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Orchard Jam

The McKenzie residence sits within the grid of a commercial apple orchard, its roof and upper parts floating above the trees to echo the surrounding hills. Although its steel cladding is suggestive of a barn, inside it is anything but.

Music is central to Andrew McKenzie’s living arrangements. With guitars hanging on his Gaboon plywood walls, he always has an instrument at hand.

No sooner had Andrew McKenzie, guitarist and vocalist for the Kiwi alt-country band Grand Prix, moved in to his new house in an apple orchard in Havelock North, New Zealand, than he spent the first night in an impromptu jam session with fellow musicians. After ten years of living in Wellington, McKenzie craved a small, inexpensive modern home where he could keep an eye on his widowed mother—she lives next door in McKenzie’s childhood home—and let his music take center stage.

Music looms large in McKenzie’s life—a passion that’s reflected on the walls of the 861-square-foot house, two of which are lined with mounted guitars. Their cases, along with a sitar, occupy most of the bench space in the narrow study, and in the living room, there’s an old Akai reel-to-reel tape recorder and a Fender amp at the ready. “We are also going to see what drums sound like in here,” says McKenzie. He thinks that, acoustically, they might require putting curtains across the expanses of glass that run the lengths of the lower walls in the lounge—but only for the duration of recording sessions. His architects, Cecile Bonnifait and William Giesen, will surely be relieved.

Bonnifait and Giesen run Wellington’s Atelier Workshop, which last year won a regional award   from the New Zealand Institute of Architects for the McKenzie project, earning praise for its “disarmingly simple” form and execution. “This very direct interpretation of the bachelor pad proves that architecture is not dictated by budget” (in this case, the budget was about about $120,000) said judges’ convenor Ezra Kelly.

Bonnifait, a Frenchwoman who has lived in New Zealand since establishing Atelier Workshop with Giesen in 2000, is well placed to appreciate the role of music in McKenzie’s life: They play together in another band, Bonanza, where her dramatic Gallic vocals can be heard to the fore. Knowing McKenzie was an advantage, though Bonnifait says that Atelier develops an intimacy with all their clients. “They have to talk about their dirty laundry to us,” she says, laughing. The bigger factor in finding the right way to design such a small house was perhaps that McKenzie knew and trusted her so well.

The size of the house was dictated by planning regulations, 861 square feet being the cutoff point before the project counted as a subdivision. Its 26-by-26-foot footprint and positioning ensured that it would fit pleasingly into the grid of the surrounding orchard, lining up with the rows of trees and complementing McKenzie’s mother’s house, which dates from 1971 and was designed by the late John Scott, one of New Zealand’s most acclaimed architects. Giesen himself lived in a Scott house when he was a boy and muses, “Scott was probably the person who inspired me to become an architect.”

Scott’s house for the McKenzies’ loomed large as Atelier Workshop set to work next door. Bonnifait describes their house for Andrew as “trying to understand the essence of what John Scott was about,” though responding in their own vocabulary.

Both architects appreciate the sculptural quality of Scott’s work, something they sought to emulate in part by employing sheets of steel to clad the outside of the new house. The materials were meant to suggest a barn sitting in the pastoral landscape, but the architects opted for a wider tray than standard-issue corrugate, which, as Giesen puts it, offers “much more pronounced shadow lines.”

As with that of the Scott house, the roof of Atelier’s house floats above the orchard foliage and within the undulation of surrounding hills. Though the interior is painstakingly symmetrical, the roof is a pyramid with an off-center apex—a feature that presented its own problems. The builder hoped to construct it offsite and lift it on with a crane, but transporting it through the orchard proved too difficult. The builder made it in situ instead.

The height of the ceiling (which also aids acoustics), plus the extensive use of glass to bring in sunlight, ensures the house never feels as small as it is. “It’s more than enough room for one person,” McKenzie says. “I’ve had large groups of friends around and they have said that the living area seems so big.” An outside courtyard that feels like an extension of the lounge, in part because it is enclosed by slats that parallel those inside, doesn’t hurt either. 

McKenzie’s stipulations for the house were few. His budget was small, and he wanted two stories in order to get a view over the orchard to the local landmark Te Mata Peak. And he didn’t want plasterboard, known throughout New Zealand by the manufacturer’s name, GIB. He’s seen a lot of it in his day job as a house painter, and it’s the last thing he wanted to come home to. “I do paint a lot of GIB walls. I have nothing against GIB, but I don’t like it for myself. It’s really smooth and sort of featureless. With plywood, you have more of an honest material, it’s got its own features and, hopefully, it will be very durable.”

Plywood is used throughout the interior—Gaboon below the datum and Italian poplar above—from the walls and ceiling to the bench and cabinets in the kitchen, and for wardrobes and shelving. There is a bank of shelving beneath the staircase leading to the mezzanine—a neat solution to the fact that the lounge, with its large sliding glass doors on three sides, does not have available external walls to accommodate storage. Two large wardrobes built into the structure of the mezzanine are symmetrically placed on either side of the bedroom and tower imposingly high when viewed from the ground floor. It has all proved more than sufficient storage for McKenzie, who still has room to spare.

McKenzie’s modest budget and the zoning laws necessitated a tiny footprint, but being small was also about being sustainable, though Atelier Workshop hardly considered the job simple because they were using fewer materials.

Without the cash for a high-tech photovoltaics, Giesen and Bonnifait took a passive solar approach—a detail as important to them as the wall of guitars is to McKenzie. Sunlight heats the house by day, and at night warmth stored in the concrete floor—which is insulated from below—keeps things comfortable. Louvered windows, common Down Under, are strategically placed to control the flow of air and provide cooling as necessary. In his first winter in the house,   McKenzie never needed a heater to keep warm.

“A lot of New Zealand architecture is these colonial houses people plonked in without any thought,” says Giesen. “For us, sure, we want it to look good and we want it to be a contemporary building, but if it’s not a sustainable piece of architecture, well, it’s just a fashion statement really, isn’t it?” Giesen should watch out: As more small houses like this—sensitive to the landscape, their contexts, and their residents—start cropping up, Atelier Workshop could find themselves leading the charge of a fashion all their own.

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