Grand Designs NZ: ‘Modest bach’ wows in modernist glass and steel

REVIEW: Most episodes of Grand Designs contain a degree of relationship drama, but in the latest instalment of Grand Designs NZ it’s made clear from the beginning that this episode contains more than its fair share.

“When building a house with your partner it helps to see their point of view,” says host, architect Chris Moller, immediately after the opening credits. “A good marriage is about compromise after all,” he continues, while cutting a wedding cake in half down the middle, just to bring his meaning to vivid baked life.

Then in the next scene we meet Aucklanders Tracey and David Lewis, who disagree on almost everything apart from the fact they are just about to start building a house.

“We’re going to build the house that David has always wanted to build,” Tracey explains.

“A modest bach at the beach,” says David, a lawyer, who is apparently unaware what most of those words conventionally mean.

The couple, for many years, have owned such a modest bach at Waipu Cove at the bottom of Bream Bay in Northland and holidayed there with their three sons. In 2014, they purchased a 5ha site on rolling hills overlooking the cove’s long sandy beach and renowned surf break with the plan of building their dream home, one in which they eventually plan to retire.

Host Chris Moller arrives at the empty site in June 2018. “What a beautiful spot,”he says, as he always and inevitably does.

And what kind of “modest bach” has David commissioned architect Darren Jessop to design? The plan is for two intersecting glass pavilions, arranged in a wedge, with a 5m-high steel sculpture in the courtyard, an atrium space with a 3.3m stud and large artwork, a full outdoor kitchen, landscaped grounds and a media room.

Tracey, it turns out, is prepared to leave all the decisions around the design to David, and take responsibility only for the art inside and outside the house. Her own wants and needs are modest, almost to a fault, it seems. “I don’t like anything ostentatious,” she explains, “I want something that blends in with the landscape. A little quiet retreat. With an infinity pool.”

The infinity pool quickly emerges as a sticking point. It’s Tracey’s only stipulation but her husband says it’s not, at this stage, in the budget.

And what is the budget?

It’s already increased by more than half and the build has not even begun. David had originally thought they could build something “really nice” for under a million.

“But no is the answer to that,” he says. “So the budget for this is probably more like 1.6 to 1.75 million. Excluding pool.”

Chris pops in to visit architect Darren Jessop who says the design stage has run smoothly, partly because Tracey has trusted David to make all the decisions.

“In the end she’d probably just say ‘so long as I have this, I’m OK’,” Darren says.

“So what’s her ‘this’, Chris asks, while suspenseful music plays. (Spoiler alert: It’s a pool).

“It sounds to be like David is getting what he wants,” muses Chris in a reflective voiceover. “The architecturally-designed house that will cost plenty. And yet there is no budget – apparently – for the pool that Tracey wants. So this could be very interesting.”

Darren, it turns out, shifted the planned site of the house further up the hill to take advantage of the magnificent views. But that is also the windiest and most exposed spot.

And the large open-plan style of the house presents some challenges in a high wind zone for builder Marcus Jones, who’s leading a team of tradies, mostly other Waipu locals, and is also the son of long-time friends of Tracey and David.

Their design is pushing what’s practical to build on such an exposed site, and certain features, such as the large wings which jut out on either side, and the huge glass walls, are particularly problematic. Marcus does a lot of checking in with the architect, engineer and a CAD operator to get the details exactly right.

“It’s quite a simple house in many respects,” says David airily, standing next to the curved concrete feature wall that took three weeks to build. “Living, bedrooms. So a couple of design features are going to make it really quite interesting.”

But, possibly wanting to keep his own life interesting, David says he’s still not over the line about the pool.

“Tracey says she needs a pool,” he tells Darren, while standing in a space that the architect designed as ‘the ultimate man cave’. “I keep reminding her that she wants a pools as opposed to needs a pool. We’ll see how the budget goes.”

But it’s hard to feel in complete sympathy with Tracey who first of all takes their middle son Harry off to look at potential infinity pool designs and then invites Chris around to show him a piece of sculpture she has purchased for the new house which – since she doesn’t want to tell David about it yet – is hidden in a closet.

“David said ‘don’t you buy another painting’,” says Tracey, who might not be a lawyer herself but who has clearly spent enough time around them to pick up a few things. “I decided I needed to listen to him because that’s what good marriages are all about. So I directed my passion to sculpture.”

But Chris at least seems aware that the art and the build are coming out of the same – loosely defined and so far limitless but apparently finite – budget.

“If you had to choose,” he says to Tracey, in what might be the most first world Sophie’s Choice ever, “which would it be? Art or the pool?”

But before Tracey needs to face that particular ghastly decision, news comes in that getting council consent for the infinity pool at the end of the living pavilion was “just too hard”. It’s a bitter blow yet somehow Tracey rallies to immediately suggest, as a compromise, an infinity pool at the end of the bedroom wing.

“A modest bach with a deck and a barbecue would have been heaven,” says David sorrowfully and with apparently not one iota of awareness that he is being disingenuous AF.

“As of today are we going to get a pool? I don’t know. No. I’m not saying with certainty that we will. It’s optional, not essential.”

When Chris does eventually roll up to visit the completed build he finds a spectacular home that’s as much art as it is architecture. He finds the curved concrete wall leading to a wonderful (albeit confusing and highly unlikely to ever be used by a casual visitor) frameless door. He finds the large and airy atrium, where sits a piece by carver Joe Kemp shaped like the prow of a waka. He finds the vast living pavilion where the glass walls connect you straight to the ocean and landscape beyond and which open up, on one side, to a lavishly appointed outdoor kitchen. And he finds the bedroom pavilion, with three rooms for the kids or guests linked by an art-lined corridor to the master suite which has expansive views, out over the bay… and to the framing where Tracey’s pool is being built.

“I learned the art of compromise Chris,” says David. “Just agree.”

Earlier on Chris described this as a build about relationships. Between art and architecture, between the land and the sea, and – most of all – between David and Tracey. And, luckily, the resulting outcome is a happy symbiosis that has drawn on the best of everyone involved.

Over budget, yes – David estimates it’ll cost $2-2.5 million – but a truly remarkable building. A beautiful design that’s been meticulously finished and which does full justice to this wonderful site. As Chris says, “wouldn’t you want to live here?”

And the Lewises, who do live here, profess themselves happy… Both with the house and one another.

“I’m easily satisfied,” says Tracey, while sitting in her multimillion dollar beach house waiting for her infinity pool to be finished.

As Chris said at the beginning, a good marriage is all about compromise, but it helps – and I would say quite a lot – if everyone involved gets exactly what they want too.

Written by Jo McCarroll
Photography MediaWorks

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