Not long ago, architect Gerald Parsonson spent a week staying with clients in a house he designed for them at Lake Hawea. The owners are keen gardeners and were bemoaning the rabbits getting into the garden. Parsonson, an otherwise mild-mannered soul, asked if they had a gun, which they did. At dusk he picked off a few rabbits from the porch and lawn. He returned inside with the unloaded gun cocked over his arm while his client was on Zoom to her husband who was stranded in Sydney, and while her son, his partner and their friends watched a movie in the den. The rabbits ended up as dinner – in a pie, with spinach from the garden.
The anecdote is illustrative. Looking at the images on these pages, you might think that this is a house for serious art collectors and, on one level, that’s true. But this is also a house designed for people who are relaxed and regularly share their home with extended family and friends. That week, there were half a dozen people staying, and everyone found a corner to spend time in. Over summer there are often 20 or 25 people over for dinner, eaten at the long table under an oak tree the owners planted years ago.
Parsonson and his clients have a long-standing relationship. He designed alterations to their Wellington home some 20 years ago, and their children went to school together. The first email about this project was sent a decade ago. The owners also have an enduring connection to the area and this site: one of them has been coming to Lake Hawea since her mother bought a section here in the 1960s. Her mother now lives next door and they have spent the better part of 30 years assembling four long, narrow neighbouring sections that create a wide, trapezoidal shape, with stunning views of the mountains and lake.
The couple holidayed here for years in a falling-down cottage, while building up the garden and planting an orchard of trees including almond, peach, apple and citrus. One day, they reasoned, they’d build a house here. And when the old cottage eventually ran out of puff, they called Parsonson.
Their brief was for a house that could hold a lot of art and, when required, a lot of people. There were lengthy discussions about creating wall space for the art and how much view would be optimal. “Our brief to Ged was that we didn’t want to walk in and see the view,” says one owner. “We wanted the view to look like a piece of art. We wanted every room to have a different outlook but not through floor-to-ceiling windows.
As well as considering how to best house art and furniture that has been collected over decades, Parsonson spent a lot of time thinking about retaining a sense of domesticity in what is quite a large house. He started with the roof – one long sheltering plane, with a sloping back wall, both of which are clad in weathering zinc. It’s quiet and respectful, and nods to the A-frames and ski chalets in the surrounding hodge-podge of homes at Lake Hawea.
The site slopes gently towards the lake, and Parsonson has responded by stepping the roof in a corresponding direction. At the top of the site, the garage is buried into the slope, with guest bedrooms above. At the bottom of the site, an expansive living area sits between the view and a sheltered covered courtyard. Off to one side, away from the living areas, are two main bedrooms, a bathroom and office. Connecting it all is the entrance, a generous space with height and tall windows on two sides.
The house is approached along a sweeping driveway, then a stone path. The view never quite reveals itself. There’s a gentle cadence as you work your way through the home, stepping down the levels through a series of rooms, each of which is articulated in the façade, to further break down the house’s bulk and create a sense of domesticity. “You feel like you’re picking your way through the property,” says Parsonson, who learned the trick from an older architect he worked with early in his career. ”It’s lovely to step down the site – it gestures to the land. So many people would tip up to bring in the view, but this does what old cottages do – it offers protection.”
The form was closely influenced by the owners’ intimate knowledge of the site and its unique weather patterns. In winter, you get an inversion layer that can bring in the grey and cold for days. In early summer, the wind rushes straight down the lake. In late summer it’s hot and dry. In winter, everything freezes overnight.
To manage these dramatic shifts, and to give a variety of views from every room, the house has a fine edge with courtyards, cutaways and moments created on all sides. An outdoor courtyard on the land side of the house is connected to the garden at one end and the living areas and kitchen at the other. The roof shelters the fireplace against the winter cold; in summer its a retreat from the wind.
There are moments to pause and retreat throughout the house, to take in a view or artwork. In place of wide windows, tall slots access light and view, without flooding the place with either. There are few straightforward transitions – the hallway leading to the main bedrooms is cranked off the central entry, with a small courtyard that’s home to a lemon tree. It makes the house feel finely grained and textured – and gives plenty of wall space for art.
The timber ceiling envelopes and encloses and the scale of the rooms is just right. “Hopefully it’s a bit like a homespun woolly jumper, something that’s casual and comfortable,” says Parsonson. “It might be beautifully made, but it has a relaxed comfort to it.”