Set between the forest and the ocean, Te Arai Beach House manifests as a contemporary cabin in the woods. But what, at first glance, appears to be a defined, unambiguous form is revealed by closer interaction to be more complex, with blurred thresholds, operable screens and careful openings that combine to evoke a layered, more nuanced experience of habitation on the site.
Forgoing grand gestures, the focus of the building is on the creation of intimate moments, inspired by the sense of enclosure provided by the pines that gather on the edge of the dunes. “We had a discussion early on with the client around what it would mean to create something for a site that is coastal but also forested,” says Tim Hay, Fearon Hay co-founder. “We developed a design direction around a ‘cabin in the woods’ concept.” This drove the decision to cloak the building in timber, and the simple gable form, which also calls to mind the agricultural sheds found throughout New Zealand’s rural east coast. Approaching the house through the trees, the timber structure that nestles into the gently undulating sand dunes could momentarily be mistaken for a barn, until the precision of the detailing marks the building as a distinctly more contemporary, considered entity.
Built by Lindesay Construction, as a holiday residence, the house needed to accommodate everything from one or two people to large groups of family and friends. The balance between the larger, more open volume of a shed and the cosy, intimate scale of a cabin was key to balancing these requirements. “The internal volume has a lovely sense of generosity,” says Tim, “and whilst the early script was about the cabin in the woods, we also referenced shearing sheds and agricultural structures that have a much larger, industrial scale.” In this balance, there is a sense too of the building capturing the relationship between the containment and openness that characterises the site, with the embrace of forest on the one side and the expanse of beach and ocean on the other.
The use of timber is key to “successfully negotiating quite an open occupation with something quite enclosed,” reflects Piers Kay, Fearon Hay associate. Timber not only clads the building and lines the spaces, the warm materiality creating a comforting cossetted atmosphere, it is also used in the construction of operable shutters that screen the openings, offering an additional level of control over the level of openness or enclosure. The glazing and doors are pulled back from the edges of the building to create deeper thresholds, arrival zones and window seats so that “every space has the sense of a corner and a groundedness, but the shutters mean you can really open it up as well,” he explains. “The layering and stepping of the enclosure mediate the relationship between inside and out.”
The openness of both the site and the spaces within the building is further balanced by in-situ concrete elements that become “anchor points, which give definition to the arrangement of the site and plan,” says Piers. In-situ concrete walls define the fireplace, kitchen and arrival porch, and these concrete monoliths recur externally with the two separate outdoor hearths, creating focal points within the otherwise untouched, vast landscape. A layered interaction between timber and concrete also takes place underfoot, with both timber and concrete flooring extending from the internal rooms to the interstitial spaces that are created by the insetting of the perimeter openings. This use of materials further blurs these thresholds, adding a sense of depth.
Sonja Hawkins’s interior design takes a similarly layered approach. “One of the great challenges was the scale and creating a place that could accommodate groups without losing its sense of intimacy,” she recalls. “The key was looking to the environment and referencing the woods. I looked for a natural, earthy feel, constantly referencing the cabin [combined with the] farmhouse vernacular that the architects formed as the brief for the interiors.” The interiors were vital to complementing and balancing the simplicity and durability of the architecture, as “if too stripped out, it would feel too industrial or minimal,” reflects Tim. “But the way the building is inhabited with furnishings and layers that occupy it in the work that Sonja’s done – the materiality experienced sitting in a window seat, the luxury of the bedroom – there’s a layering that offsets some of the more simplistic, shed-like palette.”
The furnishings and materiality of the interiors tend towards the natural and the organic, emphasising materials such as stone, linen, timber, leather and wool. The clients’ love of contemporary art, however, influenced a rare decorative moment with custom wallpaper by artist Lisa Reihana, who represented New Zealand at the Venice Biennale, found in the master bedroom and recalled in the powder room and guest ‘sleep out’. “While it doesn’t seem like an obvious house for wallpaper, I had been thinking about murals, and I felt confident it would add another layer – a new dimension,” Sonja explains.
The holiday and rural typologies coalesce most strongly in the kitchen. A single long timber farmhouse-style table stands in for the typical kitchen island, reflecting the particularly strong social role of the kitchen in a holiday home. “The kitchen is the centre of the house. Isn’t that life on holiday – all about eating and drinking?” she says. “If you’re not outside then you’re at that table; it’s integral.”
With the kitchen set within the open living space, it was important that it sat lightly and did not dominate. And with cooking playing a vital activity when the clients are spending time at the house, it also needed to perform functionally, so Fisher & Paykel appliances were selected to offer the ideal balance of performance and seamless integration. “Designing a farmhouse-style kitchen that focuses on the table at the centre of living required subtlety in the use of appliances,” Sonjareflects. The DishDrawers and CoolDrawer are entirely hidden behind the cabinetry, while the black minimal ovens visually recede, allowing the dark tones of the hand-painted cabinetry and the materiality of the stone and brushed brass to be the focus.
“The Fisher and Paykel Future Design Workshop enabled me to realise the extent to which I could hide away the appliances through integration and the use of the full black kit of the wall oven. Simple functionality and quality performance were also integral of course,” she says. “Not to mention the fact they’re a local brand we like to support, and they’re well-designed, good products that the client enjoys using.” Tim agrees: “That integration is great – when we’re trying to make kitchens that feel seamless and connected to open plan living spaces, the overtness of some other appliances and the way they don’t integrate is something that we struggle with. There’s an ease about how the Fisher & Paykel products can be included in a kitchen.”
In recognition of the importance of spending time outdoors, cooking is also made possible outside with the DCS grill. “It’s an outdoor oven as much as a grill,” Sonja says, “that means the clients do not have to go inside to cook and share a meal.” It is the creation of many such moments, designed to offer pockets of experience throughout both the site and the building, that lends Te Arai Beach House its character and exemplifies its attunement to the experience of relaxation and recreation befitting a holiday residence. “It was about creating these radial spaces that offer other opportunities,” Tim reflects. “The way the house is planned, it doesn’t think just about the main ‘box ticking’ spaces, instead it responds to how the building is used and how someone might want to occupy the space at different times. So, the kitchen has a nook for grabbing a sunbeam in the morning, there’ a place to sit in the dunes around the fire at night, the shutters can be manipulated to change the permeability of the space. The building offers ever-changing opportunities and adaptability.”
Despite its outward simplicity, these dynamic qualities create a home that is responsive and sensitive. And, as time passes and the timber silvers in response to the elements, the house will rest even more subtly within its environment – the cabin-like form only hinting at the richness of experience that is created within and around its unexpectedly tractable walls.