Let’s call it a wonderful surprise. To see it, you make your way into central Wellington – me, on a bleak, cold autumn morning – and then to the suburb of Berhampore, with its predominance of timber homes, where you’ll find a nondescript brick house. Down a narrow right-of-way at its side, behind a tall, anonymous gate, is Suni and Maz Hermon’s new home.
It’s an unprepossessing entrance. But when you pass through it, you find yourself not in a back or front yard, but a courtyard, a bright, sheltered enclosure that is –– and here’s the lovely surprise on a bleak autumn day –– illuminated by the colours of spring.
There are tall white and pink cosmos and bright yellow coreopsis. There are orange California poppies and powder-blue cornflowers too, all among a mad haze of verdant, lacy foliage.
The idea for a garden at the centre of the courtyard of this courtyard home came from the couple’s friends and project architects, Caro Robertson and Tim Gittos, of Wellington practice, Spacecraft.
The sort of garden was for Suni and Maz to decide. Some might have made it formal, perhaps a small potager to grow vegetables and kitchen herbs, or something bland and low maintenance like native grasses. Instead, Suni, a jeweller, decided on a garden that places wildness at the centre of the geometrically formal home. “Caro and I always wanted a garden in the centre of the concrete courtyard so that it wasn’t a hard place,” says Gittos, “but something green and open to the sky and rain. Suni had the beautiful idea to fill it with wildflowers.”
The home, which was built quickly, and thankfully almost completed before the Covid-19 lockdown, has been a project years in the making. The full site — the area occupied by the Hermons’ home, along with the brick-house section at the front — belonged to Maz’s grandparents Chubby and Yvette for many years.
The space at the back, where Suni and Maz’s home now stands, was then occupied by a tiny weatherboard guest cottage dubbed “the bach”, a hideaway for Chubby. After his death, the young couple paid for the property to be subdivided, bought the rear site from Yvette, and had the 34-square-metre bach made liveable for their then family of three. “Tim and Caro designed a genius little intervention that was super quick and easy to put up,” says Suni. “We slept upstairs in a loft, which was beautiful.”
With a growing family, the masterplan was always to build something new, something wonderful on the tight, 164-square-metre site. For years, the quartet of friends played with the idea of a tower at the site’s centre. “There’s no room, but you can go really high here, up to nine metres,” says Gittos. “But Caro and I realised that wasn’t going to make any sense: it would be really exposed, with no privacy. We thought ‘Oh shit, I hope they’re not too attached to the tower thing!’”
The final design forms a square that fills the whole site, protecting privacy from three very close neighbours, while opening the home up to the sun and a small view to the north, and also keeping Wellington’s infamous wind at bay.
The 80-square-metre, L-shaped home forms the southern and eastern sides of the courtyard’s square. A small, self-contained studio office sits at the northwestern corner. The western wall is formed by a solid fence and gate, and the northern wall is made from clear sheets of Duralite roofing, opening the courtyard up to the sun while providing shelter. The courtyard is further protected from the elements by Duralite pergolas on the western and northern sides.
The home’s living areas and two bedrooms open to the courtyard, wildflowers and sunlight, while the living room’s north-facing wall is entirely glass, opening the area and kitchen to the view, and also allowing the floated concrete floor to warm up in the sun. “We’ve really wanted to test the idea: how do you live more connected to the outside in Wellington?” says Gittos. “By protecting some space outside, space that you can open into, it makes a smaller house feel like one big room.”
With a very tight budget, the design has been kept as simple as possible, and the materials cost-effective, with fittings sourced and supplied by the Hermons. “We wanted a good, healthy, dry house, without wasting money and time making things finicky,” says Robertson. Still, there was room in the budget for a few stylish flourishes. The roofline of living area, kitchen and bathroom forms a parabolic hyperboloid. “It’s a complex surface, but on the cheap,” says Gittos, with a laugh. “It was a way to get relief from the rigid geometry of everything else.”
Another special touch is inside, where Suni and Maz insisted on spending money on quality stone, with handsome grey marble for the kitchen bench and splashback. “The stone used in the bathroom and main bedroom is really, really precious,” says Suni. “We reviewed the offcuts at this stone place, and when we heard the name — timber onyx — we were a hundred percent committed. It had been sitting there for about 20 years, they reckoned. We got it for a crazy bargain.”
But the home’s most singular feature is the courtyard structure, one of the oldest building forms. While it remains a common house typology in many other parts of the world — from the Middle East to Europe to Asia — it is still little seen in New Zealand. “I guess people here just don’t know this as a house type,” says Gittos. “They think you’ve got to go out from your house to get a sense of space, whereas with this form, you put the space inside the four walls.”
In the Middle East or Spain, that space would provide a pool of cool shade. In Wellington, it provides a warm, sheltered place out of the wind. “Sometimes you can see the trees going bananas outside from a big northerly, but in here it’s almost still,” says Suni. “The wildflower garden hardly moves.” Indeed, it shimmers.