This Compact New Zealand Home Uses Low-Cost Materials to Dazzling Effect

This Compact New Zealand Home Uses Low-Cost Materials to Dazzling Effect

By Mandi Keighran
Designed for a couple in Wellington, New Zealand, this small home puts the focus on affordable materials and stunning views.

When architects Cecile Bonnifait and William Giesen, co-founders of Bonnifait+Giesen Architects, were tasked with designing a home for a couple in Wellington, New Zealand, the steep topography of the site posed a challenge. "The site is part of a very old Wellington subdivision that was never developed due to extreme topographical constraints for access and building," says Bonnifait. "So, we designed the house as a small tower with a 50-square-meter footprint to minimize impact on the site."

The Thornton House sits on a steep site in Brooklyn, Wellington, New Zealand, with a small footprint of just 50 square meters.

The majority of the house is clad in inky blue metal—a durable, low-maintenance material.

The clients, Tomoko and Aaron, wanted a small, compact home with a strong connection with the surrounding landscape. They also wanted to save on the building costs by doing some of the work themselves—including painting and constructing built-in furniture. Even the kitchen was designed to be built by Aaron using affordable materials.

The central stair divides the home in two, but internal windows maintain open sight lines between the various spaces.

There were no services to the site at the beginning of the design process, and the home was initially developed as an off-grid residence. As the project progressed, services were brought on-site, but the house was still future-proofed for off-grid use. The north-facing roof is angled for solar panels, and locations are designated for water tanks and batteries.

The dark blue facade is punctuated by a single cedar-clad wall that faces the deck and forms a timber nook that is protected from prevailing winds.

The home is elevated above a carport, which can also be used as a covered semi-outdoor living space in the summer.

A dramatic yellow stairwell spans the home’s three levels and provides a barrier between service areas—such as the kitchen, laundry, and bathroom—and the living spaces. The living areas are split over two levels set above the carport, with the social areas on the lower level and the bedrooms and bathroom on the upper level.

The yellow-painted stair is crafted from Kowhai, a dense and durable native timber.

The bathroom—located upstairs—has been simply finished with white subway tiles. It’s open to the dividing stair to avoid the space feeling too enclosed.

"The challenge was to find a balance between open planning and ease of circulation, with a disruptive but necessary element—the staircase—in the middle," says Giesen. To address this, the design duo gave the stair a wire balustrade that maximizes transparency. 

A wire balustrade allows natural light from the large windows in the living room to penetrate into the stairwell and the kitchen. 

Large windows frame views of the surrounding bush, inviting the landscape inside.

The upper level is slightly set back—creating a kind of enclosed mezzanine level—which opens up a double-height void in part of the living room. Internal windows along the mezzanine wall allow both levels to benefit from the large north-facing window.

Light reaches the bedrooms on the upper floor through an internal window, while the void above the living room allows light to flood the lower level.

Above a height of 2.4 meters, the internal walls have been whitewashed. This, along with the double-height void above the living room, helps to give the small home a voluminous feeling.

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"Large openings to the north allow for maximum solar gain, and the double-height space provides sunlight to the lower floor while allowing heat to naturally flow to the upper level by the end of the day," says Giesen. "Opening the windows allows for natural ventilation, while a small log burner in the living room provides heating."

The solid ceramic fireplace in the downstairs living room can hold heat overnight.

The internal bedroom windows look out over the void in the living room. The yellow shutters can be closed for privacy.

Both bedrooms—the master bedroom with a dressing room and a guest bedroom—have huge windows that flood the interior with natural light and enable airflow.

A large deck runs the full length of the living space and is accessed through glazed bi-fold doors. This large wall of glazing connects the living space to the lush bush surroundings and provides expansive views to the west.

A seamless deck at the central level extends the living areas. The house is orientated directly to the east to maximize daylighting and views.

Bonnifait+Giesen worked closely with the clients to define the interior design elements, including the color palette and furniture design. The interior is entirely clad in oriented strand board (OSB), which has been painted with a whitewash finish on the upper portion of each wall to make the spaces feel more open and less boxed in. "With small spaces, we believe a limited pallet of materials creates a sense of space and a coherency," says Giesen.

Custom furniture, like this desk in the living area, is designed to be simple enough to be built by the clients, and it complement the raw materials used throughout the home.

Small storage nooks are built into the walls beside the beds, avoiding the need for bedside tables.

This minimal shell offers a blank canvas for vibrant pops of color—the stairs, kitchen backsplash, and interior shutters and doors are finished in a vibrant acid yellow. "The limited palette of materials is complemented by the vibrancy of key elements to bring some liveliness to the interior," says Bonnifait.

A simple, custom-built desk stands in one of the upstairs bedrooms. The bare lamp is in harmony with the raw material palette.

The yellow stair is echoed by a matching yellow backsplash in the kitchen.

The kitchen has a simple design and utilizes low-cost materials so that the client could fabricate it using a limited selection of tools.

"Inserting a new form into a landscape like this is an exciting part of working as an architect in New Zealand," says Giesen. The clients are also happy with the results. "We are loving the house," says Aaron. "The only problem is that I never feel a need to leave!"

Ground floor plan of Thornton House by Bonnifait+Giesen

First floor plan of Thornton House by Bonnifait+Giesen

Second floor plan of Thornton House by Bonnifait+Giesen

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