For some, the rocketing property boom is a barrier to buying. For others, it’s merely a challenge. We found four families in Hawke’s Bay whose ideas on what makes a house a home are far from mainstream. With a combination of ingenuity, imagination, and a lot of the unexpected, their solutions over persuasive insight into the pleasures of living an alternative lifestyle.

Well contained
For Matt and Ilse Heeringa and their three children, moving from Auckland to their dream home – a five bedroom, three bathroom bungalow in the Bay – proved to be exactly the kind of house they did not want. Of Dutch heritage but brought up in the Bay where her home was a cool in summer, warm in winter straw bale house, Ilse had taken living in comfort for granted.

When she met Matt at a youth camp in Nelson, he persuaded her to move to Auckland; Titirangi his hometown. “Since then we have bought, renovated and sold and I certainly discovered what damp and cold were, along with rotting floorboards,” laughs Ilse.

Returning to Twyford in anticipation of living in their ideal home, with no renovations required, turned out to be anything but. “I was pregnant and hauling wood for the fire, turning on heaters which burned through the bank balance and our downtime was consumed by maintenance. It just made me think ‘Is this how we want our kids to live?’ The upkeep was huge.” After a year they realised what they really wanted was a simple uncluttered life, and a home with eco principles.

Their solution? A 60-square-metre abode built of two encased steel containers with a composting toilet, a bunk bedroom for three kids and a sleeping loft above the dining alcove for Matt and Ilse, built on the land where her parents are cherry farmers. “And this suits us just fine. We’re off the grid, have invested in extremely well-insulated windows, with concertina doors opening out to a big wooden deck. Good planning ensures the breezes blow perfectly and the wood burning fireplace heats wonderfully in winter.”

Both are design experts and Matt , who is an engineer with a strong background as a fitter and turner, also discovered during the process that he had a whole new career. Constructing container houses is now his business with Ilse by his side doing the interiors.

For their own home, Ilse did the research. She came up with the concept of converting a shipping container into a home. Matt needed little persuasion. It was a fast transition. Into Ilse’s parents’ garage! The big house sold in a nanosecond and “although my parents did have space, we wanted independence,” Ilse admits. They had intended to buy land and build. “But instead we opted to move onto land near my parents. And we very quickly got the fundamentals going – a loft , children bathing in a bucket, and barbeque cooking. It wasn’t easy!” Ilse laughs.

They were meticulous in their use of graph paper to work out the exact measurements which would allow for easy living flow (“We’ve graduated to 3D CAD scaled templates now,” comments Matt .) No detail was missed – even down to omitting handles on cupboards (drilled holes instead). With 18 solar panels converting into underfloor batteries, gas hot water plus a low power-usage fridge, Ilse says they live normal utilities, like a freezer and a washing machine and the very joyful Japanese bath “which we can put all three children in” with shower above. “Our bills are minimal!” she comments; a complete reversal from the big house.

The interior reflects a passion for fossicking – in demolition yards, auction sites and of course Trade Me. They acquired beautiful doors from the old Albert Hotel, salvaged wood from her father’s pulled down wool shed, stripped and stripped beams “there are still bits of woolshed paint but it adds to the character inside. The copper sink was a hot water cylinder that Matt recycled. The beautiful – and enormous sofa – a find on TradeMe. This house has soul,” says Ilse with satisfaction.

The kitchen is part of the open plan living space – “We love to cook and entertain so it was vital we have a place to sit down and eat”. The interior is of laminated ply; the floor is a feature of the steel container.

“Our parents were part of the project,” says Ilse. “It’s a system which works beautifully. We see each other all the time, the children spend probably as much time with them as with us. And when Bella – the eldest (seven) – needs peace and quiet from the boys, she just goes off to grandma.”

They know this is not their forever home. “Soon Bella will need her own room,” Ilse explains. “So the plan is to start again; maybe something different. But always with the principles of how we live in this house. And Matt can’t wait.” 

They comment that the floor is full of Hawke’s Bay wine bottles – 5,000 in total. “We had to resort to nicking from the Boy Scouts as we were 500 short.”

Down to earth
Julie and Tony Maurenbrecher have owned Blakcat Berries in Haumoana – their boysenberry and raspberry farm – for 25 years. But much of their lives have been spent living overseas, not necessarily in the most conventional of homes. “We lived on a yacht for a year-and-a-half located in Sabah and Malaysia,” explains Julie, “where Tony developed a strong aversion to paint.” Not necessarily the paint itself, rather the principles of it. Toxicity particularly.

His attention was also captured by the construction of timber houses and what he discovered rang alarm bells – “toxic materials, treated wood etc.” So when they happened to visit a relative in Nelson who mentioned earth houses, Tony was hooked.

“In Turkey we then came across adobe brick and I came back determined to build a rammed-earth home.” They had also observed that there were a lot of rammed earth homes in Nepal. “And earth breathes. There’s no paint, no condensation, no smell of plastic,” he explains.

With advice from an engineer in Whangarei and an expert from Taihape, both of whom specialised in rammed earth homes, they built in Hawke’s Bay.

“It’s only the second. There ARE others which are some decades old, but to the best of my knowledge we are only one of two. I was working overseas when we started on the walls, which took about five weeks and it was just six months to get the basic structure. We had a cement mixer; the earth is mixed with cement to strengthen the mix. Necessary because of our seismic area. And steel reinforcing rods are required within the 300 millimetre thick walls.”

Obviously with such weight the foundations have to be dug deep. “It’s actually very quick to build – four experienced builders could put up the walls of a 2000 square foot house in six days. Most of the time is taken in setting up and removing forms.”

Of course it is also extraordinarily strong. “The council – who by the way were totally unphased by a request for planning permission – came to test the first panel and accepted it. They beat the hell out of it and it didn’t make a dent. Although we have made mistakes, it was a real pleasure building even though you are limited with what you can do with the structure.”

Julie and Tony’s house is modelled on an Australian bush style home – two storied and 200 square metres. However, Tony is quick to explain that rammed earth is not a cheap way to build. “Including our own labour it is pretty much that of a conventional house. But the plus is there are no ongoing costs, no paint – walls are unpainted inside and out. And of course they don’t wear out or look shabby.

“We operated on the KISS principle – especially after our experience with boats – and kept it simple. The inside timber is all local – recycled beams we found at auctions. We just collected them, stripped them and used them. The walls are as the day we first built and of course, the insulation is incredible.” And says Julie, “We have one fireplace for the entire house. It can be a little chilly on a cold winter if the fire hasn’t been started, but it soon warms up. And basically it stays the same temperature winter and summer.”

They comment that the floor is full of Hawke’s Bay wine bottles – 5,000 in total. “We had to resort to nicking from the Boy Scouts as we were 500 short,” Tony laughs. They form an alternative to under-floor heating, with concrete on top. “I’d love to have tiles,” Julie remarks, “and eventually we will. But I was also looking after the farm and children, and they loved rollerblading on it!”

Julie relates that she moved into the house when it was actually “only half a house, and I had a four-year-old and a six-month-old baby. We did have a toilet and I used rugs we had brought back from our travels as dividers for rooms upstairs. We’ve of course got running water hot and cold; a windmill pumps the water. And we’re experimenting with solar.”

Tony, originally from Jakarta, lived in Borneo for eight years and has spent time working in India, so there have been containers shipped back full of carpets, doors, all manner of wooden artifacts … all from recycling shops. “We would love to have an online business sourcing from India,” says Julie (who is from Hawke’s Bay – they met at university.) And Tony, who is a surveyor, is also interested in working with people who want to build rammed-earth houses. “People who want to take responsibility for what materials they are using when they build. Mentoring, working with architects with a show-me-don’t-tell-me approach.”

Always investigating the new, Tony has a new cabin house (tiny) lying nearby. Obviously a new project is in the wings. “We love this life,” they both agree. 

Barn Find

Admitted ‘serial movers’ Sarah and John have lived in many places and in many home variations – including a shipping container, long before they became really popular as housing options.

“We were living in Wellington at the time and I decided I wanted to get some farm boots on,” Sarah laughs. “Johnny is a city bloke but he was persuaded that nothing ventured…….! And I was determined to fi nd a barn.” It took them two years to fi nd what they were seeking “I think the agents thought we were crazy,” Sarah remarks. “And when an agent finally found the barn we are in, he was really reluctant to show it to us because of the state it was in. Well, it did need a lot of care and nourishment! But we just loved it and we could see loads of potential. There was no garden – well not one we could see – but there were some trees. The stature of the barn was beautiful. Architect Raiford Gardiner had done some initial designs of the conversion from barn to home.” Including floor to ceiling windows soaring sky high in a living area, with superb spatial structure.

“We spent time getting to know the place before embarking on any renovations,” explains Sarah. “Then we tackled the bathrooms and made the kitchen workable. We replaced doors and put in skylights. We had help sourcing the shutters in the living area which are just stunning. When we bought them we just rested them against the wall for a couple of years and finally designed the French doors around them.”

Sarah and John knew no-one when they arrived in the Bay. “But people have been amazing and we found trades people who understood what we wanted to do. Our living room windows were a challenge. They were and still are single-glazed and there were so many gaps you could hear the wind whistling through! There were times I did think, what the hell have we done?,” Sarah wryly remarks. 

Though the barn retains its integrity architecturally and spiritually, there are parts that Sarah renovated for practical purposes. The bathrooms and kitchen have been completely modernised – double-glazing included. John did the painting. They both came up with the ideas for the interior renovations, floor coverings, wall colours and light fittings. “And we love lights,” she comments. And though “I’m a bit of an instant gratification person, doing this home has taught me a lot of patience. I have learned to let things evolve.”

The mezzanine areas (two of them, with separate staircases) include the main bedroom plus bathroom in one, and a library. Both have sensational views of the countryside. And as passionate arts lovers, Sarah and John have hung some pretty interesting works on their walls.

It’s their enthusiasm for the garden that is boundless. They have also done everything pretty much themselves outside. Sometimes Sarah’s twin sister and her partner, both landscapers from Otago, come to help and they go and help them sometimes. The garden has been totally created from materials that were already onsite; everything is recycled.

Considering much of the land was covered in ivy – “which they told me I would never be able to get rid of” – Sarah says that the exploration of what lay beneath has been a joyful journey of discovery. “We kept finding structures we never knew were there. A secret garden has just recently come to light (it was completely covered in ivy) and an outdoor bath has been set up alongside it … an olive tree that someone has suggested might be at least 100 years old.”

A beautiful area affectionately called ‘the Lake District’ is now filled with a light- reflecting pool of water and the living area looks out directly to this scene of serenity. Some of the new garden fences “give a sense of scale and dimension”. Doyenne du Comice pears and cypress bring balance to the macrocarpa and fig trees. “And we have also created a food forest. We pick and pick; this is what we wanted from the land.”

Of the 10 acres, seven-and-a-half are leased for grazing. There is also a stunningly statuesque big barn nearby which houses hay. That still leaves a lot of garden for things such as Arataki bee hives, of which they have usually around 12 – 15 in the paddocks. They bring around 40 pots of honey a year.

And though Sarah says John still needs visits to Wellington for his cultural fix, their life in Hawke’s Bay living in a barn obviously suits them. They’ve been in it nine years “and that’s the longest we’ve been in one spot!!”

Little houses

The Tiny House – or The Millennial – has had a lot of publicity recently. Many regard it as the new way to counteract not only the housing crisis, but also climate change. Also they are cheaper to build and their principles offer an environmentally conscious option which again keeps the bills low and an awareness of the need to keep the country clean and clear.

Francoise Guittenit understands these facts very well. French, and trained as a master artisan through studying cabinet making joinery with Les Compagnons du Devoir, he spent the next seven years shop-fi tt ing, boat- fitting, and doing traditional French joinery, carpentry and cabinet making. A CV that equipped him well to start his tiny house business.

He came to New Zealand because he had the travel bug. Six months into his working visa he met Sarah-Lee when she had just finished her BA in Design. “And we just fell in love.” They also found they thought alike about living in small spaces. Both are minimalists. “Francois owns four T-shirts, a pair of jeans and two pairs of shorts, five undies, seven pairs of socks and I’m pretty much the same,” laughs Sarah-Lee. “We live by the mantra: what we use is what we love.”

So five years ago when their rental in the Mangawhai Heads was sold, deciding what to do next was not hard. They already owned the land where their business was set up – with an outlook to the sea on the Napier coastline. The obvious followed. Their tiny house dream became a reality. Within six months!

Francois points out that because of the size – 7 metres long, 3 metres high and wide – it is possible to use the very best materials available – an exterior of cedar with American cedar windows and an interior of American ash. The floor is oak. Inside the house has an air of superbly finished excellence. And simple elegance. The cupboards, doors and design are sophisticated and polished. It might look tiny, but it is magnificent in its execution.

“We have a bunkroom for the three children – Poppy, LouLou and Francis – with storage under the beds, and upstairs is our mezzanine bedroom. Sheep-wool insulation ensures a dry warm winter. Expert ventilation provides a cool summer. “We went from a $400 monthly power bill to $25 a month. Sometimes in winter it gets too hot (a wood burner sees to that) and we have to monitor the size of the logs we use.”

The bathroom has a shower and composting toilet. “You’d be amazed at how much water is used flushing a conventional loo,” remarks Sarah-Lee. “And composting toilets are really simple to maintain.”

A sliding ranch door opens out to a deck with four flourishing built-up garden beds from which they pick daily, according to the season. “Spinach, carrots, beetroot, kale, cavalonero. We are vegetarian so we have huge salads,” Sarah-Lee explains.

The house is immaculate. Hard to maintain with three small children? There is a secret. “We have no TV; we watch documentaries and anything we feel is of interest on the computer,” Francois reveals. “And we have another tiny house where I do my work; another for Sarah-Lee to do her pottery, another for the laundry. That way we reduce clutter and we go to a designated house for a specific reason. Also most tiny houses are built to go on a trailer and are transportable.” Even the dog has its own home; almost a replica in miniature of their own.

As this is also part of his business, Francois is well versed with the ‘what is possible and what is not’ of the small home. “Affordability is the attraction. And simplicity. But that is deceptive too. There are more challenges in building small houses because of the space and keeping it uncluttered. Simplicity is what comes across in the aesthetics, but there is a lot going on underneath.”

Houses come in a flat pack with the trailer, and it is their aim to keep them affordable. “A shell can be $25,000. Our house was $90,000, but you have real quality and though they might not be for everyone, they have some huge advantages.”

Their intention is to home-school the children and when they are bigger, they plan to put the house on a trailer to travel around the country so they can see and experience all parts of New Zealand and still go to school. “And,” says Francois with enthusiasm, “think about when they are at university. All they need is their tiny house on a trailer which they can live in, save money and so be able to get a deposit for a house that is not going to be sky high.”

‘Small spaces are not a new concept,” says Francois. “Billions in fact have no space but sadly they also have no conveniences. We are fortunate that we have the best of both.”

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