Beach Forest House by Makers of Architecture

Published in Here Magazine Issue 13.
Photograph by Thomas Seear-Budd.

This part of Pōneke Wellington is one of the city’s interesting little pockets. From the south coast beach that looks out onto Taputeranga Island, made famous in Rita Angus’s painting Boats, Island Bay, you turn onto a series of streets narrow even by Wellington standards. From these streets, others run off at steep gradients—again, steep even by Wellington standards. Some villas still stand on their original undivided sections, with something close to original paint colours. You turn sharply up one of those aforementioned steep streets, and as you wind your way up, the full-blown scale of the south coast view hits you on the left: nothing between you and Antarctica. Houses on the left of the street get that rugged, wind-like-nothing-else, clean-the-salt-spray-off-your-windows views; houses on the right get the grass and villas.

Into this mix architects have had a good go. Near the top of the street is a large, rugged zinc-clad home by Tennent-Brown Architects that staunchly faces into the southerly gales. More recently, Lo’CA Architects designed what they described as a “deconstructed sculptural state house” that sits kite-shaped on a corner section.

And now Beth Cameron and Jae Warrander of Makers of Architecture have put three dwellings on a site that once housed a tiny 1950s prefabricated, asbestos house, one of four in a row (the middle two still stand). The couple, who lead Makers, bought the house and land in 2016 after a lengthy search. They subdivided the top of the sloping section, and sold it with house plans they’d designed. This process let them build their own home first plus a 40m2 studio apartment dubbed the “Tower” on the lower part of the section, before overseeing the house at the top, which is the largest of the three dwellings.

Most importantly, this process allowed an arrangement of the dwellings that, as Beth and Jae put it, “lets us engage when we want to or be private when we want to. There’s a small community here.”

To get to the architects’ own home you walk down a flight of steps at the left of the site and make a right turn about three-quarters of the way down. You’re then compressed in a lane between the wall of their own home at left and the wall of the “Tower” at right, before arriving at their front door. Entering, you’re thrown into a large space that’s rigorously planned in a cruciform shape: kitchen and dining at right, living area at left with stairs that lead downstairs to the two bedrooms and bathrooms. Around the whole house on both levels is wrapped a spacious deck, with views back down to Taputeranga Island and across the valley to villas and other houses beyond.

Cross-laminated timber (CLT) panels were used for both the structural floor and roof, and the architects left the interior pine layer exposed. This gives the house its interior quality of softness and warmth that is continued throughout the whole dwelling, and avoids any feeling—always a risk with small bedrooms, for instance—that you’re enclosed or trapped. But more importantly, this structural system allowed the house to be constructed on-site in three days, and the tower in two.

As for the decision to build the Tower—a two-storey space with bedroom upstairs and kitchen, dining and bathroom down—Jae says, “We really wanted something flexible, that would suit us in different life circumstances. If we needed more space, we could occupy the tower too. If something happened and we needed to downsize, we could live in the tower and rent this out.” It’s a pragmatic approach that, for now, allows the house to be rented, contributing to the city’s housing supply instead of being just another spare bedroom. It’s definitely a small space, but is currently occupied so well as to inspire envy. To my mind it’s like a Tokyo apartment, with a lovely beach down the road—the epitome of tiny house living in Aotearoa.

The comparison with Japanese architecture doesn’t end there: the arrangement of the dwellings on the site makes one think of Ryue Nishizawa’s Moriyama House in Tokyo, a deconstructed housing complex that Andrew Barrie has described as “a miniaturised section of the city, the boxes separated by little lanes and courtyards.” It’s the space between the three dwellings that turns this small complex in Island Bay into its own miniaturised world, with both lanes and courtyards.

The arrangement of the buildings creates a fluid space that you’re forced to engage with, and which gives you possible routes through a small community. When many of us have seen townhouse developments where common space is neither private nor public, a sort of no-one’s land that is perpetually unused, it’s refreshing here to find instead public space that is integral to the whole. “Density done well,” that hackneyed phrase, really requires as much attention to the unoccupied space between dwellings, as these three houses show.

Makers have stuck to their knitting since the beginning of their practice. The first house Beth and Jae designed, straight out of university, is a prefabricated small house for Jae’s parents that was so good it made the cover of Big House, Small House, a landmark book on contemporary New Zealand architecture.

Here in Island Bay the architects are still experimenting with the same ideas: how to create a sense of belonging and community, how to drive costs down through prefabrication and construction management, how to ensure buildings are fit for future possibilities, and how to use less energy. These three dwellings feel like a taster of what Makers will be able to accomplish when working at a larger-scale. There’s a startup-like quality of continuous improvement and use of new technologies to what they do, dedicated to so many of the ideas our cities desperately need more of.