Architect Mike Callaghan believed he’d found his family’s forever home in Ōtautahi when a blank slate around the corner beckoned.

Sure to Rise

Sure to Rise

“It all happened in the same year,” says architect Mike Callaghan. In 2019, he left his job at Athfield Architects to start a new practice, Johnstone Callaghan Architects, with old friend Prue Johnstone, sold his first house with his wife Jenni to buy an empty section around the corner, and welcomed their third child, Lotte (now 4). “I was pretend working, but I wasn’t really earning any money. It was a bit of a cluster – but not a bad cluster.”

The couple were living not far from what is now their home in Cashmere, Ōtautahi Christchurch, with two toddlers – Holly (now 7) and Sasha (now 6) – when they, or rather he, started to realise the house they’d built a few years before wasn’t the forever home he’d thought it might be. (“I’d romantically thought we’d build it and always live there, but that was never Jenni’s thought,” he says, laughing.)

Not long after, they found this site for sale, for what they now realise was a stupidly good price. It was a familiar story: the original house had been badly damaged during the earthquakes and was demolished, before passing through a couple of hands as an empty section. It had a long concrete-block retaining wall through the middle of it – undamaged by the quakes – and it sat at the top of a quiet cul-de-sac and up a steepish shared driveway with spectacular views back to the city. “It’s amazing what a bit of elevation does, but they’re actually so close,” he says of the hills’ deceptive proximity to the city. “I grew up on the other side of town and this always felt so far away – it might as well have been Ashburton.”

Callaghan first came to see the property on the way home from work, having spotted it online that day. It was the middle of winter, one of those days in Ōtautahi where the wind adds to the general chill of the place. Yet up here on the hill, it was sheltered, bathed in light as the sun was setting over the city. He got home and sent Jenni to look at it. “I got a text from her saying, ‘Yes,’” he says now.

The site was indeed fabulous – and big. The 900 square metres was more than enough to cope with the family home they intended to build. The original house had sat at the bottom of the site, looking west. Callaghan wanted to sit his design in the middle. “I really like being able to walk out from living areas onto ground,” he says. “Breaking it down into smaller forms and stepping it up the site meant we could do that.” It also meant he could limit the footprint – it’s 140 square metres but it feels generous –  nd pull away from the southern boundary to let light through for the neighbours.

His design created three vertical volumes, stepped up the land. Each contains very specific spaces. At the bottom, a three-car garage acts as a kind of anchor or bulwark across the site, lifting the communal areas up towards the view, and creating flat land in the sun. The living area sits on top of the garage in the first volume. The kitchen-dining area sits at ground level in the second volume, with the kids’ areas above. The guest bedroom is positioned another level up the site again, in the third volume, with the main bedroom above it.

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You enter the house into the second volume, climbing concrete steps to a generous entry lined with terracotta tiles: living area to your left, kitchen-dining to your right. Your immediate impression is of light and views, which have been hitherto hidden as you ascend the driveway, then the steps: the back of the house is almost windowless, except for a long stretch of polycarbonate. Your second impression is of the intimate connection to the land outside, with openings that flow instinctively to a flat lawn overlooking the view.

The living areas have a breezy, family-friendly flow, which belies the home’s complex plan and unique spatial arrangement. The living area is big enough to hold all five of them, but it doesn’t waste space, and there are few corridors apart from the stairwell. Instead, the layout encourages flow between rooms, and a series of moves makes prosaic spaces feel useful and surprising – such as the window seat you encounter as you climb the stairs. The kitchen is one big island bookended by tall storage, which allows for flow and circulation around it and outside. The dining area, meanwhile, hunkers down on the south side. “We do get a long winter here,” Callaghan says, “so you want to close it down.”

Out the end of the kitchen, you enter a steel-clad stairway, and find the guest bedroom half a level up. Up another half a level is the kids’ zone with two bedrooms, a second living area and a bathroom. Further up still is the parents’ area, with the main bedroom, bathroom and a small study. Again, the spaces are hard-working, rational: there’s a bank of storage rather than a walk-in wardrobe.

Even though it was designed with family in mind, the place manages to resist the checklist of so-called must-haves that never get used, instead focussing on really practical spaces and robust materials. White-painted concrete block, a subtle nod to Christchurch modernism, gives way to waxed steel in the entry, and wraps the wall beside the stairs leading up to the bedrooms. The exterior is clad in blue (blue!) standing-seam steel cladding. Floors are sometimes carpet, sometimes parquet and, in the entry, terracotta tile – a move Callaghan likens to a doormat. It’s also colourful – orange in the stair, green in the study, blue and pink and yellow in bedrooms. The garage, which they previously lacked, is now a welcome home for kids’ stuff and sometimes a car.

The kids were very much involved in the build, and came to the site each week. Not long after they moved in, one of the girls arrived home with a drawing of three blue triangles. Sometimes, the kids ask when the family is going to build again, but this time, the couple have got it right. “This is our home,” says Callaghan. “It’s the biggest house we’ll ever live in – and then whatever we do from here will be completely different.”

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