Almost impossible house on a hill

By Melody Thomas
Photographed by Anna Briggs

Featured in Capital #63
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When a young couple saw a listing for a section on TradeMe headed “Challenging But Not Impossible” they readied themselves for disappointment.

In the end, navigating the challenges of the site was what got them the home of their dreams. They told Melody Thomas about it.

From the street, you might not even know this house is here. But pass through a small gate, clamber down a whole lot of narrow concrete steps and there it is – nestled among 30 years worth of native bush, its back to the hill and its face South West.

This is the home of musician and composer Grayson Gilmour, industrial designer Holly Beals, and their five-month old daughter Billie, a dream that somehow became their reality, though they’re still getting used to it: “For a long time it’s felt like, ‘How have we managed to pull this off? How is this actually ours?'” laughs Grayson.

They’re good questions – many of the couple’s friends have been locked out of Wellington’s expensive housing market. Those who can afford to buy are either doing so well outside of the city, investing in old houses requiring significant renovation, or pooling resources with others for a co-housing solution. For a creative couple in their early 30s to be living in an architecturally-designed new build with a view to die for 10 minutes drive from the city seems, well, pretty near to impossible.

Getting here has required a spot of luck, some daring, a little patience and compromise, and happening to know exactly the right people.

First came the fortuitous spotting of a blink-and-miss-it listing on TradeMe: a grainy, single photo of tangled bush taken on an overcast day with a headline that was more warning than incentive. “There was no ‘stunning views of the South Island!’ or anything like that, it was just ‘here’s this dog of a site’,” says Grayson. Nevertheless they decided to check it out, driving to the listed address and staring up at an over-grown cliff face with no obvious means of entry. Not to be deterred, Holly returned on a lunch break to meet the agent – this time at the top of the section. The agent, who was “hocking the section off for a friend”, was unable to offer any insights into access or even what the terrain might be like under the canopy. Holly left him on the street in his suit while she bushwhacked down.

Underneath the overgrown vine and weed was a forest of native tree growth, including kanuka and ngaio, and through the canopy was a perfect view of the sea and the South Island.
“But the ‘yes!’ moment was realising I was standing on flat ground on a site that was otherwise steep as Hell. There had been earthworks carried out decades earlier – which made the concept of building here suddenly possible,” she says.
Before they made an offer, Holly and Grayson called in a couple of talented friends, Caro Robertson and Tim Gittos of Spacecraft Architects, who visited the site and noted both slope and access difficulties but decided both were surmountable. They advised their friends to buy.

Knowing that whatever money was saved on the site would quickly disappear into groundworks, retaining, and managing difficult access conditions, Holly and Grayson made a brazenly lowball offer. After a quick haggle, the land was theirs. “Then it got really real all of a sudden,” says Grayson.

The new landowners got busy mucking in, visiting the site most weekends to clear away weeds and laboriously unwind the vines that were choking native trees. It was hard work, but the period also provides some of the couple’s fondest memories. “We got to know so many little things about the site… like where the sun falls at what time of day and how the wind works,” Holly reminisces.

All this time, Holly’s design brain was taking notes, considering how the house might work on the site to make the most of sun and view while also providing protection from the wind. Over a week or two, the couple and the architects entertained a few options for the final shape of the build – including an L and a T.

“But they were keen for something more out-there and encouraged us to keep pushing it,” says Robertson. Eventually Gittos and Robertson suggested an “X”, with a top storey facing North West and the bottom reaching out towards the view. The intersection of the two volumes is where the benefits of the design are most apparent, with the top storey sheltering two verandahs below on either side, which offer respite from Wellington’s notorious wind no matter the direction. “You can open up on whatever side the wind is not, and you have ventilation on hot days. Being able to have that level of control is lovely. And being able to enjoy the outside on a terrible day. Even when it’s raining we can have the doors open,” says Holly.

The versatile central space with its large sliding doors, coupled with the impressive corner and picture windows in the lounge, brings the outside environment firmly in. The lounge is essentially a small square, yet it feels open and light, the view stretching to both Owhiro and Island Bays and out over Cook Strait. Freed from weed and vine, the surrounding native trees have been returned to full health, and just outside the window piwakawaka and tui flit and flutter. “The view is so amazing,” says Holly. “It still takes my breath away.”
“And it’s always a different hue and depth,” adds Grayson, “Sometimes there are clouds over the South Island and other times it just reveals itself in a really grand way.”

Bar the laundry and kitchen, every room in the house enjoys some aspect of the view. In the couple’s upstairs bedroom it’s mostly huge skies and treetops. In the bathroom, Holly and Billie enjoy a nightly soak with a view to the mountains. In his studio, Grayson has been known to compose while wrapped in fog. It hasn’t all been smooth sailing. There were accessibility challenges and a lack of space to store building materials on site. There were times when the builders were reluctant to approach some of the less traditional design details, and Gittos and Robertson – who have built houses as well as designing them – had to provide both reassurance and solutions on the fly. There were timeline blowouts due to weather and a booming building market, making some subcontractors hard to pin down – which also affected quotes for building materials. And when they moved in, a year after the build began, it was into a liveable but unfinished house. This was a conscious decision made alongside Gittos and Robertson who, because they often choose to work with clients with smaller budgets, are open about the fact that such trade-offs might be necessary. “Generally that comes in the form of deciding whether they prefer more volume to start with, and fit-out being finished or upgraded over time, or a smaller more finished project from the get go,” says Robertson.

What this meant practically was a year of dishes stored in a makeshift frame under the sink while the joinery was designed and, just recently, installed. Open wardrobes where shelves and curtains will one day be. Books in storage awaiting their bookcases. Music gear on the floor in Grayson’s studio while he dreams up the perfect places for it on the walls. But while there are still decisions to be made regarding the interior of the house, the objects in place are beautiful, and say a lot about the family that lives here. The record player and crates of records, for a home that is rarely without music. The beautiful “gallons table” in the dining room, designed by Holly for hosting family dinners and pot lucks with friends, along with its “little brother” in the lounge – a low table with a glass top and mesh shelf beneath, of which there are only a few in the world. Framed pictures by Henrietta Harris, an Auckland artist and illustrator who designed two of Grayson’s album covers.

As for the rest, Grayson and Holly are happy to add it as they go. In fact the more time they spend living in the house, the better informed they find their decisions to be. For example, the space under the stairs separating living room and kitchen, which they had planned to fully enclose, will now remain open, providing a cubby hole for Billie to explore as she grows. It’s been a long time in the making, but now, three and a half years after that brazen offer was accepted, Holly and Grayson are finally settling into the idea that “the project” is their home. “And it’s beautiful. We’re just so aware of the luck and privilege that has allowed us to be in this position,” says Holly. Grayson agrees: “It’s still a dream, but it’s one we’re living in. It’s worked out in ways that are greater than I’d imagined.”


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