In the depths of a Wellington winter, the wind howling outside, Catherine Foster’s elegant and informative book provided an excellent distraction and a reminder of the value of spending time somewhere peaceful far away from work and home.
With common features of minimalism, light, serenity, style and spaciousness – despite their small size – the houses in Foster‘s book are sanctuaries for anyone fortunate to own or visit them.
Foster is a writer and apartment dweller who is passionate about home design and sustainable living. She has written several books on small houses, although this is the first to focus on holiday homes.
Twenty small ‘designer hideaways’ in diverse locations throughout the North and South Islands of New Zealand are covered. Some are nestled into bush, others tucked beside coastlines, positioned high above bays, or wedged into cities. One is perched on a mountain top 1700 m above sea level. What they have in common is that they are all, as one owner says, “about retreat and a shift in mindset”. Yet each is uniquely different, and Foster explains the inspiration and intent underlying the designs. Sources of inspiration include “a slouch hat tilted against the sun”, Japan’s tsubo houses, and traditional canvas tents. Memories of places stayed during childhood holidays were sometimes drawn on too. Before building began, some owners took considerable time (years, even) to get to know the site as well as the characteristics of the land.
As the title indicates, these are not grand mansions but instead small (and smart) houses that fit well into their surroundings. Foster often uses words such as discreet, peaceful, private, and simple to describe them. It’s clear that considerable care and thought has gone into designing and building every one, with respect for the environment as well as for the people who stay in and near each house.
Foster observes that because the houses are compact, spaces must be well-planned to ensure that they are not only functional but comfortable for owners, their guests, and occasional tenants. Creative storage solutions are evident. Furniture may serve a dual purpose, such as the dining table that does double duty as a table-tennis table. One house has a space-saving alternate step staircase, which the owner admits “doesn’t look particularly user-friendly but [is] intuitively easy to climb”. Outdoor baths save on indoor space and allow a leisurely soak in the open air.
As with Foster’s other books on housing, the layout of the text has a calm simplicity. There’s lots of white space around the words, and the written descriptions and photographs of each house are effectively balanced. Foster’s writing is both objective and evocative: the Skylark Cabin in the Mackenzie Country, for example, “appears as a cloud shadow atop the creamy tussock”.
The photos are presented well and separated by thin white borders, with multiple images for each house. We see how the structure looks from various angles, the views framed by its windows, the colour schemes, textures, and joinery finishes. Foster notes that in some homes the views are so spectacular that there is no need for art. Dramatic effects are also achieved through clever use of natural light, shadow, and lampshades. The photos allow a glimpse into the lives of the people who stay in each house and how they spend their time: there are books to read, chess and board games, children climbing ladders to mezzanine floors, pups and people lazing on sunny outdoor decks.
As modern as these dwellings are, some owners have chosen to have no internet or cellphone coverage, so that they and their families can unwind screen-free. The focus is frequently on outdoor living, with the main structure providing the basics – a kitchen and bathroom, bedrooms, and a sheltered living space. Overflow guests in some homes are set up outside, although with easy access to bathrooms and other indoor amenities. One home has no bedrooms at all, instead glamping tents are erected in the yard during the warmest months of each year.
Foster covers several alternative approaches to building, design, and materials. The design of the Chemis Cabin near Lake Rotorua, for example, follows Passivhaus principles. These include requirements relating to insulation, thermal efficiency, and ventilation. The result is a house that is quiet and comfortable year-round, economical to run, and with minimal impact on the environment. Ohakune’s Kōwhai Cabin features a shou shugi ban porch, its larch surface darkened by a traditional Japanese charring technique.
Owners admit that building their homes was not without challenges, and Foster often includes their reflections on the process. Challenges faced when building a Wānaka mountain-top hideaway included cheeky keas and the need to helicopter everyone and everything in – an excavator arrived in three pieces. One couple admit that commissioning and building their new home was “an emotional rollercoaster”, another says that “it was a long-winded process”, yet all are happy with the end result.
Some of the houses are available for short-term rental through online booking sites. The rental income can help to offset building costs – a number of homes were built on tight budgets.
Foster includes a floor plan for each house, accompanied by concise Design Notes and a Fact File with information such as site and building size, orientation, builder, paint colours, products and materials. The back pages include directories for the designers/architects, builders and photographers whose work is featured in the book. There’s also a list of related books (with several of Foster’s) and online resources. Although there’s no index, because there are just twenty houses covered it’s easy enough to find a particular page if there is a description or photo that you want to look at again.
The pops of bright colour on the cover and spine of Foster’s book suggest that there’s something exciting inside. The front and back cover images are great examples of the diverse designs within – the back cover showcasing architect Parsonson’s clever use of colour to create a bold retro effect.
The book feels good – soft-covered, yet substantial. The pages are easy to riffle through and the book also lies open well. It would appeal to anyone interested in small house living – whether rural, coastal, or urban – and anyone planning a renovation or considering building their own retreat. I’ll return to this book many times for both inspiration and a brief escape from reality.
Foster acknowledges the support and cooperation of the owners, and the expertise of the architects, designers and other workers who brought these “small, perfect spaces to life”. She also expresses appreciation for the leading photographers whose images allow readers “the experience of ‘walking’ through these homes”.
Although houses like this are out of the reach of many New Zealanders, Foster reminds us that we may be able to experience a small house lifestyle, even if only for a short while: “Enjoy, daydream, and one day you might be building your own. And failing that, there’s always a holiday to be enjoyed in someone else’s.”
Reviewer: Anne Kerslake Hendricks
Penguin Random House