The Ship House was a well-known feature of Redcliffs, a long-established seaside suburb of Christchurch. Shaped like the superstructure of a ship, with a rounded bow, it sat on the edge of the Avon-Heathcote Estuary. Had the structure been perched on an actual ship, its giant bow would have pointed towards Southshore Spit.
Built in 1965 from solid concrete poured on site, the house had a six-car garage, curved walls and an elevator that spat guests out to either the first floor or through a ship’s funnel onto the rooftop garden, complete with spa. The owners hosted cocktail parties up there.
A couple who grew up around the corner from the Ship House snapped up the property in 2008, buoyed by memories of visiting the place when they were kids. They loved the site and had planned to live there one day, but the house split in two during the Christchurch earthquakes, bringing forward their plans.
As a boy, James Warren of Wellington-based Upoko Architects often visited nearby Sumner and remembers seeing the red, white and black-striped steel funnel of the house poking over the fence. “It was pretty curious,” recalls Warren. Based on this memory, it was an easy ‘yes’ when he was asked to team up with Bruce Banbury of Banbury Architects to design a new house for the site.
Building a house is a little more complicated than it was when the original house was built; add in the potential for sea level rise, coastal erosion and lateral spread and there's a lot of thinking and planning to do. The design that Warren, Banbury and the owners settled on presents separate pavilions, huddled closely together and sitting gently on the land. (One of the pavilions is a repurposed shed from the original dwelling.) As a whole, the outcome belies the extensive earthworks and land stabilisation that has gone into the project.
Just like a ship, the three living pavilions (a living area and kitchen, main bedroom and guest wing) float in a U-shape 1.5 metres above the ground, to comply with local planning regulations for low-lying coastal areas. This is clearly read on arrival, as you climb a set of board-formed concrete steps up to the cantilevered entrance. Instead of hiding the elevation, Warren and Banbury present it as a feature, tying it into the landscape with a concrete rill – its terraces stepping down into the landscape.
At the top of the entrance, turn left down the central hallway and the reward is a view to the sparkling waters of Te Wahapū. The outlook appears as a standalone window or framed painting, but is actually a section of sliding glass doors in the living pavilion, where framing is hidden below the floor line, giving it an ‘infinity’ effect. “The estuary moves back and forth at quite a pace; it never really sits still,” says Warren. “You see the edge of the floor against the water and for a minute you think, ‘Am I moving or is the estuary moving?’ It feels like a magic carpet.”
With a bird’s eye view, the separation of the pavilions becomes clear through the individual rooflines. But from the inside, demarcation is harder to pick. You have to look up to see where the rooflines end, or down to spot the slim metal strips on the floor that intersect the central hallway running between the pavilions. Their movement controls joints that allow the pavilions to act independently of the another. They can be picked up and moved or re-levelled, should they ever need to be.
“One building of just one shape or volume sitting somewhere on the site would never have worked,” says Warren. “It felt like [1.5m above ground level] was high enough and that you really didn’t want to disconnect further from the land. It needed to be single level and spread out, a lot more in contact with the ground.”
Walking down the hallway, guests are met with oversized sliding glass doors on the left, revealing a terraced courtyard, and sliding timber-panelled doors to the right.
The three living pavilions surround a central courtyard, which provides shelter from the prevailing easterly. The design borrows from the siheyuan homes in China, traditional complexes comprising separate buildings and courtyards. Cleverly, all three pavilions take in views of the estuary, the most expansive from the 15x9-metre living pavilion. Here, the plywood ceiling is lowered above the dining area and bay windows, which help break up the large space.
The owners knew their views would be spectacular but they underestimated how special the house would be. They sit at their dining table with friends, lost for words as they ponder the various moods of the estuary. They wake up to cormorants, shags, kingfishers, herons and wax eyes outside their bedroom.
Warren appreciates the way the structure is on display and within reach – the low pitch roofs, the free-standing exposed macrocarpa beams in the hallway and steel framing in the living pavilion. “It’s really lovely to touch the timber posts when you walk past: you get this intuitive understanding of what the building is doing and how it’s held up,” he says. “As you move into the main pavilion out front, the same language is used but it becomes steel.”
Unlike the original dwelling, the re-imagined Ship House is not expressed as “a big solid thing that’s sort of carved out to live in”, says Warren. “It’s more like a collection of parts.”