Down the Hill: On a House in Hataitai by Sam Kebbell

This article was written for Here Magazine’s Winter 2021 issue. Photograph by Simon Devitt.

It seems most New Zealand architects have the same vision of Arcadia. The vision unfailingly involves a pohutukawa, through which one looks to sun-dappled water. One Auckland architect, for instance, slipped into exactly this utopian reverie while writing about Jack Manning’s house at Stanley Point: “All of Auckland should be like this; all of Auckland was once like this, I would like to imagine. Golden evenings, tangles of pohutukawa above the mud of the harbour, a simple, unpretentious but elegant house crafted out of wood, a big deck and, down in the tide, the sound of kids playing.”

If in Auckland this idyllic scene has played out most often in Devonport and Stanley Point, with so many of those hallowed mid-century Group houses, in Wellington it centres to my mind on Roseneath and Hataitai. The presence of abundant pohutukawa and a view over water is no doubt mostly responsible. But so too is the fact that these hillsides turn their backs on the city, facing the mostly-still-undeveloped bush-clad slopes of the Miramar Peninsula. Granted, the sun dapples all-too-rarely on the water below, and it disappears behind the hill all-too-early, but watching airplanes battle their way in to land against a Wellington southerly provides plenty else to see. And when Wellington does have a good day… you know what they say.

It’s here on these slopes in Hataitai that Sam Kebbell from Kebbell/Daish Architects and his clients have built a house that tries actively to contribute to the community and public space. The project began when the section next door to the clients’ existing 1920s house came up for sale. The couple purchased the site and eventually approached Kebbell to design a low-cost yet thoughtful house that could be reliably rented.

The first thing you notice about the house is, of course, those pohutukawa-framed views. From the street you walk down a short driveway to a carport, used when I visited as bike parking. Here is where you stop and lean on the railing to take in the view. The house has what seems like two front doors: there’s one door next to the carport, and another just around the corner next to the existing house. This is the first sign you get of the house’s well-crafted informality, with the route between the two doors designed perhaps for children’s games of tag. It’s bachy and casual and suits the site: the game of tag could extend down the internal stairs, out the downstairs door, through the lower courtyard and back up the external stairs between this house and its 1920s neighbour.

Inside, the sloping timber ceiling draws your eyes again down to the water. You gravitate towards leaning against the stairway rail, and here is where you stop the second time to take in the view and the space. From here the kitchen is behind you, with two large windows framing views of the street-level picket fence. Down the stairs is the living area and balcony (the third place for you to lean against the railing and take in the view). Down one more level are the three bedrooms, bathroom and laundry areas, and the outdoor courtyard.

Materials are simple and modest throughout, with focus given to the public spaces. “It’s just pine,” Kebbell says of the wall linings in the living area, “but it makes the space warm.” Colours match the house’s playfulness and informality, with the exterior a light blue with orange-yellow accents. A ply-lined lit recess in the wall next to one of the front doors is a small touch reminiscent of a bachy version of a tokonoma, the ornament space in a traditional Japanese house used to display flowers, art or objects.

Walking to the local pub after showing me around the house, Kebbell, himself a Hataitai local, slips into his own reverie. “House boundaries weren’t always so defined. It used to be that kids could roam free, swimming together at the beach after school, raiding neighbours’ fridges on the way back home. People didn’t know where their property boundaries were.” For Kebbell and his clients, the happy opportunity of owning two neighbouring sites offered the chance to restore, in a small way, that sense of community spirit by forming a path between the houses down to the beach for neighbours and friends.

The house is located on a dead-end street. To get down to the water residents of this street, and those further up Hataitai’s slopes, have to make a winding way down along the roads. The historic accidents of subdivision and building mean there are no pedestrian zig-zags here—none of what writer Kirsty Gunn has called “Those crazy, zany, hopscotch-stepped paths that criss-cross all over Wellington’s hills.” But Kebbell became interested in the fact that below this new house and its existing 1920s neighbour is a council-owned reserve. What if a zig-zag from the street could be formed, down between the two properties, and then through the public reserve to connect the street to the sea?

In Kebbell’s words: “Perhaps there will be a time when our concern for individual security gives way to a bigger concern for collective resilience, and the path can become more of a suburban alleyway – a shortcut to the beach for a wider circle of friends and neighbours.” For now, though, the reverie remains just that; the beach a windy (both meanings are true in Wellington) couple of streets away. But this collective spirit has done much to form the house itself, defining the broad, well-planted pathway on its southern boundary, waiting for the Council to perhaps one day extend the path through the reserve.

In the meantime, there’s a beautiful house-bach for some lucky tenants. All of Wellington should be like this; was once like this, I am tempted to say. Golden evenings, tangles of pohutukawa… a simple, unpretentious but elegant house crafted out of wood… a big deck and, down in the tide, the sound of kids playing. I, for one, will take the architects’ Arcadia any day.

[1] Quotation about the Jack Manning house at Stanley Point is by Bill McKay, originally published in 2007 as “Ode to Auckland” in ArchitectureNZ.

[2] Kirsty Gunn quote about zig-zags from Thorndon: Wellington and Home: My Katherine Mansfield Project, Bridget Williams Books, 2014, p.113.