Writing about architecture is often easier when there’s a lot going on, with grand gestures, unusual spaces or a complex backstory to the project’s completion. It’s paradoxically harder when the architecture is at its most simple: a house for a family on a spare piece of land. But this is, in the end, where architecture probably matters most; and to provide a high quality of daily life with comparatively little is one of this project’s many achievements. “You can tell it’s a pretty simple house,” co-owner Mitch Lewandowski, the project’s instigator, says. “But it feels so different to others.”
It goes like this. A young couple is looking for a place to live. A family member owns a 1920s bungalow with a tiny slope of spare land out front on a windy Te Whanganui-a-Tara Wellington street. The spare land is steep. (You didn’t think it would be quite that easy, did you?) Fit a house in there, please: a garage, a few bedrooms, a spot to enjoy the sun. It’s the kind of place where architecture goes back to basics. There’s the desire for something special, yes, but really the need for a home comes first.
There’s something refreshing about that simple brief, and you get the sense that Sally Ogle and Ben Mitchell-Anyon of Patchwork Architecture appreciated it too. “It’s a kind of project we really like: nothing flashy, just a simple, cost-effective home for a family who love living here,” says Mitchell-Anyon. Here readers will have seen a few of the Patchwork duo’s houses in these pages before, and this one upholds the pair’s reputation for creating beautiful and intelligent plans with generous small touches. Lewandowski says he talked to a few architects with partner Hannah McCashin before embarking on the project properly. “But with Patchwork, things just clicked. And a friend said they’re the ones to work with.”
The view from the street asserts the house’s “houseness”: a clear gable mimics the roof forms and scale of the other homes nearby. Seeing this house on a street where most others still stand on undivided sections, the roofline helps it to fit in, and you notice the new density only because this home is shunted further forward on the section, closer to the road. Clad in white corrugated Colorsteel that picks up on the weatherboards of other houses around, things feel neighbourly, thoughtful. Yet hardly tame.
Despite the monochromatic feel, the underside of the steel flooring on which the upstairs concrete slab was poured is coloured a bright green. This forms the ceiling of what is known as the greenhouse, sitting above the garage. At night, if the polycarbonate sliding doors are closed, a soft green light emanates from the building, Lewandowski says. When the sliding doors are open during the day, the green adds a shot of interest to the street. “It cost maybe a few hundred bucks to have the steel painted and it adds so much,” says Mitchell-Anyon.
Access to the house is on the left, up a flight of concrete steps shared with the original bungalow behind. You take the first right and enter through the greenhouse space, which is actually a multi-purpose area currently used for table tennis. Stepping into the downstairs level from here, you’ll find a bedroom and a bathroom. You turn left and head up a flight of stairs before being thrown into an open, light and airy living space. The ceiling here is surprisingly lofty. Two more bedrooms and a bathroom lie to your left; the kitchen to your right; and a covered outdoor area breaks up the spaces.
In floor area and materials, there are some similarities to other townhouses going up across the country, but standing in the living space, the feeling couldn’t be more different. There’s light pouring in through a skylight, views back towards the city through a large horizontal window, and a sense of openness that you usually get from homes many times this size. When I visit, on a cold, blustery, rainy mid-winter day, the living space is bright and totally illuminated without there being any lights on. It’s a space you want to stay in, to work in, to play in. It feels right. Is anything more important, really?
There are numerous small moves in this home that contribute to a sense of openness and thoughtfulness. The window and door reveals are set deeply with negative details, and lined with macrocarpa. The result is a sense of warmth in every room – one that is difficult to achieve in plasterboard-centric houses. The sweeping window that looks out across the city from the living space makes the room feel wide and open, and it can be pulled back, turning the sill into a bar leaner. Then, behind the kitchen worktop, there is a trough with drainage. You could plant things here, use it for storage, or load it up with ice and put the drinks in it, as Lewandowski says they did for a recent party. It’s a tiny detail, sure, but those moments of attentiveness could do so much if seen in more new houses.
The outdoor spaces are infinitely flexible. The small covered area on the top floor can be accessed from the living-dining area and the main bedroom. It gets all-day sun, and is completely sheltered from Wellington’s winds. Nearby is another courtyard, running alongside the main bedroom. Then there’s that greenhouse above the garage, with more decking beyond its sliding doors. There’s a space to escape every gale, which really cannot be said of enough houses in this city, and it’s a significant departure from the small slice of turf you often get with new houses of a similar size.
“We like these infill projects,” Ogle muses, “and we’re probably going to see a lot more of them with the density rules changing. This project is the other strand of density, the first being multi-unit, and we’ve got to do both well. What are we really saying? Probably just that old thing about good architecture not needing to be expensive or fancy.”