You are greeted by an imposing rock wall which you navigate to find the entrance of the house across off-set decks. Once inside, you are warmly embraced by natural timbers, simply, yet impeccably articulated throughout. Skill and care has been taken to ensure the spirit of the land can be felt in every room.” — Kristina Pickford, rōpū
A year or so before Covid changed the way we live and work forever, architect Davor Popadich and wife Abbe, who runs an architectural electrical hardware company, moved to the Coromandel but held onto their jobs in Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland.
They’d put an offer on three hectares of retired grazing land on a subdivision between Hāhei and Cooks Beach on the Coromandel Peninsula – two paddocks, one with long grass and one choked with gorse, blackberry, woolly nightshade and moth plant. That was in 2017, though they wouldn’t settle until 2019, and by the time that happened the land had gone from a place they thought they might get away to every now and then to a place that would become their full-time home.
“We could see our whole lives mapped in Auckland and it was a great, lovely life,” says Abbe now. “But we started thinking maybe it was time to do something different.” Added to that: the kids never wanted to come back to the city after a weekend on the land. So they jumped, selling up in Auckland and moving to a rental in Ferry Landing. They put the kids into the local country school and got to work rehabilitating the land – a covenant required that the property be replanted with natives.
In three years, they’ve introduced tens of thousands of natives and satellite photos show the vegetation taking hold. They planted out a forlorn manmade pond with reeds and water plants, and the water quality has improved to the point where it’s now full of native fish. They’ve pulled thousands of invasive plants out by hand because they didn’t want to spray, and the natives are pushing back against the gorse, which is slowly dying off.
And they’ve built a house. It’s a long, low building with a classic hipped roof, extended at the edges to create a particular sort of hat, arranged in an L around a courtyard of oi oi grass and mānuka. The courtyard is framed by a stacked stone wall and a building they call the outhouse, which was intended as an office for Davor but quickly became guest accommodation. It’s clad in cedar, the roof black corrugate, picking up on an appropriately rural vernacular.
Covenants restricted the build to a section of the property where the ground funnels down to the west and the south over a fall of about two metres. There’s a hill to the north, and a view down over rolling country and Lonely Bay to the west. The driveway approaches from the east. Davor arranged the house towards the top of the fall in a simple, clean L shape. “The L works for the view and it works for the land,” he says. “We wanted to maximise the length across the view and we wanted a courtyard – being coastal, we wanted shelter no matter where the wind was blowing.”
The shape of the roof emerged intuitively, and quite early on. “We’re in the Pacific and it just felt really natural,” says Davor. Initially, the design was quite modernist, with a flat roof. “I kept drawing sections through the space and it lacked a bit of energy,” he says. “Then I drew a hipped roof and it suddenly came alive.” Pulled out with exaggerated eaves and a longer angle, the standard roof of group housing became thoughtful, elegant and practical – Davor reckons his favourite weather in the house is rain, with no wind, and the doors open. (This design also plays a practical role on a property where the drinking water comes off the roof and is stored in three 25,000-litre tanks buried under the driveway.)
Now, you approach the house down a serpentine white gravel driveway through the regenerating mānuka. You see very little of it until you round a bend and pull up outside that stacked Coromandel stone wall. There’s an entry deck where you’re held for a moment before you step into the house. Internally, it’s simple – rigorous, but delightful, with an exposed timber frame that’s painted black. The walls and doors are lined with the same uncoated cedar battens, a continuous material down the corridor. The timber-lined ceiling pulls away above you with generous ease. Thanks to plenty of glazing and the consistent material palette, there’s a blurring between inside and out – seen most poetically in the ensuite bathroom, where a wooden shutter opens the bath to the elements. “I have a passion for timber,” says Davor, “and I love natural materials – that comes naturally to me. They feel like paint colours. I’m happy to paint with timber.”
They started building in 2020, but by the end of the year they found themselves homeless when the landlord decided not to renew the lease on their rental. Hāhei is notoriously expensive over summer, and so with typical enthusiasm they moved into a bell tent while the builders finished the house. A few months later, as the evenings grew shorter and cooler, and they attempted to make school lunches and dinners from a temporary kitchen in the garage while holding down full-time work, things started to wear thin. Finally, in May 2021, the family moved into the house and started to plant the garden around it.
From the living area, a wide glassy corridor hugs the courtyard, giving onto bedrooms, bathrooms and the laundry. The house is designed around a 1.8-metre grid that encourages efficiency of construction but also gives a delightful rhythm to the place. There’s a lovely symmetry to it all: the bedrooms, even the main bedroom, are 3.6 metres squared, while the bathrooms, laundry and Davor and Abbe’s wardrobe are each 1.8 metres by 3.6 metres. The effect is clear-eyed and rational, and when you add a wall of glass looking out into the courtyard, the plants pressing gently up against the house, the effect is meditative. Other architects might have been tempted to put in doors, but the extra pieces of joinery would have spoiled the magic. “It’s very natural, but then there’s this lovely glassy corridor,” says Abbe. “It’s like you’re in a still life, but because the house opens up down one side, you don’t feel trapped.”
The idea is that the house will act as an HQ for them, and their extended family, with built-in flexibility. Hāhei is a popular spot and people often drop by for a few days at short notice. One of the kids’ rooms has bunk beds for spillover. When the children are older, one of them might move out to the outhouse for a bit of privacy. Eldest son August is 14 and his bedroom at the end of the L was designed with bi-sliding glass doors and built-in cabinetry so it can function as a library or snug as the children transition from teenagers to young adults and beyond. And – like many through Covid – Davor and Abbe have found a work-from-home solution in the capacious double garage. (It is a very nice double garage.)
“We’ve got quite a crazy connection to this piece of land,” says Davor. “This is where we are and I really think it’s so special. We might spend time in other places, but what I’m excited about is when we’re 80 and the pūriri have started to grow up. The scale of this place is going to change completely.”