Sunday, October 30, 2016

Bush House Hokitika

In summer the neighbour’s pigs drove my parents crazy and they dreamed of an escape from the flies and the stink. They had fallen in love with the West Coast on a South Island tour a few years before and acquired a madly cheap ten acres of cut-over bush south of Hokitika. They commissioned architect John Scott, who had designed their home and pottery/workshop in Hawkes Bay, to design a small cottage they could build themselves as a getaway.

My mother Estelle had boundless ideas and my father Bruce’s usual role was to moderate and then implement them. They were a good team and achieved remarkable things through this combination. The Hokitika house is one of them.

I had been on the first South Island trip, my last holiday with my parents, when I was fourteen or fifteen. We visited some wonderful places: Punakiaki, Okarito, Gillespies Beach, the glaciers further south.

When I returned a year or so later to prepare a building site in the newly acquired section I thought they were mad. The large trees had been milled forty-odd years earlier and the bush was slowly regenerating, but it was also riddled with gorse, as were the paddocks for miles around. Anywhere you cleared or scratched the surface new gorse would sprout. To my adolescent eye it looked like a mess and hard, thankless work.

John Scott designed a simple, two-story cottage, with extra detailing for inexperienced builders. Bruce made a balsa wood model of the studs, joists, beams and rafters to get an idea of how it all fitted together. He also bought an old Bedford truck to cart our gear from Ngatarawa, near Hastings in the North Island, to the section by Mirror Creek near Lake Mahinapua in the South. We drove in convoy in the family car and the truck, with a new coil required for the Bedford in Levin. The further south we drove the less traffic there was and the friendlier the waves from the locals.

Great architects should design small buildings because there they can show best why architecture matters, why design matters, why ideas matter. The bush house is shaped like many barns or farm sheds up and down the West Coast with a pitched roof and no real eaves and added windows, but it is full of great design, of beautiful spaces, of textures and contrasts, light and colour – full of the essence of good architecture.

Most of the materials were sourced locally, the timber from a small mill at Ruatapu a few kilometres around the road. The cladding is corrugated iron which remained shiny and unpainted for almost decade. The windows, stairs and kitchen joinery were made by a joiner in Hokitika.

I was seventeen and between school and teachers’ college. The 1974 Commonwealth Games were about to start in Christchurch. The weather on the West Coast was exceptional that summer with rain only once or twice in six weeks. We lived in a tent and had a long-drop in the bush and an outdoor shower. Power was connected to a builder’s pole on the driveway but we had limited power tools: a skill saw with a cross-cut attachment, a drill and an electric jug.

We laid out the foundations before Christmas, finding the levels with an ancient dumpy level and poured the concrete slab on Christmas Eve.

A surprising number of people called by for a look and to lend a hand. Fellow potter Peter Stichbury came while we were nailing in dwangs and re-named them noggins. More qualified friends helped sort the plumbing and wiring. School friends of mine came past in a hippie van and Estelle put a pottery-for-sale sign out on the road and sold the odd pot to passing motorists.

Bruce did most of the building with support from Estelle and me, and later my brothers. Estelle also cooked, painted and provided safety advice while we climbed ladders or pushed up walls. I fetched and carried and held and nailed. I enjoyed working with my father; we are good problem solvers together.

After six weeks of living in a tent with my parents I had had enough. The roof was on, building paper wrapped the framing and the windows were about to go in. I flew out through Christchurch the day the Games started and back to my friends in Hawkes Bay. My older brothers helped get the house water tight and the interior was completed over the next year or so.

We notice our mistakes more than our successes in things we make. Some regrets take years to get over, like the lack of an electric plane to even up the house’s floor joists before the floor was laid. But the quality of the build is much better than amateur and the building has warmed and softened over time. There are no architraves or scotias, the plywood lining fitting almost up to the window edge or the end-rafters with a small gap of timber showing. This is a regular John Scott detail and gives the interior a simple but elegant finish. It also requires a degree of care and craftsmanship by the person cutting and fitting the ply because you have nothing to cover over the gaps.

John Scott’s detailing and joinery add quality to the bach. By today’s standards John was extravagant with native timber and much of the joinery is rimu and generously proportioned. Downstairs the floor is brick tiles with electric powered underfloor heating and upstairs matai tongue ’n groove.

Upstairs is a simple rectangular space with a living area at one end and a bedroom at the other with a kitchen bench in the middle. Over the bench are open shelves and a glimpse of the stairs and the tall window below. The roof is gabled with exposed rafters and the ceiling is matai sarking. I remember nailing it on six metres above the ground using a chisel banged in the rafter to lever it tight.

The stairwell is behind the bench and the bathroom is on the landing halfway between the floors. Dividing the living area and the bedroom is a wall that extends from the landing to the roof. This wall is perfectly proportioned and is the work of an architect paying attention.

In my teens I built models of John Scott houses: My parents house in Hawkes Bay, this house, the Brown house in Napier. I found it difficult to imagine the buildings in three dimensions until I made the model. I found it remarkable that Scott was able to imagine the spaces he was designing, the volume, the proportions. This is what makes an architect, of course, and it is what John Scott gets right in his buildings: space, proportion and size.

The bush house is compact and clever. The stairs at the lower level provide volume to the bedroom above, and the tall window at the bottom of the stairs is a delight, a favourite. The windows out to the bush are almost square and generous. At tree height the birds come and visit, bellbirds and tui and a kereru that does acrobatics to strip the last of the kowhai flowers before starting on the new leaves.

John Scott suggested the colours of beech leaves in a stream for the cottage and so the bedroom curtains are red and primary yellow in the lounge. Yellow, orange and green trim is also used on the outside sills and flashings. There are other touches of colour with hand-decorated tiles by Charles Holmes in the bathroom and an orange vinyl sink bench downstairs.

The house is a perfect getaway, it has everything you need for a holiday with added pleasure from the aesthetics. It is a place to read and write, to eat and drink, to listen to the rain or the distant sea polishing the rocks on the beach at Ross. After forty years the architecture is still fresh, the ideas and solutions still delightful, the wood mellowed and the house settled in the bush.

Craig Martin
August 2015

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