The Tree House

Totara Ave, on the west side of Golden Bay, runs down the middle of a sandspit which is home to a unique totara forest. Totara are not often found in this type of locale and it is only recently that the national significance of this phenomena has been recognised. If it had been recognised fifty years ago then it would be unlikely that the residential subdivision that happened at that time would have been permitted. However, despite the removal of some trees to build the collection of mainly small holiday homes, the type that can genuinely be called ‘baches’, the totara forest still dominates. The baches are well camouflaged amongst the trees: it is a quiet place where the sounds of the sea, the wind in the trees and birdsong prevail.

This project is the third stage of a series of improvements to a very plain 50m2 stucco box, perched right on the water’s edge. Stages one and two included a large deck and an upgraded bathroom. Rather than add on to the tiny bach to create more sleeping space, stage three is a stand- alone sleepout in the trees behind the main bach close to the southern boundary. What the owners really wanted was a ‘tree house’ but the local planning rules have a strict 5m height limitation and the need to protect two very large totara on the edges of the building site meant using them for structure was never considered. The design approach ,therefore, was to define and provide an ‘essence of treehouse’.

A tree house is elevated. It is small. It is safe. It is private. It is a place to look down from. The journey to it is an adventure, and of course it is within trees or a tree. With these thoughts in mind a design evolved where the sleepout is raised as high as possible in a clear space between the two large trees and the understorey. It is lifted up just high enough to slide a car underneath and store firewood. In deference to the neighbours on the southern boundary the floor and roof levels are dropped on the southern side and a randomly sized timber palisade screens the entry stair.

The whole building including the entry deck is 36m2 and consists of a lobby which doubles as a sleeping space , a bathroom and a larger sleeping space on the higher level. This room is twisted to capture the view out to sea beyond the main bach. With windows dropping right down to floor level it is a more an enclosed platform than a room: a look out.

The substructure is spare to minimise digging around the tree roots and to maximise the useable space underneath. In the trees and of the trees, the sleepout incorporates timber framing, timber weatherboards, timber steps and palisade, timber built in joinery, and plywood linings.

Design: Min Hall
Arthouse Architecture team: Min Hall, Caroline Marshall, Stephanie Huber
Builder: Frank Byrne
Photography: Simon Devitt and Arthouse Architecture Ltd