Walk down Picton’s main street, past the souvenir shops and takeaway joints, and you might be lucky enough to stumble by an art gallery while its owner-curator is giving a tour. Dubbed ‘Te Papa of Picton’, the gallery keeps haphazard hours, and it’s best to message the collection’s owner in advance of a visit. Inside, you’ll find more than 400 works by many of Aotearoa’s leading historic and contemporary artists in a close salon-style hang.
If the Stevenson Collection is one sign of Picton’s avant-garde, this house crafted by a young Blenheim-based designer is another. To reach it, you walk about 20 minutes from Picton’s waterfront, past Waitohi Whare Mātauranga, the library completed by Athfield Architects a couple of years ago, and past warehouses, cottages and villas in various states of repair. You continue into a valley with steep hillsides and are greeted by one of Picton’s grander villas up on the hill, with more recent group-build houses amid sloping farmland. And it’s here, unexpectedly, that you find this house – a cedar-clad cube utterly unlike its neighbours.
The house is a statement by a young designer: a statement about affordability, about contemporary living, and about doing more with less. Designed by David Stubbs of Altar Projects for his parents, it’s both a home and a calling card. Standing proudly at odds with its group-built neighbours, the house seems to challenge anyone thinking of building on a modest budget to consider what might be possible with thought and a healthy dose of optimism. Seeing the house for the first time, my mind leapt to places like the Architectural Centre’s 1949 Demonstration House on a hill in Wellington’s Karori – both share the same pioneering spirit.
You enter this house from either above or below, and there isn’t really a front door. From above, you get a view of the house in its rural setting before you walk down a path, across a short bridge and into the living area. The kitchen, dining and living space is all on this level in an open expanse surrounded by glass. Downstairs are two bedrooms, the bathroom, and courtyard seating area off to one side. It’s a simple, compact plan that Stubbs says naturally suggested itself. “The site was so small that we had to distill everything down to necessities. We didn’t accommodate hypothetical situations of ‘What if we have guests to stay?’ or ‘What if we have 14 grandchildren?’ We wanted to create something unique and concise, putting our resources into quality rather than floor area.”
If the spaces suggested themselves naturally, there’s experimentation in materials and colour. Stubbs used structural insulated panels (SIPs) to build the walls, left unfinished and painted green “to bring out the native greens surrounding the house, and to emulate the layering of the hills in the Sounds”. Stubbs lights up when asked about the painted panels, riffing on the possibilities of affordable construction materials that serve multiple functions. The modular panels are easy to install, provide insulation, dampen sound and have texture that adds interest to the room above what you might expect from a house of this budget.
Speaking of budget: the house was built for less than $500,000, excluding site costs. As we talk in the kitchen, Stubbs points through a slit window at a house across the valley – one of those extravagances with garaging for 37 cars – and revels in the contrast that his design presents to Picton and beyond. “There is a shift occurring where people are choosing quality, craft and calibre over big flabby houses. That’s really exciting to me and a space I’d like to continue to work in.”
Other moves, like custom-made steel cabinetry handles, show the thought put into where to spend and where to save. Then there’s the big surprise: a drop-down ladder in the living area that climbs up to a large rooftop deck with sweeping views down the Queen Charlotte Sound. “I was interested in using the roof as a bonus outdoor space, inspired by Japanese roof terrace houses,” says Stubbs. Economy drove a folding ladder rather than a staircase, and it also maximised usable space on both floors.
The way Stubbs talks about these design decisions feels like a return to some of modernism’s earlier, Utopian roots. Think back to early modern houses and apartments being designed in the mid-century, when budgets and materials were tight but a new generation still demanded a better way of living: it’s a narrative in which Stubbs is engaged. After years of modernism being driven by aesthetics, rather than a set of values driven by human needs, talking to Stubbs is refreshing.
“I hadn’t had the chance to work on a house like this before,” says Stubbs, “and it was important for me to create something I could really stand behind. Often these sorts of projects get diluted and end up being half of what they could have been. I wanted to make sure I saw the concept through and didn’t back down.”
This is a confident house, aware of the influence it could have beyond this little valley in Picton. But Stubbs may not be done here. He looks across to a large empty section further up the hillside, and indicates there might be another project coming soon. Picton’s avant-garde isn’t done yet.