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A U-shaped Christchurch home designed to make the most of the view

Undaunted by restrictive property caveats and two earthquakes, a Christchurch family couldn’t be happier with their self-built and designed dream home

With its wide eaves, low-pitched roof and walls of timber-framed glass, there is little mistaking one of the primary influences on the design of the distinctive Kennett/Maher house on the coastal hills of Christchurch.

Indeed, Peter Maher and Elizabeth Kennett are admirers of Frank Lloyd-Wright, one of the most influential 20th-century architects, but they say that the geography of the site and the caveats placed on it by the previous owners also had a major influence on the building’s design. They should know, the couple designed it – and Peter pretty much built it himself.

Peter and Elizabeth bought the 650sqm section in 2002 on Sumner’s Clifton Hill after the former Anglican nunnery’s holiday house was demolished and the land divided into three. The next few years were spent saving and planning the 220sqm house, as well as organising time for Peter, a former carpenter, to build it. Taking a year off from his job as a high school woodwork teacher was planned.

Building began in 2007 because the nuns were rebuilding on the top third of their former site, they had put height and footprint restrictions on the two sections below. “We wanted a u-shaped house and this is very tight ‘u’ because of those building caveats,” says Peter.

“We liked the idea of being able to look through the house and see the views out the other side,” adds Elizabeth. “And a curve, I wanted curved glass, but that idea was quickly dispatched when we realised how incredibly expensive it would be.”

“It was very organic process,” she continues. “For years we looked in books and magazines. I had a scrapbook of things we liked and inspired us. There was much talk,” she laughs. “It took a lot of to-ing and fro-ing, and tailoring of ideas until it evolved into this.”

Peter drew up the plans for the house, which was to have structural concrete columns, concrete floor, a skillion roof and a substantial amount of floor-to-ceiling glass. And, at the end of 2006 turned his back on the classroom and began building.

But completing the project in one year proved to be overly ambitious. By the end of 2007, only the concrete-slab floor had been poured. From then on, Peter was only able to work on it during the school holidays.

By 2010/11, when the earthquakes struck, it was three-quarters finished. Despite the area being badly shaken by the quakes and substantial damage to neighbouring houses, Peter is proud to point out that theirs suffered none. Delays continued. The hill suburb was white-zoned for several months while the powers that be worked out if it was stable and safe enough, which gave Peter a welcome break from devoting nearly every spare moment to building.

In 2012, the family finally moved in when daughters Orla was 15 and Nelly was 10. That it took longer than planned could also be attributed to Peter’s remarkable attention to detail and craftsmanship. The polished dark concrete floors have a thin brass-strip inlay; the white-washed plywood ceiling has a reverse detail in black. Peter made all the joinery, and in a masterstroke of thrift and design, he used the hardwood offcuts to make the parquet floor surrounding the expansive arcing island bench, which of course, he also made himself, pouring it onsite.

The back wall of the house’s main room is a rammed earth, non-structural solar wall. The clay was sourced from Teddington in nearby Lyttelton Harbour. The thin red line running across it is made red clay gathered from near Purau, in another part of the harbour basin. It denotes the volcanic layers that comprise Banks Peninsula. Hefty oregon (Douglas fir) lintels in this wall are from demolition sites.

Peter also made the ceiling-high wooden shutters in the couple’s bedroom which cleverly afford flexibility and privacy without losing views or sun. Plans to have them throughout the house were abandoned when Peter realised just how long they took to make.

Time has been an issue, explains Elizabeth. “Peter always underestimates how long it takes to do things. He said the door frames and windows would take six months; two years later he was nearing completion.” The girls received bedroom doors for their 16th birthdays. Orla got hers a year after the family moved in; Nelly had to wait another five.

Still some work remains to be done on the house, with kitchen joinery and landscaping at the top of the ‘to-do list’. Designing the house themselves has given them a home they love dearly but some things they might have done differently, they say. The layout, with only one, albeit large, living area, meant a lack of space for teenagers to break out to, says Peter, and they used to disappear to their bedrooms.

“Less glazing would have been good,” admits Elizabeth, explaining that they only have one wall on which to hang art. Initially, they found the expanse of glass cold. Wooden shutters were briefly an option before they decided on curtains. Choosing fabric for the expanse was a mission. With any sort of pattern out of the question, a heavy, textured, bone-coloured linen was eventually selected. Hydronic underfloor heating now takes the chill out of winter, helped by the sun and a trusty old Conray radiant heater, which will someday be replaced by a woodburner.

The extensive glass and u-shaped design mean that the 180-degrees views, from Scarborough to the east, across Pegasus Bay and across the Canterbury Plains to the Southern Alps, are available from much of the house. The many bi-fold doors mean there can be little definition between indoors and out. “When it gets too hot on the terrace, we just open all the doors and go inside, and it’s just like being outside,” says Peter.

The deep terrace, sheltered from the prevailing and often cool offshore easterly, is also a spot favoured by the luxuriant puka, citrus, agave and dracaena plants, growing in half barrels.

When asked what the family loves most about the house, Elizabeth answers promptly, needing no time to ponder the question. “It’s ours. We built it, we designed it. It’s home, we’re proud of it.”

Words by: Mary Lovell-Smith. Photography by: Sarah Rowlands.

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