Picton Avant-Garde: On a small house by David Stubbs 

This article was the cover story for Here Magazine’s Late Summer 2021 issue. 

Walk down Picton's main street, past the souvenir shops and takeaway joints, and you might be lucky enough to stumble by an art gallery while its owner-curator is giving a tour. Dubbed modestly enough the "Te Papa of Picton," the gallery keeps happily haphazard hours, and it’s best to text message the collection’s owner in advance of a visit. Inside, you find over 400 works by many of Aotearoa's leading historic and contemporary artists put together in a close salon-style hang, with makeshift plywood walls providing extra hanging space.

If the Stevenson Collection is one sign of Picton's avant-garde, this house crafted by a young Blenheim-based designer is another. To get to it you walk about twenty minutes from Picton's waterfront, past Waitohi Whare Mātauranga, the new library completed by Athfield Architects a couple of years ago, and onwards past warehouses, cottages and villas in various states of repair. You continue into a valley with steep hillsides and are greeted by one of Picton’s grander villas up on the hill, with more recent group-build houses amidst sloping farmland. And it’s here, unexpectedly, that you find this house—a cedar-clad cube utterly different to all its neighbours.

The house is a statement by a young designer: a statement about affordability, about contemporary living, and about doing more with less. Designed by David Stubbs for his parents, it's both a home and a calling card. Standing proudly at odds with its group-built neighbours, this is a house that seems to challenge everyone thinking of building on a modest budget to consider what might be possible with a bit more thought and a healthy dose of optimism. Seeing the house for the first time, my mind leapt to places like the Architectural Centre’s 1949 Demonstration House on a hill in Wellington’s Karori—both share the same pioneering spirit.

You enter the house from either above or below, and there isn't really a front door. If coming from above, you get a view of the house in its rural setting before you walk down a path and then across a short bridge and into the living area. The kitchen, dining and living space is all on this level in one open expanse surrounded by glass. Downstairs there are three bedrooms and the house's bathroom, plus a courtyard seating area off one side. It's a simple, compact plan that Stubbs says naturally suggested itself. "The site was so small that we had to distill everything down to necessities. We didn't accommodate hypothetical situations of "what if we have guests to stay?" or " what if we have 14 grandchildren?” We wanted to create something unique and concise, putting our resources into quality rather than floor area.”

If the spaces suggested themselves naturally, there's experimentation in materials and colour. The walls in the living area are a chipboard insulation panel that have been left exposed and then painted in Dulux's Te Horo, a green that Stubbs says he chose "to bring out the native greens surrounding the house, and to emulate the layering of the hills in the Sounds". Stubbs lights up when asked about the painted panels, riffing on the possibilities of affordable construction materials that serve multiple functions. These panels are modular and easy to install, provide insulation and dampen sound, and give a texture that adds interest to the room above what you might expect from a house of this budget.

And speaking of budget: the house was built for less than $500,000, excluding site costs. As we talk in the kitchen, Stubbs points through a slit window at a house across the valley—one of those Sims-style houses with garaging for 37-odd cars—and revels in the contrast that his own house presents to Picton and to the South Island. "At the moment there is a shift occurring where people are choosing quality, craft and calibre over big flabby houses. That's really exciting to me and a space I'd like to continue to work in."

Other moves like having steel cabinetry handles custom made show the thought that has been put into where to spend and where to save. Then there's the house's big surprise: a drop-down ladder in the living area can be climbed up to a large rooftop deck with sweeping views down the Queen Charlotte Sound. "I was interested in using the roof as a bonus outdoor space, inspired by Japanese roof terrace houses,” David says. The decision to use a folding ladder rather than build a staircase was also driven by economy, reducing cost and maximising the amount of usable space on both floors.

The way Stubbs talks about these design decisions feels like a return to some of modernism's earlier, utopian roots. Think back to early modern houses and apartments being designed in the mid-century, when budgets and materials were tight but a new generation still demanded a better way of living: it's this kind of narrative that Stubbs is engaging in. After so many years when modernism has been an aesthetic rather than a set of values driven by human needs, talking to Stubbs is refreshing—and perhaps a sign of things to come.

"I hadn't had the chance to work on a house like this before," says David, "and it was important for me to create something I could really stand behind. Often these sorts of projects get diluted and they end up being half of what they could have been. I wanted to make sure that I saw the concept through and didn't back down."

Standing on the street looking down on the house with farmland beyond, you can tell he hasn't backed down, despite neighbours' worries about the project in its early stages. It's a confident house, aware of the influence it could have beyond this little valley in Picton. But Stubbs might not be done with this valley yet. He looks across to a large empty section further up the hillside, and quietly lets slip that there might be another project coming soon. Picton's avant-garde isn’t done yet.