My Side of the Mountain – Kawakawa House by Herbst Architects
Piha, New Zealand

Photography Patrick Reynolds
Words Rose Onans

Resting at the base of a steep mountain slope that rises sharply above the beach in Piha, west of Auckland, Herbst Architects’ Kawakawa House is a place from which to experience life amongst the trees and contemplate the changing ocean below.

The modernist timber and glass structure cantilevers from atop a masonry base, creating a raised platform that houses the living area and bedrooms. As a result, these primary spaces are blessed with views of the water and a unique sense of being suspended within the mature Pohutukawa trees.

An internal courtyard provides a sheltered external space that has visual access through glazed walls to the ocean beyond.
Living and bedroom spaces are raised up into the first floor to capture the views and create a sense of living within the treetops.

This elevated program is a response to the challenging site, which is accessed via a right of way sitting to the rear of a neighbouring house that blocks all view of the sea from ground level. Furthermore, thick vegetation and a position beneath mountain peaks to the east which curve around to the north affect access to sunlight, and the site is also subject to regular onshore winds in the summer months.

Raising the home above the site is a simple solution to the house in front that blocks the view, yet the decision to rest the living and bedroom spaces over a concrete plinth means the effect is not heavy or overpowering. Rather, the overhang allows for space beneath the majority of the structure, allowing it to ‘breathe’ and establish lines of sight from each side of the building through to the surrounding bushland.

Elevating the upper volume over a concrete plinth creates a sense of visual lightness that establishes lines of sight beneath the structure.
A continuous clerestory window around the building’s perimeter maximises natural light in the bushland setting.

This sense of lightness, a visual effect that could almost be described as hovering, is strengthened by the continuous clerestory window that tracks the entire perimeter of the upper volume. As a result, the ceiling plane appears to hang above the building, rather than exist as part of the structure. Internally, the clerestory maximises precious natural light and also provides a 360-degree perspective of the tree canopies. Each room thus captures its own view of the natural environment and is bathed in dappled light that changes throughout the day.

The main living space is conceived of as a covered deck, which speaks to a sense that the project is not so much a traditional house, grounded in the earth and protected on all sides by four walls and a roof, but rather a living platform that facilitates a life amongst the branches. An internal courtyard, a space protected from the winds that blow from the west, further breaks down the distinction between indoors and out. With glazed walls, glimpses of the sky are seen as one looks across the courtyard and through to the rest of the home on the other side.

The main living space is conceived of as a covered deck, an effect that is enhanced by the timber flooring that mirrors the courtyard decking.

Glimpses of sky are visible as one looks through glazed walls, across the courtyard, to the building beyond.

The Kawakawa House is defined by a sense that it is a platform that facilitates a life amongst the trees.

Meanwhile, timber flooring mirrors the timber decking, and in the main living space, timber cross-beams situated below the clerestory evoke the aesthetic of a pergola. The sliding glass south-west facade faces the ocean view and is able to be completely opened up, with a steel balustrade further emphasising the idea that the living space is more a deck than a room as it is generally understood.

With simplicity and efficiency, in only a few design moves Herbst Architects creates an elegant response that makes the most of a challenging yet remarkable site.

Published 30 September, 2019
Photography  Patrick Reynolds
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