A 1980s cabin in the woods is transformed into a cathedral of colour on Tāmaki Makaurau’s North Shore.

Primary Residence

Primary Residence

Usually, when you’re writing about renovations, you write about a house’s problems and the things an architect or designer did to fix them: non-existent foundations, say; lean-to after lean-to; leaks and unsympathetic additions. And while this house, in suburban Beach Haven on the North Shore of Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland, had its fair share of quirks (we’ll get to those in a moment), it’s also very special, both to its owners and their friends, and to me. 

We’d been living across the road for a couple of years when, out of the blue, we got an email from Hilary Cootes and Crispin Robertson, friends of friends, who we now count as dear friends, inviting us over for a beer in the sun. We all had small kids, or small kids on the way. We headed across the road and down a gravel driveway into the trees, over a bridge, around the corner and up the driveway to find a house, in what seemed something like a park, with a steeply pitched roof and a kind of ski-chalet vibe, all dark-stained cedar and wooden joinery.

By that point, Hilary and Crispin had been living in the place for three or four years. It was devised and built in the 1980s by an engineer with an eye for design; he and his wife constructed a small sleepout first, and lived in that while they built the main house. For reasons unknown, the complex never included a front door – or any real sense of entry. You’d come up the driveway, past the sleepout and onto a deck: in winter, we went through the laundry, and in summer we just stopped there to sit in the sun. Inside, there were two bedrooms and a bathroom downstairs, and an attic bedroom reached via a steep staircase that landed virtually in the middle of the living room. 

But that didn’t matter, not really, because the living space has always been beautiful. There’s a high-pitched ceiling and huge beams, and generous French doors running out to decks and onto lawn that slopes gently into a gully, surrounded by established trees. It is an extraordinary spot. “Some people need caves and some people need stages,” says Hilary, who mourned for a good six months when a tree near the house was taken out by lightning. “We’re definitely the former – I’ve always loved how this felt so private, so tucked away from the world. No one knows we’re here.” 

Something about the odd arrival suited the casual nature of the house, and the experience of the church-like main room was always bigger than anything else. But as their kids grew, they realised they’d need more space, while retaining a sense of retreat. They wanted an extra bathroom, and the option of an extra living room for when the kids were older, plus a space to work. The kitchen and bathroom were shot; things were starting to wear out. 

And they wanted to add some colour. Hilary is a brand consultant, and has spent her life in design and advertising. “Colour gives you energy,” she says. “I’ve always loved how it makes you feel, and what it says about you.” Continues Crispin: “This house can take it – we almost felt like it needed primary colours to offset all the wood.” 

In 2016 they approached architect Marc Lithgow of Space Division, and asked him to come up with a scheme that would create one house from the two disparate buildings. “I thought their bedroom and the main living area were exceptional spaces – they just really surprised me,” says Marc of his first impressions. “They had the spaces they needed – it was just about creating a connection, and a sense of entry.” It was a collaborative process in which a few ideas came and went before the trio settled on a plan that created a new structure between the main house and the sleepout. It would feature a new entry and circulation to the main bedroom upstairs via a steel staircase. Oversized wardrobes were deleted to create a generous hallway between entry and living; the kitchen moved into a nook where the laundry and over-sized family bathroom had been, and a new bathroom slipped in beside. Upstairs, the main bedroom gained storage and a generous ensuite. “It really came back to making the minimum possible intervention,” says Marc. 

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Hilary and Crispin wanted to create a new language, rather than continue with the 1980s cabin-in-the-woods feel. So, to the vernacular of timber and triangles, the architect added a double-height box with bright red Nu-Wall cladding. “It ties everything together,” he says. “You’ve got these two rustic elements with a sharp thing in the middle. It’s neither one thing nor the other, but it doesn’t look like it shouldn’t be there, either.” It also brought light into both ends of the house. Now, in the afternoons, sun pours into the double-height space. 

As to the question of colour. Not for this pair the polite palette of brass, oak and neutrals. Instead, they worked with old friend Alex McLeod, of at.space, to create a bold interior palette. The brief? Modern wood cabin, but with primary colours. In Alex’s hands this evolved to honour the house’s 1980s whakapapa, rather than a Klosters aesthetic. Crispin had already settled on the extensive use of Strandboard and Alex suggested they wrap the walls with it as well to offset the colour. “It really can take it because of its environment,” says Alex. “It just has a real warmth.” In less assured hands, it could have turned into a hot mess. Instead, it feels confident and cohesive, with plenty of timber to temper the primaries: colour is used in blocks and zones, so you only ever see one or two at once. “I was acutely aware that I didn’t want it to be a fruit salad,” says Alex of the approach. “The rules are that there are no rules, but there are zones, and that gives it cohesion.”

The design was also about using standard materials in clever ways. As well as the Strandboard, more typically used as bracing or subflooring, Alex chose standard Melteca colours. The kitchen cabinetry is Melteca Memphis Blue, but wrapped in band-sawn macrocarpa with a stainless-steel bench to elevate it. The downstairs bathroom is yellow and the ensuite is pink; extra storage in the bedroom is yellow too. Doors are green with inexpensive handles powdercoated yellow, and exterior windows are red. “There were a few points where we all had a moment with me saying, ‘Are you sure you can live with this?’ And them saying, ‘Can we add more?’”

The family moved into the sleepout just in time for the extended Covid lockdown and cordon in Tāmaki Makaurau at the end of 2021. Crispin worked alongside builder Nico Jones and his team, and did much of the painting. The house was finally finished six months later, at which point they emerged from their tiny sleepout (currently being fitted out as a second living room and office, with bathroom and laundry) into a newly refreshed space.  The effort was worth it. “We’ve felt like it was home since the day we first visited,” says Crispin. “Now it feels like us.” 

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