Bach to the Beach

Originally published in 

With authenticity and simplicity as their rallying cry, a Kiwi architect and his wife have built a modern beach house that puts a fresh spin on the local vernacular.

Parsonson Residence

For a small country, New Zealand has a surfeit of coastline: over 9,400 miles of it, more than the contiguous United States (which has roughly 5,000), and enough to allow—in theory at least—more than 11 feet of coastline for every New Zealander. It’s a luxury that has not gone unappreciated, as the country’s long, slim profile means few of its inhabitants live more than two hours’ drive from the coast. With so much of it so close, it’s no wonder Kiwis view time at the beach as a birthright.

If the beach is at the core of the island nation’s identity, so too are the humble vacation homes erected on shorelines during the middle of the last century. These back-to-basics dwellings are known as “baches” (pronounced “batches”), a term derived from “bachelor pad,” because although whole families squeeze into them, the modest buildings best fit a single occupant. If baches had personalities, they would be the laid-back surfer siblings of highly strung city homes: uncomplicated, unpretentious, and, because of their lightweight construction and small size, respectful of their natural surroundings.

Recent years, however, have spawned a genre of immodest, brand-new beach homes that some owners have the nerve to call “baches” but that are better described as boastful bling. Abuse of the term is a point of contention with architect Gerald Parsonson and his wife, Kate, who were determined that their vacation home in Paraparaumu, a 45-minute drive north of Wellington on the North Island’s west coast, would be not a slicked-up city-style pad but pared back enough to honestly call itself a bach. “We didn’t like the idea of these beautiful dune-lands having big suburban houses on them that were desensitized to their environments,” Gerald says.

Even so, the design of their house was going to be a balancing act. Strip back the romanticism that shrouds authentic baches and you’ll find they provide the bare minimum of shelter and are usually so cramped that when bad weather forces everyone indoors, family meltdowns quickly follow. Gerald and Kate wanted just a little more comfort and, with three children (their sons Tom, Richard, and Will are 20, 18, and 13), a little more space, too: a home that was clearly descended from humble roots but with enough modern conveniences to make staying in it a pleasure, not a chore.

They had a great site to work with. Nestled behind sand dunes with views westward towards Kapiti Island, a nature sanctuary, the dramatic outlook makes it possible to ignore the surrounding suburbs. The family likes to take their motorboat out across the channel for picnics on the islands there, and the water offers terrific fishing, one of Gerald’s favorite pastimes. Even better, the bach is close enough to their Wellington home to allow the family to visit on a whim, and for Kate and the kids to stay there during school vacations while Gerald commutes to work in the city. (New Zealand’s relatively mild winters mean they use the house year-round.)

When they purchased the site in the early 1990s, it was occupied by an old timber bungalow that Gerald says “was rotting and leaking so badly that when you opened a window it would fall out.” Despite its dilapidated condition, the family vacationed there for seven years and, as its leaks grew worse, began discussing what they might build in its place, a process guided by a rigorous keep-it-simple rule. “I wanted something really low key,” Kate says.

The humble baches that were their design touchstones were not usually designed by architects, which meant that if Gerald was to capture their essence he needed to exercise discretion. He and Kate did not want a house that looked like it was trying too hard. Gerald used Kate as a sounding board as he experimented with design approaches, knowing she would reject anything frivolous or overstated. She nixed an early design featuring folded plywood planes, along with other schemes that strayed too far from the couple’s vision. “When I was heading somewhere that didn’t work, Kate would tell me,” Gerald says.

Gerald considered designing a two-story building with living areas upstairs to maximize sea views, a common strategy of their neighbors, but decided it would make their house feel disconnected from its site. Instead, he designed a group of small buildings that feel casually arranged, like a campsite. The 1,670-square-foot bach is made up of a living pavilion, a connected structure containing three compact bedrooms and a bathroom, and a small separate building containing a guest bedroom and bathroom. More recently, a boat shed and a bunk room have been constructed at the periphery of the property. All these structures are clad in black-stained pine weatherboards or fiber-cement sheet, staple materials of traditional bach construction.

While the bach’s ancillary structures are firmly grounded, the glassy pavilion containing kitchen, dining, and living areas is elevated three feet off the ground on posts so it appears to hover among the dunes. A wooden deck and wide steps lead to the lawn and the short path to the sea. “We wanted to lift it enough to get a bit of a view but be connected to the ground so everyone could run in and out,” Gerald says. This pavilion is the hub of family activity, which is just what Gerald and Kate wanted. “Having just one living area means the kids have to hang out with us,” Kate says. Gerald designed a dining table that seats ten, around which the family and a stream of regular visitors sit for meals and cups of tea and coffee. Evening activities include reading and board games. They had discussed the idea of having a television early on—Gerald thought it would come in handy for watching summer cricket matches—but they both ultimately decided against it, viewing the TV’s absence as a key ingredient of authentic “bachiness.”

Sensible as it sounds, a keep-it-simple philosophy is not without its pitfalls, the main one being that if too rigorously applied, such an approach can tip into austerity and take the fun out of everything. To combat this, Gerald and Kate decided to incorporate a little playfulness. They experimented with color in ways they wouldn’t have dared in their city home: sea-green surroundings greet visitors in the bach’s entryway while orange cabinetry flares in the kitchen, and deep-red walls lend a womblike feeling to the hallway. “It’s easy to pare things back,” Gerald says. “We also wanted the freedom to be able to give things a go.” He explored the limits of this freedom by installing small orange stained-glass windows in the hallway without telling Kate, fearing she would reject them. When Kate eventually saw them, she says, “they gave me a bit of a fright—I thought it might be gilding the lily.” But Gerald loves the way the late-afternoon sun slices through the idiosyncratic windows. “It really sparks up and makes you feel like you’re inside some sort of creature,” he says.

The urge to experiment also drove the design of a crow’s nest-like tower above the living pavilion. It’s a space Kate’s father predicted they would never use, but Gerald and Kate spend time in it most evenings they’re at the bach. From here, they can enjoy a glass of wine and watch the sun set over Kapiti Island, use the telescope to follow whales swimming through the channel, and gaze at the night sky: the simple but exhilarating pleasures of life on the coast.


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