The gorgeous alpine region of Queenstown, on New Zealand’s South Island, has always been popular with domestic visitors. But in recent years the area has seen an international tourism boom, fueled at least in part by The Lord of the Rings trilogy, some of which was filmed here. The sumptuous vistas, excellent vineyards, and exhilarating sense of isolation make a handful of well-off visitors fall so in love with the place that they decide to stay. This phenomenon has spawned an architectural style best described as steroidal, with grandiose homes striving to assert their presence among all the spectacular scenery.
The profusion of megahomes—many of them occupied only a few months of the year—can become depressing. Luckily, a visit to the home of local architects Bronwen Kerr and Pete Ritchie and their children—Archie, seven; Linus, five; and Olive, three—is the perfect antidote to this rectilinear bravado. Here, the duo has dreamed up a building that doesn’t try to compete with its spectacular surroundings but seems genuinely at ease in them. “We wanted to relax and let our house fit the landscape as if it’s reclining into it,” Kerr says.“Elements appear to lounge and gaze out at the view. I like buildings that show human characteristics.”
Good things take time, and there was nothing rushed about this place. Ritchie, who grew up a little south of Queenstown, was working in the area as a surveyor when he purchased the three-quarter-acre plot in 1999. The 15-minute drive south from Queenstown seemed inconvenient to most local people, but Ritchie thought the site made up for this by being more sheltered and sunny than most locations in town. The couple initially contemplated building a “small modernist box” on the site, but those plans were put on hold when they moved north to Wellington for five years so Ritchie could complete a degree in landscape architecture while Kerr continued working as an architect.
The land sat empty while the couple’s plans for it slowly took shape. They started a family, with three children arriving over the next four years. They took note of the idiosyncratic work of the Japanese firm Atelier Bow-Wow. They admired the fluid and relaxed planning of Australian architect Kerstin Thompson, particularly a long, low lakeside home she designed near Melbourne that is an elegant geometric echo of the landscape around it. During their five years away, Kerr and Ritchie made regular visits to the Queenstown property, spending hours beside Lake Wakatipu considering their options. “Our thoughts developed, and the way we worked over that time developed too,” Kerr says. “We gained confidence and tried a few things out. Our response to the landscape became more sophisticated, and the planning and the form gradually became more fluid, more of an intuitive response to the site.”
The end result is a long way from the modernist box they initially envisaged. It is not a home that tries to hide by burying itself in its surroundings or by emulating one of the area’s old barns, a strategy deployed by other local contemporary homes. It is relaxed but still rigorous, with a breezy unorthodoxy all its own. It seems to derive strength from its robust surroundings without attempting to outdo them. “I like our buildings to have a strong sculptural form,” Ritchie says. “We didn’t want a generic cultural interpretation like a barn or a box.”
The 3,000-square-foot home is divided into two parts, linked by an open-air breezeway. To the right, the passage leads to the rear of the home, with a guest bedroom and bathroom and the studio where Kerr and Ritchie base their practice. To the left are the family quarters, including a large combined kitchen, dining, and living area with a small cedar-lined deck stretching northward to the lake. Up two steps is a snug lounge with a log burner, separated from the other living spaces by bookshelves backed with movable panels. The second floor houses three bedrooms and a bathroom, all with big windows facing the lake. On its eastern flank, the home pulls gently away from the slope to create space for a sheltered courtyard that catches the morning sun. There is no formal area for parking cars, so visitors pull up wherever they like at the end of the unsealed driveway and walk up a loose gravel path to the entrance.
Unlike most of the rest of New Zealand, which is known for its benign climate, Queenstown experiences some of the country’s greatest temperature extremes. Winter days are regularly below freezing, but the mercury can rise into the 80s (Fahrenheit) in the summer. There is, however, still plenty of sun, so Kerr and Ritchie designed their home to retain as much solar heat in its concrete floors as possible. They also insulated the walls with batting made from recycled wool and specified double-glazed joinery for all the windows and doors. Solar panels and a backup boiler fueled by wood pellets—compressed waste from local timber mills—can pump hot water to warm the concrete floor when needed, although the family found that the home’s thermal performance was so good they survived their first winter using only a single log burner. “It was a bit cold in the studio in the mornings,” Kerr says, “but the bedrooms get a lot of sun and were always warm.” On particularly frigid nights, the sauna provides relief.
A need to economize led to Kerr and Ritchie’s choice of bold, simple building materials, but the robust palette feels appropriate in this tough environment. Corrugated concrete retaining walls—their pattern molded from the steel that clads the building—skirt parts of the home and work their way inside the studio and snug lounge.
Inside, tough materials are left behind in favor of more childlike interiors. “We wanted it to be a young person’s house, sort of like a primary school,” Kerr says. They opted not to grind the concrete floor, furnishing the lounge in bright-green carpet deliberately reminiscent of the 1970s, and chose “bold and cheerful” plastic lights and large-chipped strand board for the walls and doors.
Kerr and Ritchie have worked in partnership ever since Ritchie completed his landscape architecture degree, combining their skills to form a holistic design practice that they now deploy on a handful of projects each year. Their open-minded approach of fusing disciplines may explain why their own home sits so naturally on its site. While many of the oversize residences nearby look as if they landed with a tremendous thud, Kerr and Ritchie’s home has touched down gently, enhancing the splendor of its surroundings.
To write "Nature Nurtured," Kiwi journalist Jeremy Hansen flew from his home in Auckland, on New Zealand's North Island, to the South Island city of Queenstown, in the heart of the spectacular alpine region. The only downside of Hansen's visit to the lakeside home of architects Bronwen Kerr and Pete Ritchie: He's been dreaming of living there ever since.