A slick holiday home in Nelson is luring its Singapore-based owners into making it their permanent abode.
As architect Tom Locke describes it, the panorama from this home in the Nelson ranges is like: “the closing sequence in a Lord of the Rings film”. Precious, then… and something to be held close. The journey to this ridge-top view is a rolling arrangement of experience from the steep drive up the hillside, to the entry court, where a strong, elongated form is etched against the skyline.
Low-slung stairs lead to a puncture-through opening in the concrete shell of the building and a battened screen gives enigmatic indication of what is to come. Turn left or right to either front door – yes, there are two – and you’ll enter a hallway before another 90-degree pivot finally surrenders to the dominance of the view. “We wanted to draw out the moment of arrival and to play with volume,” says Locke. No ‘wham bam’ instant immersion for this Middle-earth man, then.
Owners Leighton and Alyssa Matheson say they gave Warren and Mahoney “the briefest brief” possible when they commissioned this home for them and their two children on a 16ha slice of land in Hope. Naturally, there’s a long story behind such brevity. The couple is temporarily based in Singapore so, for a year, they researched architects in magazines and online before settling on this team.
“We fell in love with four or five houses and, as it turns out, they were all designed by the same person,” explains Leighton. That guy was architect Andrew Barclay, whose raw, minimalist style captured their imagination. “We liked the semi-industrial feel of his houses.”
Once the initial concept was agreed upon, Barclay passed the process on to Locke who refined the design and brought the project to fruition. “We didn’t change a single thing. We left it up to the creators,” says Leighton.
On paper, then, it sounds pretty straightforward: a four-bedroom family home for a long-distance dream client and a self-contained apartment for Leighton’s parents. The catch? Council stipulations did not allow a second dwelling; they needed to be joined.
Manipulating spaces for privacy became a priority and the answer is a linear series of living volumes massed around four covered courtyards to provide division between the households. Blades of concrete, some angled to draw in the view, are the solid separators along the glazed front of a house that is deeply embedded in the landscape.
From a distance, the home is a white sliver hovering in the scenery. Up close, textural subtleties in the pared palette of concrete, black aluminium and glass work magic. A tilt-slab sandwich of concrete forms the robust skeleton.
Originally designed to be formed in situ, the pre-cast approach meant significant savings. Because tilt slab is poured flat, to achieve the shuttered finish on both sides, two panels had to be joined together. The beading of the join is expressed as a negative detail finished with a brass strip.
Locke: “It’s not something most people will notice but it lifts the design.” To balance the rawness of the home, its utilitarian persona, sensory touch-points are in abundance. The front door handles are blackened steel bars wrapped in leather cord, an idea borrowed from Alvar Aalto. “I went on a pilgrimage to his house and studio in Helsinki and I’ve been waiting for a chance to use the idea ever since,” says Locke.
Inside, walnut panelling on joinery, wardrobes, book shelves and cabinetry forms a timber spine with a grain that has soul in its striations. The softest leather quilting upholsters the built-in headboard in the master bedroom and diffused light spills onto the tub in the children’s bathroom through a carefully-placed skylight.
Art, so much a part of the Mathesons’ life, has been catered for, too. A series of bronze Buddha statues, bought on holiday in Chang Mai, Thailand, provides a welcome party in a specially-designed alcove at the entrance while the concrete spine that runs along the rear of the home makes an ideal gallery for photos. In the master bedroom an oil painting by Vietnamese artist Lim Khim Katy is a colourful reminder of another Asian adventure.
Beautiful finds aside, there’s better eye candy to appreciate. Capitalising on the north-west aspect of the Mount Arthur range was a given. “As far as we’re concerned, the best artwork is not what is hanging on the walls,” says Leighton.
The family, whose favourite place to visit in the holidays is now their new home, plan on returning to live here permanently in the not-too-distant future. Their time in power-hungry, land-scarce Singapore also meant they were keen on an energy-efficient design.
“Nelson is a beautiful place with incredible sunshine, so we thought, ‘let’s take advantage of that’,” says Leighton. To generate as much electricity as possible, the home has two separate solar systems. One on the roof of the house is grid connected while the other is designed to heat water and for the underfloor heating. “We generate the maximum allowable amount of electricity and what we don’t use is effectively sold back to the grid,” says Leighton.
Rainwater is collected in huge water tanks on site and wastewater is recycled then dispersed into the hillside, where the Mathesons (both senior and junior) have planted thousands of native trees. A fledgling vineyard, named Nomayah (a combination of the children’s names) is slowly growing into a future that their daughter Maya (10) and son Noah (7) will one day appreciate as much as they do.
For now, the multi-generational living arrangement means the youngsters get to enjoy the best of two worlds. “In the summer holidays, the kids have been known to eat dinner and dessert at our house, and then disappear off to the grandparents’ place for Round Two of dessert,” says Leighton. Nice work if you can get away with it.