In days gone by, just getting to Whangapoua, Te Tara-o-te-Ika-a-Māui Coromandel Peninsula, was an adventure. Summer processions trooped over the hill from west to east coast, with hot and bothered kids piled into the backseat of the car, the caravan loaded with supplies and beach paraphernalia. When breakdowns occurred or vehicles got stuck, the quarry truck was called to drag both car and caravan out of the gravel, as the travellers stood rag-tag on the roadside.
The settlement, with its arc of white-sand beach, is no longer a challenge to reach but land is still precious and houses are tightly held. One of the owners of this coastal retreat camped at Whangapoua as a child and, later on, she and her partner rented baches, before eventually buying one of their own. Finally, two years ago, they snapped up this piece of land by the river.
When the owners approached Strachan Group Architects (SGA) to design a holiday home, they were newly independent – their three children now adults, creating their own lives. They could begin to draw away from the five-day template and occasionally work remotely from this haven where the fishing is legendary, and the iconic local store – a hub of the community – serves up good cheer, hot chips and seafood chowder.
The 1200-square-metre section lies in the embrace of the Pungapunga River with a peaceful aspect across a marshy foreground and farmland. It implies a rural feel and architect Dave Strachan suggested the idea of “keying into the rusty red sheds they could see across the paddocks”.
The site is subject to strong prevailing north-easterlies and south-westerlies that sweep across the paddocks. In summer, the sun can be harsh and relentless. “We wanted the internal spaces to fragment the light – to be a retreat for the eyes,” says Strachan.
The SGA team – Strachan, Kelly O’Sullivan and Hana Scott – brought together a scheme that comprises two main sections beneath a split gable: living to the north, sleeping to the south. The living zone is clad in vertical stained cedar, its rich russet hue a good companion to the corrugated scoria-red steel that waterfalls from the roof to cloak the sleeping quarters. “At first I wasn’t 100 percent convinced about the red,” says one of the owners, “but I love it now and the way it changes colour in the light.”
While the architecture is evocative of a barn, this dwelling, with its doors and panels, shutters and screens, functions well beyond its agricultural reference point. Above the kitchen, the ceiling rakes to 4.6 metres, a height that brings something spiritual to the casual aesthetic. The same band-sawn cedar used on the exterior lines the walls and ceiling; dark-stained kwila flooring runs out to the decks. Light filters through high vertical screening and deep eaves create cool and calm. This is definitely more church than cowshed.
Ever practical, Strachan calls the home “a climate modifier” where spaces can be manipulated to the conditions and where there is overlap and transition. “We like blurring the boundaries as to what’s inside or out,” he says. The northern wall is a case in point. At the riverside deck, a floating daybed beneath the overhang is inviting for an afternoon snooze. Just inside the sliding door, there’s a fireplace and a bank of cabinetry beneath a picture window that frames a view of the inlet and a peek of sand. “We can see people walking over to New Chums Beach as we sit on the couch or stand in the kitchen,” says one of the owners.
At the opposite end, another fireplace anchors the indoor-outdoor room where a built-in barbecue is a hub for gathering. When the sun beats down, hydraulic actuator windows are pushed up to become awnings “like the peak of a cap”. On inclement days, they are lowered so that the hosts can still throw a snapper on the barbie without fear of the wind ruining the event.
Although the sleeping wing officially contains four bedrooms, generous window seats double as beds when the need arises. Plus, there’s a pull-out couch in the rumpus room, which is located behind the garage and boat storage.
This house is made for sociability, and its gregarious owners gather friends as they go – even the builders are now part of this ever-expanding coterie. “We wanted to use locals and took a punt on two youngish guys who had just set up their business,” says one of the owners. Luke Mikkelsen and Matt Vause of North Coromandel Builders came to the party. They pulled off refinements such as the negative detail around door frames, which allow the kitchen cabinetry to appear inserted like crafted furniture, and built the intricate cedar screens and shutters. They also got to grips with industrial bespoke elements such as hydraulics for the screen doors.
Everyone involved in the project was there for the roof shout and it’s unlikely to be the last time they get to experience this riverside residence in action. As one of the owners puts it: “We love people to share our little piece of paradise. It’s what we built the home for.”