Amid the jagged rocks, pounding surf, and black sand of Western New Zealand’s Piha Beach resides a family home that reflects its wild, brooding surroundings. Seated at the base of a steep slope and surrounded by towering Pohutukawa trees—known locally as the Christmas tree of New Zealand due to its red blooms—Kawakawa House echoes the volatile, masculine coastline on which it resides.
"The oceans in New Zealand are thought of as male and female," explains Lance Herbst, principal of Herbst Architects. "The eastern coast has white-sand beaches and blue waters, while the west is angry and dramatic."
The homeowners, well-versed in architectural principles and on their fourth custom home, came to Herbst with a loose directive in mind: build a modern beach home they could use through every season of the year. While there was a home already on their lot, it was only suitable for summer usage, and it lacked a direct sightline to the ocean.
Herbst and his team got to work, replacing the existing home with one that would take full advantage of its unique landscape, ultimately yielding a 2,000-square-foot, three-bed, two-bath home.
The first decision was to plan for a raised upper level, creating a tree house of sorts, to increase the light and provide better views.
"The trees are tall, and thus the land was very sun-challenged," he says. "The sun is also edited by the mountain behind it. It’s this encapsulating canopy of trees that soars high above both floors that creates a very intimate relationship. Essentially, we wanted to make all functions, especially on the upper level, have interaction with trees."
The raised second level features floor-to-ceiling windows that wrap around its entirety. There’s a living space with an enclosed veranda with a large sliding glass window, a fireplace, and a barbecue. A big steel plate on the exterior is the perfect spot for guests to lean up against or place their drinks on.
"The prevailing winds on the west coast can be relentless and cold," he says. "We wanted to make an outdoor space that was protected from the winds."
This open central courtyard also lifts the focus from the slanting roofline to the canopy above. In between, there is a bunk room with four beds, a casual and comfortable nook for future grandchildren.
"Their grown daughter may come for the weekend with friends, or people may come for dinner and make a night of it," he says. "It is a 45-minute drive from [Auckland]."
The rest of the home is occupied by the two other bedrooms which sit in each corner, the unique roofline folding in to demarcate the ceiling and draw the eye up.
When it came to colors and materials, Herbst went with what felt right for the beachside community. "Black is a really understood color in New Zealand, and it’s used everywhere," he says. "We also brought in this jade green, a traditional color linked to the Maori culture. It felt appropriate for the west coast and its history."
The ceilings and cabinetry are built with stained birch plywood, while the floors, decking, and bunks are natural spotted gum, a plant native to Australia. "The soft woods take the stain very well, and you have a strong grain of timber and depth of blackness onto the wood," says Herbst.
In combination with furnishings from New Zealand designer Simon James, the result is a year-round beach retreat that pays homage to its unique locale.
Contractor: Riggans Contractors
Structural Engineer: Sullivan Hall
Landscape Design Company: Second Nature