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Sunday, 05 May 2013 19:32

The Hepburn St. House. (1991-2000)

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This is the story of a love affair with a house. I designed it for myself. I byuilt it with the help of much-loved friends. My father was buried from here and Leonie and I were married here.
In 1991, approaching my 50th birthday, I came to the realisation that I possessed nothing - nothing that is, except my books, my camera, my computer and my drafting equipment. I had spent my adult life creating homes  and economic security for others while myself remaining practically insolvent. I could see retirement approaching, and lacking any private retirement plan, I decided to put my skills to my own use for the first time. I began to look for a property. It was at the bottom of the market after the 1987 crash. I managed to find a house in the expensive inner city "village" of Freemas Bay - a very exclusive spot. The house, a fine 1920s bungalow sat on the front of a section that backed on to Western Park and looked out into 120 year old Morton Bay Fig trees.
The house had been divided into separate student "bed sits", each with its own sink and cooker. It was dirty but solid, and the interior was quite stately. I bought it for $100K, returned it to its single-family original state, put in a new bathroom and kitchen and rented it out to a friend for payments that covered the interest. I did all of the work myself to cut costs.
Then I subivided the section, intending to build a house there for myself. As I continued to improve the property, my equity increased and I was able to borrow more to keep going. The subdivision also increased the value so that I was able to borrow enough to build something modest. To keep costs down again, I decided to but a "removal" house and have it moved onto the rear of the site.
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The "Removal"  bungalow on Original Site
Over the next ten years I worked continually on the house and was supported in my task by numerous friends - without whom I would not have achieved the results I did. They came and donated their time and skills to helping me build  often without thought of recompense. The debt of gratitude I owe to them is impossible to repay. My thanks to: Rau Hoskins, Conrad Hoskins, Maurits Kelderman, Andrew Stephenson, Phillip Howard, Bruce Heslop, Noel Anderson, Robert Kuhn, the lateKeith (Wagz) Wagland and most of all my dear and recently deceased friend William (Skippy) Ellis who was with me from start to finish, who taught me much about building and more about friendship. My thanks to them all.


I chose a house - a 1930s bungalow - that was been a warden's house in the Waitakere Watercare district - in the Waitakere ranges. It was small but solid, framed in rimu, with rimu floors. The interior had been partly gutted, but that didn't matter since I intended extensive modifications.I arranged with a removal contractor to lift the house and to shift it, in two parts, onto the rear section of my newly acquired property. Access required the removal of a Phoenix Palm and much privet, (all done by Skippy) plus an agreement with the neighbours to temporarily use a small part of their driveway. Even so, it was a tight squeeze.

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Trucking the House onto the Site

 Once on site, it was necessary to reconnect the two parts of the building that had been cut and separated along the ridge line.It was hard to believe that these two pieces could ever be fitted together. Nevertheless they were.
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Reconnecting the House Parts
Once the reconnection was made the real work began. Neighbours wondered out lod when they saw me tearing out the interior and exterior walls. The could not understand why I would want to start demolishing something that I had just spent $38,000 having delivered to the site. Having gutted the interior and broken out the exterior walls, I then cut out a large part of the roof, ready to build a second storey. By now I had also constructed a fence between my site and the neighbours (the price I had negotiated for the temporary use of their driveway).


Reconnected and then Gutted 

 The work of framing the upper storey proceeded until finally the form of the house began to emerge.

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Framing the Upper Floor

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The Final Form


The organisation of thew space was very efficient. The envelope of the original house was retained, but perforated with wide (bifold) door openings that offered unrestricted indoor-outdoor flow. The plan made the maximum use of the available space - touching the allowable boundary condition on every side, and slightly exceeding it in height at one point (6" above the allowable height over a four foot lengeht of roof - approved by the neighbours). The entrance was conceived as a portico accessed over a bridge laid over ornamental pools. The interior was arranged as an open plan to maximise space-usage and to give a greater sense of connection to the park from all interior view points.

Ground Floor Plan
Click image to enlarge
The first floor area was designed so that it could be rented as an income-generating, self-contained apartment, with its own entrance (off the main porticoed entry) and its own kitchen and bathroom. The plan form was quite narrow (5.8M), which did not allow for a full begroom width as well as a living area. This was the limit allowable by the Councils height-in-relation-to-boundary requirements. The space was quite long, however (12+ metres). On the West side it had its own balcony (covering the entrance porch below).
Upper Floor Plan
Click image to enlarge
In addition to the first floor (containing three bed alcove/rooms), an additional mezzanine was built over the kitchen and bathroom, approached by a ladder from the bedroom/office. From this mezzanine it was possible to look down into the living space of the apartment and out through the bifold windows into the park. The mezzanine wasucked up into the roof scace and gave access to the thermostatic controls for the natural (passive solar) space heating from the roof plenum.
Mezzanine Plan
Click image to enlarge
 The balcony/deck from the apartment faced out onto the balcony/deck of the front house and provided a covered portico area at the entrance with seating and ornamental pools. Above, the structure was extended to form a small viewing deck off the mezzanine. This was to carry the gantry that would allow access for furniture etc (the staircase to the apartment being designed tightly to conserve space).
Section through Mezzanine Balcony 
Ckick image to enlarge


The prrtico with its superstructure of two balconies and the access gantry was initially conceived in a series of rough sketches (below). Following the completion of the upper level (and stair) it now became imperative to complete the portico and entrance below. Downstairs I had conserved space by keeping the staircase to the first floor  to a minimum foorprint - this was done at the expense of easy access to the upstairs for furniture etc. This was addressed by the inclusion of a gantry onto the first floor alcony, with an access gate built into the balustrade.

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Portico Sketches

During the construction oif the upper floor, two large beams had been cantilevered out of the wall framing to take the mezzanine deck loads. These were now used to lift the large bridge timbers into place to hold up the main deck. (below right) These timbers (400mm x 400mm) Australian ironwood were enormously heavy. 

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Section sketch                          Starting the Portico

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Placing the Columns

Once in place the columns were concreted into foundation pads with appropriate reinforcement

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Concreting in Place 

With the columns both in place, it was time to build the deck framing - beginning with the 350mm x 350 mm kauri beam from the demolition yard.

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 Columns in Place                               Placing the Kauri Beam

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Framing the Deck

With the deck framing in place, it was possible to begin work on the superstructure for the mezaanine deck and the gantry. 

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Cantilevered and Corbeled Beam Connection             Mezzanine Deck Posts

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Framing Gantry Supports                       Deck Handrail and Gate

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    Looking to the Neighbour's Deck            The Completed Portico Structure

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The bungalow had earlier had a fireplace. To remove the building, the fireplace and brick flue had to be demolished. I collected all of the bricks and cleaned them - determined to waste nothing in my building process. Many of them were to be used in the garden walls and edgings that I built over the next two years - as well as in the ornamental pools around the entrance. Those that were left over I decided to use as a path, laid into the driveway and leading to the entrance-portico. FBefore concreting the driveway, I laid out the edges of the path to mark its place in the driveway. This also allowed me to define the limoits of the entrance and the planted areas surrounding it. With the bricks in place, the contractors filled inn the driveway, using colour additives in the cement to match the colour of the bricks.

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I wanted to have the experience of living in a "tree house". I envisioned being able to open up all of the walls facing into the park and to have the experience of living in the bush, right in the heart of the ciity.
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Views of the completed house from the park
Click images to enlarge
The North (sunny) face of the building was heavily glazed on a modular system to economise in window costs. All of the windows are variations on one simple module. This side faced onto the carpark of the neighbouring flats, the roof nestling under the massive pohutukawa tree in the front (parkside) garden. 
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Views from the North and North West
Click images to enlarge 
The East side of the house faced into the park, and here I constructed a deck off the living spaces accessed through bifold doors - so that the whole living room wall could be opened to the park. Above, at the second storey, bifold windows on the same modiule gave unimpeded visual access to the park trees - particularly the massive pohutukawa in the front garden. This latter was planted with cabbage tree seedlings found in the park.
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East elevation                                            Living Room/Garden
Click images to enlarge 
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Living Room and Garden                                       Kitchen/Dining Deck
Click images to enlarge 
I also wanted to have a formal entrance, with a water feature - using recycled bridge timbers that I had bought from a demolition contractor. I was still mindful of cost, and most of the materials used in construction were recycled and refurbished. The approach down the driveway opened up to the front of the house, wuith its grand rustic portico, supporting an upstairs balcony - with its own gantry for moving furniture in and out. Above the second floor was a mezzanine with its own small balcony, looking out over the city. The North side of the house composed a deck, off the dining room and kitchen, with (recycled) bi-fold kitchen windows for serving outside.

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Main Approach                                            Entrance Porch
Click images to enlarge
The South (shady) side of the house housed the  bathrooms and bedrooms - one of which opened onto a private deck with pergola. A (recycled) stained glass window opened off the bathroom onto this deck. 
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South side deck 
Click images to enlarge
The entrance to the house itself was approached over a bridge - constructed from railway ties, over an ornamental pond (part of the Entrance Transition pattern!) all nestled under the upstairs balcony and gantry. The ornamental brick pond had 52 bricks around the rim and water recirculated through an old millstone with 12 grooves - all representing the seasons. The idea of the water feature was taken from traditional Japanese entrances that are designed to bring the person entering or leaving into present time through the applicaqtion of sensory stimuli.
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Ornamental Pond                                                 Bridge and Pond
Click images to enlarge 
The pond was replenished by a small water tank connected to the storm-water downpipes and hidden behind the pond-screen. Rainwater from the balcony above was collected and emptied into the pool down a chain, into the centre of an old mill-stone that distributed it and aerated it into the pool. The circular pool then discharged into the lower, ornamental pool over which the entrance bridge spanned. The pools were relatively self-maintainng, and the entrance experience was always accompanied by the gentle sound of dropping and trickling water. The pool's fish remained healthy and vigorous with little attention.
Circular Pond and Dropper                        Side Pond and Fountain
Click image to enlarge 
Main Entrance Door                                                View from Entry       
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The entrance gave on to a short corridor before opening out into the living space. This had an open plan layout with the cooker facing into the dining space over a low shelf. The kitchen faced up the driveway and out to the North. The dining space opened upo onto its own deck through a set of bifold doors - giving easy outdoor dining.
Kitchen/Entrance                             Kitchen/Dining
Click images to enlarge
The living area included the original small corner bay window - a lovely place to sit to look at the park. The entire East wall of the space was composed of a large bifold door, so designed that the entire living space had unimpeded access and views of the park.
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Window Seat                                              View into Park 
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The bathrooms(2) and bedrooms (3) are to the right, facing the park. The master bedroom had its own bidold-door access onto the eastern deck - again wirth unimpeded views and access to the garden and park. The two remaining bedrooms and the ensuite bathroom looked out onto the private (Southern) deck and pergola. The top-lit shower had its own bifold access to a small outdoor garden area.
En Suite Bathroom                                               Shower
Click images to enlarge


The first floor was designed to functionas a separate rentable space. For the first few years, our co-operative practice design tribe worked out of there.

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Design Tribe Partners

The East and North elevations were almost fully glazed (again with bifold windows) giving the very real impression of being suspended in the trees.
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                North-East corner                                    Looking East to park
Click images to enlarge
From the entrance staircase, the bed spaces are on the right, looking out towards the park across the living space.
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                       Living area looking East          Looking back towards the stairs and balcony       
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Looking back the other way, towards the stair and balcony, the bed alcoves are on the left, and are screened from the living space by hand-made bamboo ply soji screens - this to conserve space in the sleeping areas where there was not enough space to have a wall at the foot of the bed and still maintain access. The mezzanine can be seen cantilevered out over the bathroom and kitchen, its low entrance-ceiling dramatising the soaring height of the main space. The apex of the steep (40 degree) roof is crowned by a skylight along the entire ridge line. In order to do this effectively - with a maximum light transfer, it was necessary to minimise the ridge size and the number of collar ties. This was accomplished by cantilevering the rafters off the load-bearing wall separating the bed alcoves from the living spaces (seen in the photograph with the rough-sawn macracarpa beams and braces on the left (below)

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    View of Bed Space and Mezzanine from Living     View of bed space with screen doors open
Click images to enlarge
The cantilevered rafters then carry the loads of their counterparts on the North face of the roof. The ridgelight is made from shaped plexiglass screwed to the rafters over the roofing iron. This brings light down onto the load-bearing bed-alcove walls, and to provides additional heated air for the lower floors. The ridge-light is double-skinned - the outer layer plexiglass, the inner layer translucent, insulating twin-wall. The space between these forms a plenum from which warm air is drawn in Winter and recirculated to the lower (cooler) floors via a duct (formed from a cardboard Sonatube ) housing an in-line fan, triggered by a probe thermostat in the air-space. Access to the control thermostat is via the mezzanine.
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                    Kitchen Space                 View into Living Area from Mezzanine
Click images to enlarge
The mezzanine is accessed by a staircase from the office/bedroom at the head of the stairs, and from there it is possible to look down into the living space and out beyond to the park. The mezzanine also has its own small balcony, above the deck and supporting the I Beam for the gantry. From there it is possible to see across the city to the harbour.

 All told, it took 10 years to finish building the house - a real labour of love. I did a great deal of the work myself - framing, roofing, foundations, cabinet work, etc.  - everything, in fact, except the  electrical and plumbing work, which required certifications. I leaned a great deal and grew enormously. I made and kept some much-loved friends. I sold the house in 2000 and moved to Whakatane to work. Looking back at these imafges now, I remember how much I loved it.




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