To listen to Charlotte Ryan's playlist inspired by this house, click here. In the optimistic years following World War II, designers in the New World set out to regionalise modernist architecture and make it accessible, at least to the middle classes. California, for example, had the Case Study programme, in which prototype houses constructed of industrial materials were commissioned from architects such as Pierre Koenig, Richard Neutra, and Charles and Ray Eames. Auckland had The Group, young architects who designed open-plan timber houses that responded to the local climate and lifestyle.
The Case Study and Group houses were demonstration models that, as it turned out, never graduated to mass production. But they have always had a following and generated traceable lines of descent. The spirit of these postwar modernist experiments, with their sufficiency of scale and clarity of planning, is invoked in a new house in the Waitākere ranges to the west of Tāmaki Makaurau. Designed by Paul Davidson for his family (wife Julia was the client, he says, and the couple now have a baby son, Luca), the house also explicitly references the vernacular buildings of Aotearoa’s indigenous and settler peoples.
The Davidsons found their building site after migrating from Ōtepoti Dunedin. The motive for the move was Davidson’s enrolment as a student at Unitec’s School of Architecture. It was “a second chance at life”, he says, after his initial training in industrial design and brief stints as a teacher and salesperson. In Dunedin, the Davidsons had renovated an old bungalow, and they were determined to design and build their own house in Tāmaki Makaurau. This ambition meant finding land on the city fringes. While on a surfing trip to the west coast, Davidson discovered Anawhata. “I was blown away by the raw energy of the place, and its isolation,” he says. Shortly after, the couple came across a two-hectare section for sale, on an unusually gentle north-facing slope bordering the Waitākere Ranges Regional Park. It was the perfect location for their “cabin the woods”.
Davidson designed the house while studying for his architecture degree, receiving feedback from his Unitec tutors along the way. Rau Hoskins had some practical advice: “Time spent putting pen to paper is free, but as soon as you start building, it costs you.” This message was reinforced by an Anawhata neighbour who, after seeing early drawings of the Davidson house, pointed out the folly of eave-less roofs on a wild coast.
One particularly influential Unitec course was a design studio run by Hoskins and Carin Wilson that contributed to the restoration of an 1870 meeting house, Koanga Rehua, at Te Pōti Marae by the Whanganui River. “Working on that wharepuni helped me to understand something,” Davidson says. “Every component had a purpose and a place. All the elements were synchronised, and there’s a simple structural system that is easily read.”
The Davidsons’ cabin – they also liken the house to a tramping hut – is a rectangular building deployed on an east-west axis across its site. The house has two storeys, a 118-square-metre ground level and a 50-square-metre mezzanine that sacrifices floor area to create a void above the living area. The resulting spaciousness is enhanced by extensive glazing at either end of the house – the glass is full-height on the western elevation – that connects the home’s interior with the bush.
A key design consideration, Davidson says, was finding a balance between engaging with the environment and providing shelter. Under the 40-degree pitch of the roof, the cross-sectional dimensions of the mezzanine echo those of Koanga Rehua. “I imagined our future children tucked away in bed upstairs, able to experience the sound of heavy rain beneath the comfort and safety of the roof,” Davidson says. A key planning decision that liberated the programme, advocated by Unitec teachers Christoph Schnoor and Graeme McConchie, was siting the entrance and internal stair at the centre of the house, a move that ensured circulation did not consume too much space.
Alongside his fellow architecture graduate, Simon Spierer, Davidson spent a year building the house, while Julia – “the sounding board for all my ideas” – worked as a nurse to pay the bills. Macrocarpa was used for posts and beams, and birch ply for doors and wall linings. Davidson designed and built the cabinetry and much of the furniture himself. On the exterior, cedar cladding, stable in the Waitākere climate, is stained black to blend with the surrounding kānuka trees. The design consistently cleaves to the modernist insistence on legibility of structure and acknowledgment of function; the guttering, for example, is dropped low enough that the edge of the corrugated steel roof is visible. There’s a nice allusion to Californian suburban modernism in the crazy stone paving – a trope that’s back in vogue – that serves as a welcome mat at the top of the drive.
The most dramatic exterior element is a polycarbonate screen that stretches across much of the house’s north face. Besides countering solar gain more effectively than glass, the thermally efficient translucent material functions as a form of shoji screen, softening the light admitted into the house, and acting a lantern at night. Sustainability is a necessity, as well as an ideology in the ranges. Although it is now connected to mains power, the Davidsons’ house was designed to be off-grid. There are photovoltaic panels on the roof and a wetback burner; a timber-clad tank, bought secondhand, collects rainwater. The combination of insulation and stack-effect ventilation, Davidson says, keeps the house warm in winter and “cool enough” in summer – the site’s 300-metre elevation means the temperature on average is three degrees lower than in the central city.
For Davidson, designing this house was an adventure and a creative imperative – “a chance not just to gain a home, but also an education.” He has taken to heart Kierkegaard’s mantra that “life can only be understood by looking backward, but must be lived looking forwards”. What’s the lesson? “You need to need to have a growth mindset,” Paul says. “One that says you’ll do something you haven’t done before.”