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 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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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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."
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.
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.
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.
"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!"
Architect of Record: Bonnifait+Giesen Architects
Builder: Murray & Nelson Construction
Structural Engineer: Spencer Holmes Ltd.
Lighting Design Company: Light Studio
Photographer: Russell Kleyn
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