Our 2018 win­ner by Lance and Ni­cola Herbst floats among the pōhutukawa at Piha on Auckland’s west coast. At once elemental and pol­ished, it’s a strik­ing re­sponse to a dif­fi­cult site.


Our 2018 win­ner by Lance and Ni­cola Herbst floats among the pōhutukawa at Piha on Auckland’s west coast.

As you drive along Ma­rine Pa­rade at North Piha to our Home of the Year 2018, de­signed by Lance and Ni­cola Herbst of Herbst Ar­chi­tects, you no­tice two things. Firstly the trees: an­cient pōhutukawa, their mas­sive boughs twisted and gnarled, car­pet the hills and fringe the road. Then you no­tice the houses, perched among the trees, climb­ing for the view – and in just about ev­ery case, there’s a deck on the front, can­tilevered up on poles, high above the ground. It’s un­der­stand­able. New Zealan­ders like decks. We like to stand on them with a glass of wine in hand, to con­tem­plate the view. We like to cook on them, gather on them with friends in sum­mer, and we like to sit on them un­til late at night. The thing about decks, though – and even more so on this blus­tery stretch of west coast, where the south-west­erly can blow in cold and strong – is that they’re ex­posed. Half the time you can’t sit on them. It rains in win­ter and it’s windy in sum­mer. You want to look at the view, and you want to look at the weather as it races in off the Tas­man. But you don’t al­ways want to be in its path. It’s all the more pow­er­ful, then, that this beach house neatly reaches for the view and light, without ex­pos­ing its oc­cu­pants to ad­verse el­e­ments. De­signed as a re­treat for a cou­ple with adult chil­dren, in fu­ture it will be used on a more long-term ba­sis. The bach that pre­vi­ously oc­cu­pied the site was at ground level, tucked be­hind the house in front and over­shad­owed by pro­tected trees – much of the site is a Spe­cial Eco­log­i­cal Area, the high­est form of pro­tec­tion in the Auckland rule book – and it lacked both light and sun. “It was a se­ri­ously sun-chal­lenged site, with the moun­tain wrap­ping around it, get­ting very steep to the east and north,” says Lance Herbst. “As the sun comes around, it’s taken up first by the moun­tain and then the pōhutukawa.” Not long af­ter buy­ing the house, the own­ers ap­proached the Herb­sts, who’ve fea­tured in these pages nu­mer­ous times, mainly for beach houses and baches (many of them award-win­ning) on the west coast – at Muri­wai, Bethells and Piha – and on the Gulf is­lands of Great Bar­rier and Wai­heke. “We wanted to use some­one you could just say, ‘go ahead and do what you do’, some­one you could trust with a par­tic­u­lar piece of land,” says one of the own­ers.

It helped, also, that the Herb­sts are used to work­ing with and pre­serv­ing trees, as ev­i­denced at ‘Un­der Pōhutukawa’, just down the road from this one and which won Home of the Year 2012. As its name im­plies, the home nes­tles in the cen­tre of a grove of those iconic coastal trees. In that case, sev­eral trees were care­fully moved to make way for the house, which then seemed to take on the form of trees, its struc­ture reach­ing up­ward to echo boughs and trunks. Here, the ap­proach was a lit­tle dif­fer­ent, not just be­cause the ex­ist­ing foot­print of­fered an ob­vi­ous place to build. The op­por­tu­nity here was to reach up into the canopy to touch the sun, light and views and, in do­ing so, cel­e­brate the very for­est in which the house sits. In essence, the Herb­sts’ plan was to build on stilts. Ex­ter­nally, the house is a gen­tle, un­der­stated woodand-glass build­ing on six el­e­gant steel poles and a cen­tral con­crete-block box with a stone-floor en­try. A steel spi­ral stair­case leads to the sec­ond level and sea and tree-top views. “Es­sen­tially, all the good stuff was in the up­per level. With the house pushed as high as pos­si­ble into the canopy, you get a view of the ocean and a tree-house feel­ing,” says Lance. “That not only brings in the light, but lets you en­gage with the canopy – and the most beau­ti­ful part of the site.” To get away from the wind, the house even­tu­ally evolved into a sort of square dough­nut based around an in­ter­nal court­yard, which fea­tures an out­door fire­place. Along the front of the house, there’s a west­fac­ing kitchen-liv­ing-din­ing area with floor-to-ceil­ing slid­ers. In essence, this space op­er­ates like a cov­ered deck, com­plete with a chunky steel balustrade de­signed to al­low lean­ing, con­tem­pla­tion and a drink.

“With the house pushed as high as pos­si­ble into the canopy, you get a view of the ocean and a tree­house feel­ing.”

Be­hind the court­yard, tucked against the slope and for­est, are two com­pact bed­rooms in each cor­ner, with spec­tac­u­lar views into the trees; a bunk room sits be­tween them and clev­erly acts as a pas­sage­way when not in use. From here, a decked bridge leads to the hill­side, which will even­tu­ally con­tain a spa pool. Two bath­rooms, mean­while, sit snugly be­tween the bed­rooms and main liv­ing area. It’s an ex­er­cise in tech­ni­cal pre­ci­sion, fit­ting rooms into a pre­de­ter­mined size; when you put a house up in the air, it in­stantly seems big­ger. Ev­ery op­por­tu­nity has been seized to bring in the light and draw at­ten­tion to the tran­quil­ity and beauty of the site. Un­usu­ally, the in­te­rior ply­wood walls have been stained a sim­i­lar dark brown to the tree boughs, while the in­ward slop­ing ceil­ing of light birch pulls your gaze up to a con­tin­u­ous clerestory win­dow that wraps the perime­ter of the house and cap­tures the tree canopy.

“We wanted to play down the wall planes with the dark colour, mak­ing them re­cede into the back­ground, into the pōhutukawa boughs,” says Lance of the move. “The fact that we’re so shel­tered from the sun al­lowed us to do this very glassy re­sponse.” De­spite re­treat­ing in­wards, the house forces its oc­cu­pants to en­gage with the land­scape in the most di­rect ways. In win­ter, storms wash in off the Tas­man, rain splashes the glass and trees move in the breeze, al­most like kelp. When we vis­ited on a late sum­mer af­ter­noon, the sun washed in, the air seemed soaked with salt and the house filled with a deafen­ing ca­coph­ony of ci­cada song. In De­cem­ber, the pōhutukawa burst into blowsy, ver­mil­ion bloom and fill with feed­ing tuis. Be­ing there at this time must look and feel like all your Christ­mases have come at once. “It’s in­sane, the en­tire for­est just goes off,” says Lance. “The light punches through the canopy, a canopy that goes on and on and on, so you get dark and light patches... a God-like light comes through it all.”

Above The main bed­room is con­tained within ply walls stained the same tone of pōhutukawa branches. The fold in the ceil­ing re­quired de­tailed 3D mod­el­ling to re­solve its struc­ture. Right The tim­ber rain screen is recog­nis­able Herbst ver­nac­u­lar.

Left The el­e­gantly curved spi­ral stair­case rises from the en­try and ser­vice area up to the liv­ing ar­eas. AboveThe screen be­tween the stair­case and liv­ing area also serves as dis­play shelv­ing.

Above Without the cus­tom­ary front deck, the court­yard is the key out­door liv­ing area and pro­vides shel­ter from the west coast’s more ex­treme el­e­ments. The ‘Tio’ ta­ble and chairs by Chris Martin for Masspro­duc­tions are from Si­mon James De­sign. A cit­rus juicer by Gi­don Bing from Every­day Needs sits on the ta­ble. The ‘Breeze XL’ sofa by Har­bour Out­door is from Daw­son & Co. Left The win­dow bank­ing the kitchen and liv­ing area slides open, and is di­vided hor­i­zon­tally by a steel balustrade that echoes the type you’d find on a deck. Steel mesh pan­els sit be­low the balustrade. The ‘Fish­er­man’ pen­dant light by Mat­tias Ståhlbom for Zero Light­ing and ‘Radice’ barstool by Sam Hecht/ In­dus­trial Fa­cil­ity for Mat­ti­azzi are both from Si­mon James De­sign.

Be­low Colours through­out the home have been sourced from the sur­round­ing nat­u­ral en­vi­ron­ment, in­clud­ing the muted grey-green mo­saics, which pick up on the pōhutukawa leaves.

Left The glass show­er­screen cut-out en­ables it to sit flush against the wall when not in use.

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