The land is covered with regenerating kānuka, save for a small cleared area in the centre, and it’s perilously steep. But it’s also delightfully private and within walking distance – if you’re okay with one hell of a hill – of central Akaroa. So it’s not hard to see why architect Mitchell Coll and his partner Amy Douglas fell in love with this site when they first visited back in 2016.
At that point, they owned a boat, which they moored nearby. It didn’t take them long to realise they liked the town more than they liked sailing. Then they spotted this section for sale. Part of an old subdivision, no one had ever quite worked out what to do with it – for reasons that will be obvious. What it did have going for it was its connection to town water and sewerage.
They missed out on the place first time around. Three years later, it came back on the market; it took them 10 months to negotiate the purchase, at which point they sold the boat, came ashore and started camping. Coll and Douglas, evidently, are very patient people.
One day, they plan to build a house here in which to live and work full-time, and while that’s the destination, the journey is somewhat more important. For now, the focus is on replanting and rehabilitating the land. “Buying the site was less about us living there and more about having a project,” admits Coll. The ongoing undertaking is an incubator for ideas, away from the pressures of time and clients. “I need to create things with my hands,” he says. “We don’t intend to rush it.”
After a few nights in a tent, Coll and Douglas realised they needed a base – in particular, ablutions. “I dug a longdrop and Amy was like, ‘This is temporary!’” Coll recalls. So I thought, if we’re going to do this, we need some facililites.” He also figured that, if they were going to sit and look at it in future, it should probably be pretty. This first move would also establish the language for what might come later. They built it themselves, with some help from friends and employees, who, Coll admits sheepishly, worked on the site at the start in the hard bits, before the office got too busy. The couple then finished it themselves over the course of a year or so.
What emerged from that time is a small building off to one side, tucked into a steep bank, floating in the kānuka. It’s a box with a deck on two sides; a small triangular roof kicks up at one end in a particularly Cantabrian way. The shed was built using structurally engineered pine and steel framing, with a polycarbonate skin over which Coll laid timber latticework. By day, it has a cheerful translucency; by night, it glows. “Using light in different ways, with different types of screening, was the key driver,” he says.
The deck provides access to a small bench with a sink and hot water, and leads around to an outdoor shower, looking into the kānuka. On two other sides, the shed floats above its simple, exposed foundation. This gives the building a lightness, reducing it to a simple glowing box on a plane, as opposed to a shed on a deck.
Small projects, of course, enable their makers to nerd out on the smallest of details. Here, Coll has crafted or modified almost every element, from the windows and the sliding screens that provide access to the building, to the expressed fixings and junctions. Green powdercoated hinges match the stool, workbench and caddies inside.
Outside, the couple set up a freestanding woodburner, and made a wood-fired bath from a manhole, which Coll dragged up the slope with his ute. (He also towed a four-berth 1970s yellow Panorama caravan to the top of the site, a daunting job that would deter most mere mortals.) “I thought I knew how to build,” says the architect, who’s been known to hash out details with builders on site when drawing gets too hard, and relished every part of the process. “This project showed me how much I didn’t know. Which was great!”