James Warren expertly balances views, privacy and a raft of sculptural details with this seaside cottage rejig in Lower Hutt.

See Saw

See Saw

Architect James Warren doesn’t doesn’t recall a lot about creating the initial sketch for this playful home in the coastal village of Eastbourne, Lower Hutt. But he recalls the hours he spent testing it. Warren, of Te Whanganui-a-Tara Wellington firm Upoko Architects, battled away with a couple of iterations, not quite believing it would work. But, he says, “Sometimes you have to let it be and realise that the initial scheme just won’t change.”

His clients are grateful for that. Their new three-bedroom, two-bathroom home is perfectly designed for their lifestyle. The house, with its three periscope-like roof lights and internal courtyards, has replaced the 77-square-metre, one-bedroom cottage they’d owned for several years and used as a weekend retreat from the city. They loved hearing and seeing the sea from every room – there were only two – and that the house was perched on top of the area’s one remaining sand dune at the front of the site. Discovering what his clients loved about the old cottage became the starting point for Warren’s design. “The cottage wasn’t trying to outdo anyone,” he says. “You could live there in peace, and you could always see and hear the sea.” 

Faced with the limitations of a 350-square-metre seaside site on a prominent corner, and a brief that evolved from a one-bedroom to a three-bedroom house, Warren has skilfully resolved issues of space, light and privacy. His design contradicted many of the town planning rules at the time – except for the fact that the new house is constructed entirely within the building envelope of the original. The house has retained the scale, main floor level and nature of the old cottage, keeping it the same size, while effectively doubling the floor area with a new level below that also provides a new entry point.

Warren didn’t immediately rule out renovating the old cottage. Despite its previous four alterations – lean-to on top of lean-to – he thought the place had “great mana”. A cracked retaining wall put paid to any further discussion on a major renovation. The new two-level house is designed around a 3x3-metre grid, inspired by Japanese architect Makoto Masuzawa and his 1952 prototype for Nine Tsubo House. Warren had already tested out the grid on other projects, including a bach in Punakaiki. “The 3x3-metre grid means you can occupy the edges and there’s no dead space. You have a really comfortable space in the middle and, if you get it right, it feels roomy,” he says. “It only works, though, if you can link the rooms together in open plan.”

Every room in the house, save for the bathrooms, opens onto a courtyard, providing a generous sense of space. The range of outdoor options provides sheltered enjoyment whichever way the wind is blowing, and invites the sea breeze through the house. Perched on the sand dune at the original ground level of the cottage, the upstairs rooms – living, kitchen and bedroom – all converge on a central courtyard. The main bedroom looks right through the house, so the clients can still wake up and see the sea – and they can wander out of the living area, down a few steps and across the road to the beach. The kitchen is at the centre of the house and looks to both the courtyard and the harbour. There’s also a cedar-lined deck off the dining room – in the same position, and with the same dimensions, as the original cottage verandah.

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Warren has minimised windows around the façade and used the courtyards and roof pop-ups to catch the daylight. The only prominent windows are those looking out to the beach and Wellington Harbour. Each of the three cedar-clad roofs is designed to point in a different direction. “It’s like a giant sun dial inside,” Warren says. “At no point will the sun stream into a room to a level where it’s uncomfortable.” There are no blinds because the light has been so carefully calculated.

Hunkered in at the lower ground level, the new lower-level bedrooms, bathroom and courtyard could have felt gloomy, but the interior experience of the house is light and airy. With the exterior clad in dark cement sheet and cedar battens, the contrast between outside and inside is striking. “It’s not what you’d expect from looking at it from the outside,” says Warren. “It’s actually a bit disarming when you enter the house. It all could have felt subterranean, but doesn’t, in large part because you can go outside from every room.”

The old, cracked retaining wall has been replaced by a new concrete wall that holds up the sand dune and forms a handrail around the deck, connecting with a plastered concrete wall that wraps the site and creates courtyards and privacy at ground level; the house comes out to meet it at the entry, where the concrere wall folds in to create a covered porch. Wooden screens along the entranceway and front gate feature graduated cut-outs that mimic the seesaw – or sawtooth – shapes of the roof pop-ups. They also control light and privacy. 

Meanwhile, the owners’ home-built spa pool is sunk into the ground in front of the house, its cover crafted from the old cottage’s timber floorboards. You can enjoy the pool while gazing out to sea through portholes in the front wall. Warren spent hours mastering the metal porthole covers that pivot on bungee cords, balancing views and privacy. “There was a bit of guess work, but they do work!” he says.

With such imaginative shapes and forms, it’s hard to resist comparing the project to Sir Ian Athfield’s Logan House at Windy Point, or to mention Roger Walker’s love of portholes. Warren agrees, saying that as a child growing up among solid Canterbury architecture, family visits to Wellington offered an experience of Athfield and Walker’s designs and the sense of adventure they held. Warren points out that the playfulness in Seesaw House is also a reflection of the clients and the fun that’s inherent in living by the beach. The early work of Melling Morse Architects also informed Warren’s feeling that bedrooms should be well appointed but not too big. “It’s amazing what you can squeeze into a house and still make it feel generous,” he says. 

Builder Matt Spicer has worked with Warren on other Upoko projects and introduced Warren to this one. The architect appreciated Spicer’s patience as design elements evolved during the build. The portholes, screens and some details of the roof-light wells came together later in the process, “in a delightful way”, says Warren. He’s interested in how houses by California architect John Lautner convey ideas on how to live. “They bent you to live in a certain way and invented a way to live on a site that suited that site. I enjoy trying to find that,” he says. And it appears he has done so with Seesaw House. He’s created a home that is both modern and comfortable, beachfront yet private, exposed yet sheltered – with unexpected play inside and out.

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1. Entry
2. Garage
3. Bedroom
4. Laundry
5. Bathroom
6. Courtyard
7. Living
8. Dining
9. Kitchen
10. Deck

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