Try to describe this little building at the foot of the Kaimai Range and you scramble for words. It’s not really a bach, because it’s a long way from the sea, and it was never intended for more than a night or two of occupation at any one time. But it’s much more than a hut – more substantial and more architectural. It’s a bit sharper than a cabin but much less than a house. Technically speaking, it’s an accessory dwelling unit – but that’s not very romantic, is it? Eventually, you settle on retreat, which implies shelter, respite and occasional inhabitation.
By day, there’s a spectacular view over the Bay of Plenty to the sea and by night, the lights of Mount Maunganui spread out down below. In the morning, you wake up to mist rising over the dense native forest of the Kaimai Range. There’s no sealed access and the only way in or out is by four-wheel drive up a rutted farm track and over a paddock.
It’s a spot that bridges work and play. The owners are a farming partnership, and they use this property as a support block for their main operation, an hour’s drive away. Spending so much time working on the land and enjoying the views led them to the conclusion that it would be ideal to stay here from time to time. They wanted respite, a place to have a cup of tea, to shelter from the ever-present wind, and maybe stay overnight or for the weekend.
As a working farm, the building needed to be robust and hard-wearing. Cattle needed to be able to graze right up to it, and space was required for farm-related gear. They only needed one bedroom, but it also had to sleep a crowd for hunting trips. Above all, it wasn’t to be pretentious. “And that wasn’t just on a practical level,” says architect Claire Natusch, of Common Space, who designed the retreat while working at Mitchell Stout Dodd Architects, where the team – including the late David Mitchell – had significant input into the design. “They’re down-to-earth people,” says Natusch, of the owners. “They asked for nothing more than what they’d need, nothing excessive, and nothing that made them feel worried.”
Natusch has known the clients since childhood. She grew up next door – well, rurally, as in the next valley over – and is familiar with the language and practicality required of farm buildings. “It was a bit of a dream brief for me,” she says. “Growing up in the country, I’m used to this sort of architecture – I relate to these spaces.” As an example, Natusch designed an enormous covered back porch tucked in behind the water tank, which connects the living spaces and also gives onto the bathroom. The total internal area of the place is 60 square metres, and the porch takes up 15. David Mitchell suggested Natusch might make the porch smaller: she refused. “I knew it would be the most functional space. There’s cow shit on everything and in that space it doesn’t matter.”
The site is on an exposed hill in a high wind zone, with the southerly whipping down the ranges and across the land. It’s strong and it’s bloody cold. One of the owners grew up in an old cottage on the land and decreed the house would only have sliding openings – the sound of banging doors and windows was a constant backdrop to his childhood and didn’t need revisiting.
On a hypothetical site for different clients, Natusch might have designed something very open, maybe with disconnected buildings for sleeping and living – but here, the brief called for containment and enclosure. “When they’re on that land, they’re often working on it all day and have been looking at the view,” she says. “I wanted them to have a focussed and framed experience, one you would feel cocooned in.”
Natusch’s first move was to make it one small house, but split in two down the middle. It was simpler to design two roofs, offset to create a series of high-level windows into the living area, and on an angle to cope with the strength of the wind. She placed the large water tank square in the middle of the covered porch, then wrapped the house around it so it forms a sort of sculptural entry point.
The plan is simple: an open living area down one side with kitchen, dining and long window seats that double as beds when there’s a crowd, and the bedroom facing back to the Kaimais. Outside, under the lower roof, the bathroom has spectacular ocean views, and there’s a small utility shed for farm bikes. The bedroom placement turned out to be the only quibble, until Natusch pointed out the Kaimais were just as much of a view as the sea.
In place of courtyards and covered outdoor living areas, the house pulls back in places to create small, outdoor spaces – such as the deck off the bathroom with twin clawfoot tubs for an end-of-day soak. There’s always somewhere to get out of the wind and there is a small deck for the rare days when it is calm. Materials are honest and robust – steel corrugate down the long sides with black-stained plywood in the reveals, and ply interiors.
Having set up such a rigorous, restrained design, Natusch introduced a layer of finesse, with finely wrought moments throughout. To define and emphasise different spaces, she created a series of fin walls on a grid of 2.1-metre timber framing, the size drawn from the width of the window seats and plywood sheets. The big picture window in the living room follows the slope of the seat, and a cutaway on the east elevation allows a peek of view around the corner. In the bedroom, another window pops out to create a place of contemplation, much more textural than a standard window.
Just before construction began, a pūriri fell over on the property, and the owners suggested it might be used in the build. Natusch had it cut into boards, then designed the kitchen and bathroom cabinetry around this, and added it to the window reveals too, where its slightly greenish tinge contrasts with the yellow of the ply. These small touches elevate a simple compact building to something special. “I wanted to provide a series of experiences within a small space, rather than one void you came into,” says Natusch.
The retreat was finished more than a year ago and is used most weekends. The owners are delighted. So much so, one of them is planning a home for retirement on the same property. The brief? Simple, robust and one bedroom – looking back to the Kaimai Range.