A Tiny Footprint Isn’t So Bad When You Live in a Tower
Waiheke Island, a small, beach-lined domain with its own warm microclimate, has long been a "runaway place where people from Auckland can hunker down and escape civilization," says Mark Summerville, one of the island’s vacationers. But, as has become the case in many a beautiful place close to a city, the area has changed in recent years, as visitors swap humble seaside cabins for getaways that wrap up the benefits of beach living in sprawling packages with all the modern conveniences included.
Rejecting this trend, the modest holiday house that Mark shares with his partner, Milton Henry, stands amid the island’s tree canopy like a metal-clad sentinel watching over the forest. Lots on the island are almost all sloped, and the long, slim site Mark and Milton purchased two decades ago was no exception: It drops sharply from a narrow gravel road, leaving little space to park or maneuver, and steeply descends to the bottom of a valley.
The inexpensive site was considered virtually unbuildable, and, after spending nearly 15 years painstakingly restoring the dense native bush, with just a small clearing for a building, the two were reluctant to remove any trees.
Local planning regulations put a further cap on structure size, as did the owners’ chosen wastewater-treatment method: a low-impact Biolytix septic-tank alternative with a worm-farm treatment plant, which requires a large reticulation area.
Ultimately, just 10 percent of the site proved buildable, giving Mark and Milton a maximum footprint of 1,055 square feet. But the owners and their architect had a set of reference pointsin stark contrast to the island’s new status quo, and they ended up using only about 500 square feet for the footprint of the 900-square-foot house.
For the couple, inspiration came from the late filmmaker Derek Jarman’s black clapboard cottage in Dungeness, on the southeastern coast of England, and the Japanese aesthetic concept wabi-sabi, which celebrates the beauty of imperfection. Milton’s childhood home amid the woods of Hanmer Springs, on New Zealand’s sparsely populated South Island, was another major influence.
"We liked the idea of a black house in a forest, because it throws the trees into relief, providing great contrast," says Mark. "The house becomes subdued, while the trees gain prominence."
Although many local residents opt for homes raised on poles that allow for ocean vistas, Milton and Mark wanted to be able to step down through the house directly to the forest floor. "We weren’t interested in those big Waiheke sea views," Mark says, "because we were in love with the trees."
The two were also impressed by the "sculptural and strong" designs they’d seen by Auckland architect Dominic Glamuzina, who looked, in turn, to the work of midcentury New Zealand architect Claude Megson. Glamuzina’s brother Kevin worked as the builder on the Blackpool House project, while architect Aaron Paterson—at one point Glamuzina’s business partner—contributed in the early stages to the design.
Glamuzina, who at the time was working on a "quite bourgeois, expensive house," recalls his first impression of the site: "There was a small clearing, and within that, the opportunity for a compact building on a very small platform—that was the beginning of understanding the project. It was so compressed that we had to think of it more as a tower or a tree house." And so, they ended up with a series of four split levels, linked to the bush by two decks.
"We liked the idea of a tower that would pop its head out above the bush, but we also
wanted to connect with the land down below."—Mark Summerville, resident
Much of the design revolved around the plan for the entrance to the house. Initially, Glamuzina considered using a bridge to the top floor, but he rejected the concept in favor of a point of entry that references both Megson’s work and the natural way clearings open up within the forest: one compressed space leading to an unexpectedly large one.
Guests arrive at a rather blank black wall, with a couple of small windows, and enter through a discreet porch a few steps down a slope. Once inside, they find themselves in a soaring double-height space with a wood-lined interior. "It’s a surprising house," Mark notes.
Inside the structure, rooms range in size from a deliberately simple kitchen and dining area to a spacious sunken living room. Above those spaces sits a mezzanine with built-in furniture.A single bedroom and bathroom are another half floor above that—Mark and Milton wanted a private getaway rather than a house for overnight guests.
"Considering the way Megson created spaces, we started thinking about how the areas could be broken up into different floor plates and ‘hung’ inside the envelope," Glamuzina says.
The levels are connected vertically with a bookcase backed in stained Fijian hardwood ply that rises from the living area and eventually merges with the ceiling rafters. The floors are recycled native tawa wood, sourced by the residents and given a rough buff and then oiled and waxed to preserve its natural range of color. Mark and Milton’s goal was to maintain a certain rawness, in keeping with the still-wild character of their surroundings. Outside, purpleheart hardwood decks flank the structure, allowing entry to the surrounding forest at different points and further grounding the house in the local flora.
The collaboration took five years, progressing as the budget and schedule permitted. "It was a bit like building the Egyptian pyramids. It took a lot of time and hard work—but Mark and Milton were part of the labor," says Glamuzina, who describes the residents building the landscape as the house went up. "It’s rare to come across clients who bring that to the table. They were so connected to the site, without being caught up in the idea of marketability—this is always going to be their house."