A family based near Christchurch in New Zealand’s South Island gave a local architect full freedom in designing their new home in picturesque Cass Bay. The result is a dynamic curved and copper-clad structure that emulates the surrounding landscape, while providing the family with everything they’ve ever wanted. Tom Boddy speaks to owner Aaron Green about their journey
Software developer Aaron and his wife, French scholar Christine Green had been living with their two daughters in the suburbs of Bishopdale in Christchurch for the past 20 years.
With the couple having a passion for pursuing new projects, since they moved into their house they were constantly redesigning different sections of it.
But even though they’ve loved this process, and the work they’ve done, it’s always been their goal to find an architect and build a home from the ground up. However, as Aaron explains, “Finding the right architect and site has always held us back.”
This all changed when they discovered a plot in Cass Bay, a remote area about 30 minutes south of their home. The site was a complete contrast to where they were currently living – directly on the waterfront with scenic views of mountains. “Although Cass Bay is close to the city, it feels like you are in a totally different world; it’s a real hidden treasure,” says Aaron.
The existing building on the site was a 1960s home constructed of brick and timber. Aaron explains that the building wasn’t doing justice to its “amazing” location, for example in terms of orientation, and – any new construction “would need to start from scratch.”
Via a friend’s recommendation, the couple also finally found an architect they loved – Michael O’Sullivan of Bull O’Sullivan Architecture, who was well established in the local area. “Everything was lining up,” explains Aaron, “I had also come to a point in my business where I could step back and fully focus on a project of this magnitude.”
While the couple wanted to create their own distinctive home, they also wanted to provide the architect with as much freedom as possible, and therefore kept the brief intentionally loose.
“When you find an architect that you trust, whose work you love, you need to step aside and let them do their job,” says Aaron. He adds: “In the same way I would never take the paintbrush off an artist, I didn’t feel the need to tell Michael how to design a home.”
Some of their specifics however included three ensuite bedrooms, a generous open plan living kitchen and dining area, a five-vehicle garage for car enthusiast Aaron, and a cinema. They left virtually everything else to Michael’s creative skills.
During the design phase, Michael spent several months visiting the family, to understand how they function, and their way of living. And even though he was given an almost blank canvas, he made sure that he was sharing all of his ideas and sketches with the family throughout the project, as well as with the builders onsite. “From that perspective, the project has been a team effort,” asserts Aaron.
Michael drew up three designs and presented them to the Greens, one of which really captivated them. He wanted to create a building that really fitted into its environment, so his design incorporated a curved, organic form which emulated the site’s coastal and hilly landscape. The original design was for a very natural cedar cladding, however the final option chosen of carefully detailed copper helps the project sit in its surroundings, while providing a strong aesthetic.
At the start they made very few tweaks to this design, but Michael enabled them to make some decisions later, says Aaron. For example, the positioning of windows was left to the latter stages of construction. The reasoning behind this was to see where would be best to place them while they stood in the structure – “when you’re standing in framed up spaces it becomes very apparent what needs to go where.”
The design was bold and quirky, but as Aaron explains, their intention was to never make an attention-seeking statement, but instead to produce a building that “considered the environment” it was in.
With the site backing onto a large and well-used public park and beach, and being at the junction of two roads, it was a challenge to not only keep the design relevant to the local aesthetic but to also ensure the family had some privacy.
“Michael wanted to clearly demarcate the public and private areas,” says Aaron. This was done using a substantial cinder-block wall inspired by Mayan temple design. The many penetrations created in it allowed plants and light to “pop through the gaps,” and give privacy “without being anti-social,” says Aaron.
You would think that a large scale project like this would have attracted a lot of issues during planning. However, with Aaron and the rest of the team working collaboratively alongside the council including a planning consultant preparing everything in tandem – it was a “simple process,” explains Aaron. In terms of advice on ensuring success in getting through planning for anyone taking on a similar build, he says “find professionals that you can trust, and let them do their jobs.”
CLOSE TO THE ACTION
The build began in February 2019 and took around 360 working days to complete in total. During the construction, with Aaron’s keenness to be involved in all of the decisions whether big or small, he took the step of setting up his own office space onsite where he could continue with his software developer work while also fully engaging in the project.
He says the reason was two-fold: “I love the process of construction, and every single day, dozens and dozens of little and big decisions were getting made. I wanted to be part of those decisions and ensure a lack of decision making was never going to hold up the schedule.”
One decision that Aaron didn’t want to make however, was choosing to lose the 10 km of cedar wood cladding included in Michael’s original design. The complexity of installing the cedar while making it completely watertight was going to be too much of a stretch, and its weight would also require more steel and concrete to support it, adding up to nearly $1m more than an alternative.
“The material would have also required repainting every three to five years due to our often harsh New Zealand weather and sun conditions, as well as attracting a lot of spiders and dirt in the slats,” explains Aaron.
While the couple loved the initial original cedar design, the large cost differential plus these added complications left them little choice but to find an alternative.
Michael put forward copper as a substitute. As well as reducing costs thanks to its lighter weight resulting in less supporting steel, the material would be able to “resist the strong southerly wind and rain that the coastal site would experience,” explains Aaron. The colour of copper also “responded to the natural colours in the area,” making it in line with Michael’s architectural concept.
Covid was another obstacle the team had to surmount. “New Zealand went into lockdown for around six weeks, which slowed us down,” says Aaron. Fortunately however, all the materials needed remained readily available, enabling work to continue throughout the pandemic.
The completed copper-clad home is an impressively sculptural form comprising unusual curves and features that successfully references the local landscape. The cladding material is Nordic Standard copper, supplied by Aurubis in a 0.7 mm ‘mill finish’ and installed by New Zealand firm The Architectural Roofing Company. It was installed in a combination of modern long-strip technology and hand-worked details; ranging from copper louvres to a rainwater hopper with lipped weir overflow.
The home is made up of three floors. As you approach the main entrance of the building on the ground floor you are met with a ‘cave-like’ doorway with subtly inclined walls clad inside and out in copper. This leads to the building’s largest room – an open plan, double-height kitchen/living area. This room is filled with intricate timber detailing, and features “incredibly comfortable” custom built-in furniture around the windows and dining table which gets “constantly used,” says Aaron.,”
A large central island made of solid brass sits “like a jewel” in the kitchen, says Aaron. He adds: “My family loves to cook, and having this island works perfectly for us.”
While the large bespoke windows at the front flood the room with natural light – and provide stunning views of the bay and harbour – they are set back in their reveals giving the family added privacy. “People on the beach and in the park next door can’t see us and we can’t see them, unless we intentionally go up close to the windows.”
The ground floor also houses one of two garages, this one doubles up as Aaron’s office. Adjacent is youngest daughter Emma’s room which includes a quirky loft space where friends and family can stay the night. Following the curved structure round from here, next is the ‘rumpus room’ which is designed as a quiet teenage retreat and music room.
On a mezzanine level is Aaron and Christine’s master bedroom, offering great views over the bay. Eldest daughter Laura’s room is next door, featuring a curved oak timber wall that “tapers to regal gold curtains.” This room provides access to a French ‘loft net’ and there are views out of a skylight to the north.” Aaron sums up the varied mix of internal rooms: “Every bedroom is different, and each space is very special in its own way.”
The basement level is just as intriguing as the rest of the design. Here is the second garage, a laundry, an under stair stainless steel ‘prison- style’ toilet for guests, and an unusual bookshelf filled with a variety of old cameras. This shelf actually functions as a secret doorway to a home cinema.
“Every night we all retreat to the underground cinema, it’s an amazing escape and it feels like you could be sitting in a theatre anywhere in the world.”
Despite its unorthodox curving form and peculiar elements, the design of the home works for the Greens, helping them to function well as a family.
“The flow through the home is incredibly natural and easy to live with; the curves are natural and the proportions of the spaces are perfect,” says Aaron.
While there may not be particularly striking eco features within the home, the Greens and their architect have produced a building designed to last “many generations,” and the high quality of the structure means that it will require little maintenance, believes Aaron. “If you design a house right, it should never need to get torn down like so many homes do these days when they get to 30 or 40 years old.”
Now that the family have been living in their new copper home for over a year, one of the interesting things they’ve noticed is that the building’s look is changing to different degrees, depending on where the facade is. The exterior copper has changed considerably in some areas, weathering to a duller crimson/brown than its original shiny hue.
Aaron concludes: “Different sides are ageing differently; as you walk through the peeled-back entrance way, you can see the range of copper oxidation change from highly weathered, to a front door that still looks new.”