This New Zealand Architect Created a House That Looks Like a Tiny Village
Grey Lynn, an inner-city suburb in Auckland, New Zealand, is known for its steep terrain, tree-shaded streets, and late-19th-century timber villas, often clustered in groups of three or more by the same builder. Within this heritage residential zone now rises a newcomer: an angular, steel-roofed house that is radically different, yet subtly shares some of its neighbors’ DNA.
Designed by architect Richard Naish for his own family, the house is not a single structure, but three separate two-story pavilions that march upward from the street along a gentle slope, connected by a stepped hall that ascends up one side.
"Essentially, a villa is a square box with a four-sided pyramid roof," says Rich, founder of local firm RTA Studio. "We sliced that into quarters and spread them out to give the house a familiar roofline that’s only slightly abstracted and repeats that cluster of three found in the area."
The pavilions each have a footprint of roughly 385 square feet and are separated by small courtyards and "garden rooms," allowing for both excellent solar gain in winter and ample cross-ventilation during the warmer months.
The layout is the antithesis of an open plan. Instead, it offers individual spaces for Rich and his family—his wife, Andrea, and their three children ages 16, 14, and 10—to find privacy. RTA Studio often explores what Rich calls "the distributed plan," pulling houses apart into smaller segments and taking advantage of New Zealand’s mild climate by creating interstitial outdoor spaces.
The Naishes’ house is a prime example. The first courtyard lies between the kitchen, on the top floor of the lowest pavilion, and the living room, on the first floor of the middle one.
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With sliding doors open on all three sides, this collection of indoor and outdoor spaces becomes a single whole. The second courtyard flows from the master bedroom on the top floor of the middle pavilion to the bottom level of the third, which is the children’s domain.
The courtyards extend well past and alongside the pavilions, with a secluded outdoor dining area set up on the first level. "When we looked at the second outdoor space, we found a real sun-trap on the northern side of the top hut, which was the obvious place for the swimming pool," says Rich. "The kids can be up there doing their thing while we have a reasonable separation on the level below."
An outdoor stair connects the two courtyards, skirts the pool, and then rises to what Rich has christened "the backyard," a third outdoor space at the summit of the property that catches the last rays of the sun and features reclaimed bluestone paving, fruit trees, and an edible garden.
"The beauty of the house is that everyone can find an area to be alone, but the spaces are generous enough that you can come together as well." Richard Naish, architect and resident
Despite its sprawl, the house also contains intimate spaces for the family to come together. The kitchen/dining room, situated over the garage and entryway in the first pavilion, forms the social hub of the home.
This space holds special significance for the residents. Andrea’s late father was Ralph Hotere, one of New Zealand’s leading modern artists, and the couple have fond memories of the kitchen in her childhood home, which was lined in native Kauri tongue-in-groove boards and warmed by a wood-burning stove. For seating, there was a church pew. Above the dining table hung one of Hotere’s groundbreaking stainless steel works.
Today the piece hangs in the family’s new dining area, which is also heated by a stove, but the pew has been replaced by a built-in bench seat, and the walls and angled ceiling are clad in knotty cedar planks. "There’s something comforting in creating a sense of continuity and an autobiographical arrangement of materials and spaces," says Rich. "We wanted to evoke the same feeling as that old villa."
And like those old timber villas, the new home has a kind of provincial charm. "We often think of it as a little village," says Rich. "The main spine is the metaphorical street, the courtyards and garden rooms are all nominally exterior spaces, and then to go inside, you enter a small timber hut. We were looking at new ways to occupy these narrow Grey Lynn sites, and this has given us a lot of options."