Sweet Valley High

“We don’t get any noise from the road, we get all-day sun and we’re sheltered from the southerly so it’s a really nice spot. As soon as you get up out of the valley, it’s quite secluded,” says Aaron Thornton.

By Rachel Helyer Donaldson
Photography by Anna Briggs

Featured in Capital #70
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For Aaron and his partner Tomoko Hasegawa, life in their new-build home on a bush-clad Brooklyn hilltop, north of Happy Valley, is pretty blissful.

The steepness of their road is bit of a shock, even for Wellington, but it spirits you away to a place high above the heavy traffic of industrial Ohiro Road. Their cedar- and storm-blue steel-clad house perches high on a hill, 130m above sea level, trapping the sunshine and overlooking a verdant valley of tree ferns, eucalyptus, and pine.

Aaron and Tomoko met in Wellington in 2004. Shortly after, they set up vegetarian café Pranah in Newtown, and ran it for seven years.

These days Aaron, who grew up in Wainuiomata and studied computer science at Victoria, is a web developer for Storypark, an app for early childhood teachers. Tomoko, who is originally from Kyoto, works as a counsellor to Japanese exchange students and at CBD restaurant Hey Ramen.

The couple have lived in their house since November 2018, but they owned the land for three years before any work began. The site they bought was “a piece of dirt,” says Aaron. Its steep topography had put off potential developers for decades. Part of a very old Wellington subdivision, “done in the UK in the 1800s without any regard to the actual land,” it was never developed because of the extreme constraints on access and building.

There were no utility services whatsoever and no access road. “I think that scared a lot of people: the uncertainty – how expensive was it going to be to build up there, and to get the services.”

The couple delayed their build in the hope that the subdivision would progress to adding services and a road. But in the end, they went ahead with their dream home, beginning construction in February 2018. The original design, by architects Cecile Bonnifait and William Giesen, was for an off-grid house, with water tanks and solar batteries.

Tomoko and Aaron’s brief was “a strong connection with all the nature that’s around here, with our surroundings.” They also wanted a small footprint, with a low impact on the environment. Bonnifait and Giesen Architects designed the house as a simple three-level tower with a 50sqm footprint.

Going off-grid fitted with the couple’s philosophical beliefs but lack of easy access and electricity also meant a more costly build. Having to rent a generator, for instance, was a huge expense.

Luckily, midway through the build, Aaron and Tomoko managed to persuade thefour neighbouring landowners to go shares – around $20,000 per household – in building a road and getting services installed.

This made both the build and day-to-day living expenses more affordable. Solar panel batteries can cost around $15,000, meaning it could take years for the couple to recoup any savings, says Aaron.

Instead, they pay just $50 a month in power bills, thanks to the house’s passive design (including expansive double-glazed windows that seal in heat but allow ventilation, and good insulation) and using gas. The house remains future-proofed for off-grid use, and the roof has been pitched for solar panels.

The three levels of the house – a carport at its base and two upper living spaces – are connected by a kowhai-yellow central stairwell. The second-floor living area is light and open, thanks to the floor-to-ceiling, 2.4-metre-high windows and simple wood-lined walls.

A sense of spaciousness in the living room is created by a double-height void. The upper level is set back, creating an enclosed mezzanine area. The north-facing windows bring light and heat to both levels, thanks to internal windows in the bedroom area upstairs.

Dividing the living area from the sleek galley kitchen is an innovative wire balustrade. It allows natural light from the large windows to fill the stairwell and kitchen.

Upstairs, the flow of the floorplan – bathroom leading to a dressing area and then the main bedroom – encourages a relaxing evening ritual of washing, undressing, and sleeping.

The bathroom is mezzanine-style, with no rear wall behind the his’n’hers sinks. They overlook the stairwell to prevent the space feeling too enclosed. 

The main bedroom is Aaron’s favourite room. He loves lying in bed looking through the curtain-less windows morning and night. “Seeing the stars is like a childhood dream.” Tomoko loves the spare room, her makeshift study. “It’s cooler to work in in the afternoon.”

She describes their style as “minimal but functional.” Aaron adds, “The beauty of this place is that there’s nowhere that we don’t use in the house. Every corner is utilised.” Yet it’s also clean and uncluttered.

Although no longer off-grid, the house includes many low-impact and low-cost design features. The couple was on a tight budget; originally $350,000 for building and materials, with a final tally of $420,000.

Aaron “loves the process” of building things, and previously made the couple a stylish plywood
“tiny house on wheels” trailer for holidays. To keep costs down for their house, he constructed the custom-made built-in furniture, and did all the painting himself.

He worked alongside builder Matt Nelson who, in a neat twist, turned out to be the manager of a bar Aaron worked at in his uni days.

The entire interior is clad in oriented strand board (OSB) “cheaper than ply, but more special and just as strong because of the fibres in it.” Using one material also means less waste.

To add contrast, the walls are whitewashed from above the 2.4 metre mark. Meanwhile there are pops of bright yellow throughout the house including the doors, the sound-proof, bi-fold shutters on the bedroom interior window, the kitchen splashback, and the stairs.

The kitchen, bathroom, and living room feature subtle sculptural LED strip lights while the bedrooms and dining area use pendants. They are all designed by Lower Hutt’s Lightstudio.

A sleek low-emissions wood-burner takes pride of place in the downstairs living room. The Pyroclassic Mini, designed with smaller houses in mind, holds heat overnight thanks to a ceramic fire chamber. The flue extends through to the main bedroom, keeping both levels warm all night.

At the back of the house, large glazed bi-fold doors open out onto a wide deck and the surrounding hillside. Steps built by Aaron lead up to a flat garden, where a cedar hot tub is to be installed for winter dips.

The couple love the lush surroundings and the “rural aspect” of their valley. Walking to work, through native bush and parks, is a daily tonic. But they also enjoy being handy to Brooklyn, he adds. “We spend a lot of time at the local curry place, the deli, have drinks at the Salty Pidgin.”

The inevitable question is, would they do it again? Yes, says Aaron. “We are planning another. We’re suckers for punishment!” On his phone are photos of another Bonnefait and Giesen design, the 3m x 10m Minihut, built in China. Aaron and Tomoko would like to build one at the top of the section, reachable by an old access road. “It would be a studio, or a possible place to rent out, a little retirement nest egg,” he adds. “So watch this space!”


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