. “We’re designers, we love lots of things,” says Phoebe. “So it became about price and concept – that dictated everything. It was good to have that anchor, or otherwise we would have fretted over every decision.”
The site is perfectly square, 12 by 12 metres, 144 square metres in all, subdivided from the back of an old bungalow on the corner of a quiet side street and a busy road. Importantly, the location meant it had its own access and outlook to the street, rather than being down a driveway as so many infill sites are. When they raised the subject of buying, their lawyer advised them not to. “Everyone was scared, and I was like, ‘Nah, we’ve gotta have a go at this,’” says Clem. “And there wasn’t much else to do anyway.”
The land cost them a comparatively meagre $685,000 – this is highly gentrified Westmere, after all – but before they could get final approval to buy it, they had to work out what they’d build and whether that was affordable. So, during lockdown and in double-quick time, they approached Jerome Buckwell and Ken Crosson at Crosson Architects, who quickly devised a simple scheme. Because of its shape and proximity to neighbours, and its position next to two different zones with different height-to-boundary rules, there was a very tightly defined space in which to build.
In essence, they drew a series of dotted red lines, which just happened to create a steeply pitched A-frame of a house with a double-height living space on the ground floor, and a stacked pair of bedrooms and bathrooms. The roof is tall – almost eight metres – and its profile is asymmetrical. It pulls down unevenly at different corners to negotiate those recession planes, creating a dynamic sheltering form under which to assemble a house.
When Crosson and Buckwell presented the design, they compared it to a piece of origami. The resulting name, Paper House, became a guiding principle for the whole project. Everything was reduced to a simple palette – riffing on that idea of origami and simplicity – of white corrugate, white plasterboard, polished concrete floors, and a grey Melteca kitchen. The only departure was to paint the stairs and floor upstairs bright yellow when water damaged areas they’d planned to simply polish. “We knew we wanted it to be all the same material, so it felt like an object,” says Clem. “And we purposely made choices really simple so there were fewer decisions to make – and less to fuck up.”
Partly, that was because the pair had taken an unusual approach to the project – asking Crosson for a concept design, enlisting draughtsman Etienne Koster from Harbour City Plans to complete working drawings, and constructing the house on a fixed-price contract with ZeBuild. It’s not Crosson’s usual way of working, and it did mean giving up on a few of the more bespoke touches. “I can be really precious about details,” says Buckwell. “It’s what elevates a project. Some buildings justify that, but getting the really big moves right, that’s the bang for buck. That’s when you change people’s lives.”
In this case, the big move is that tall sheltering roof and the effect it has on the volumes inside. It has a distinct silhouette from the street – you can see the dramatic pitch of the roof from nearby Garnet Road. As you approach, the crispness of the form becomes more textural, with shadows across the corrugate and elegantly square windows both small and large.
Inside, it’s fairly small – the couple reckon the footprint is not much bigger than their old apartment – but the height makes it feel huge. You enter via a sliding door in the living space, which runs down the eastern side of the house, with the kitchen on the back wall, slightly hidden by a floating piece of cabinetry. The ceiling soars away above you, with elegant folds where different planes meet. There’s a view into the upstairs bedroom and the sun comes in through carefully placed windows, capturing shafts of light at different times of the day.
There’s a short corridor off the living space, which leads to a spare bedroom and a small bathroom. The bright yellow stairs wrap around and up to the mezzanine. Upstairs, there’s another bathroom and the main bedroom. Eventually, when the pair feel up to more construction, there’ll be a path down the side of the house to a dedicated entry door: until then, they quite like the casual openness to the street.
Fitting all these spaces together was something of a puzzle, driven by the location of the staircase and the steeply sloped roof. The downstairs bathroom is tiny but features an enormous void above the shower, reaching up to a skylight; the ensuite upstairs sits just in front of it, with a similar void and a skylight flooding the space with light. A small square window in the stairwell leads you up; in the kitchen, a huge square picture window looks out into a small courtyard. “There are all these little moments through the house – moments to stop,” says Buckwell. “That’s what makes it joyful.”
The budget did allow for some special touches, most notably the perforated corrugated screen across the façade, which Crosson and Buckwell had left ‘undesigned’ as a placeholder – suggesting their designer clients could conceive something special here. Clem designed it in collaboration with Minka Ip at Finework who created the holes with a CNC router. Bear with me while I explain, because it’s worth it: a CNC router works in two dimensions, usually on a flat sheet. Here, because of the three-dimensional wave of the corrugated metal, each perforation sits at a unique angle and has a slightly different shape – some are oval, some even look heart-shaped – and so each shadow is subtly different. As the sun moves around to the west, the screen stops the living area from overheating, and patterned shadows reach through the space – it’s delightful, playful even. “It’s like water,” says Clem.
Incredibly, the final bill for the house, including GST and landscaping, came in at less than the cost of the section, yet the result transcends its humble price tag. “It’s amazing how you can do well-designed small spaces and they don’t feel mean,” says Buckwell. “It doesn’t feel tight because the spaces are actually massive. Volume is everything.”