Emily Forbes was already renting in Lyttelton when she first set eyes on her section. The GP was walking through the steep streets one day in 2009 when she spotted the site for sale and fell for its romantic charm. “There was an old settler’s cottage on it surrounded by an incredible garden,” she says. “The previous owner was an avid gardener, so there was a haze of flowers beneath the overgrown plants.”

ABOVE While the build progressed, Emily got busy replanting greenery from the existing garden (including a cactus that was merely two stems in a pot planted by the previous owner when she moved in, but has since absolutely blossomed) with Henry Blakely Landscapes, who also helped her design a new master landscape plan and reshape the site after construction. The home’s shiplap cedar cladding exists mainly as 150mm boards, but there’s subtle detailing where the width changes to 65mm in some areas in balance with the window proportions. On the roof, the operable skylights are hinged at the bottom to promote better passive ventilation.

A gardener herself, Emily bought the section planning to renovate the cottage. Initially, living in it was all well and good, but then the 2011 Christchurch earthquake caused the foundations to break, and when an attempt was made to move the house, it crumbled. After lengthy discussions with the council and insurers over the next step, Emily made a U-turn. It was time for a warm, dry, contemporary home and ultimately a new chapter, so she approached Nic Curragh of Christchurch’s Objects, a friend of a friend, to design her a modern home.
“I was brought up in a 16th-century watermill in England and I’ve always lived in old houses, so new was very alien to me,” says Emily. But create something new was just what Nic did on this site with views of Lyttelton Harbour, Banks Peninsula and the Port Hills.

ABOVE Hydronic heating and a log burner keep this dwelling nice and cosy, plus the number of windows on the south side of the house is limited to help retain heat. Nic designed and built the firewood nook using a folded steel insert that has notches for storing Emily’s fire tools.

As you enter the three-bedroom house Emily shares with her daughters Kitty (4) and Grace (1), its cedar exterior folds in at a point on the south side to reveal the front door leading towards an open-plan kitchen, a living and dining area with a double-height ceiling, a guest bedroom and the laundry. Stairs climb up a second storey housing two bedrooms, the bathroom and a mezzanine. 

TOP & ABOVE The kitchen by Modern Age Kitchens & Joinery (who also did the interior joinery) combines the elegance of polished surfaces and accents (including tapware by Astra Walker and a Buds pendant light by Foscarini) with the rustic quality of American walnut veneer cabinetry, vintage furniture and custom details like the bronzed stainless-steel rangehood designed and built by Nic. “It’s nice to have a sculptural form dropping out of the ceiling bulkhead, and being oval, it maximises the proportions of where it’s fixed,” he says. The Roma Imperiale granite from The Granite Benchtop Company is richly coloured and patterned, and echoes the hues of the ponga outside.

Locals are no strangers to the southerlies that blow into Lyttelton, so Nic prioritised shelter in his design — an L-shaped layout that also nestles the home in a natural dip in the section, the banks of which Emily began planting during the design process. The ‘L’ acts as a buffer from the wind while allowing the family to comfortably enjoy their outdoor spaces. All the main living is in the nook of the ‘L’, which receives the northern light and, sitting low in the section, the best protection from the wind. On the northwest side of the living area, the house opens onto a sheltered courtyard and garden. On the eastern side, the morning sun can be enjoyed on another deck. 

TOP The eastern side of the home borders a reserve, and in this window seat upholstered by Christchurch’s John Cochrane in dark denim fabric for durability, Nic has created a lovely spot to view it from. One of several spaces in the house designed for moments of quiet, it scores the morning sun. “It’s a nice place to just sit and recline beside the sliding window and listen to the birdsong,” says Nic. Aptly, on the wall is a Birdy wall light by Birger Dahl, while near that is an armchair Emily bought over a decade ago for just $50 and recently had reupholstered with fabric from Bolt of Cloth. ABOVE Opening up one side of the house (which features aluminium joinery throughout by GA Aluminium) to the outdoors was part of Emily’s brief to Nic. “The opening looks more dramatic with the timber cladding band above it and the absence of windows,” says Nic. “It accentuates that big, clear width of the opening when the doors are stacked away, in context with the mass above.” Emily likes to keep things simple with neutral colours, so she and Nic worked together to define a palette that’s anchored by the living area’s concrete flooring with a salt-and-pepper finish. The result is calming, with just the right amount of personality.

It was vital that the home enhanced the site’s natural light. “The light in Lyttelton is critical, and everyone’s conscious of how much they get,” says Emily. “Sections hugged by the hills get capped off in winter, so there’s only a small window of light. I wanted lots of windows and outdoor connection, so when we’re inside, we feel like we’re outside, and the kids can run in and out. It’s great for summer, and even in winter, the house is sheltered because we still get the sunlight from the north. It streams in and warms the concrete floors.”

ABOVE Angles and folds at the entrance to the home provide playful geometric forms outside and in.

TOP Emily’s art collection touches all corners of this abode, creating destinations out of small spaces, such as the light-filled landing (leading to a gallery area) at the top of the stairs, where artwork by Jemma Appleby and a seat Emily bought in the UK come together to create a place in which to relax and take in the happenings in the harbour. ABOVE Protruding treads accentuate the floating nature of the striking staircase designed, built and installed by Nic.
ABOVE Emily’s a fan of simple styling and antiques, which offset the home’s modern sensibility. She plans to turn the mezzanine into an office and yoga zone. From here, we catch a glimpse of the photograph by Melanie Manchot hanging in the dining room. The roof overhead is made of Woodtex acoustic panels crafted from compressed shredded timber that provides a textural look. “I like music, so I asked Nic if there was something we could pop on the ceiling to get rid of any echoes, and he came up with that, which we left raw,” says Emily.

These sun-soaked interior areas — expressed via a neutral colour palette and pared-back details that mix a luxe refinement with a nod to past narratives — reveal a thoughtful approach to day-to-day spaces. The living area features a window seat that overlooks native bush and is positioned near a log burner (the warmth from which joins that from the polished concrete in the living and kitchen areas, which are additionally heated underfoot), and there’s a sense of ease in the smooth flow through to the kitchen and the mezzanine above. A series of peaceful zones to retreat within — to admire the sun or storms passing over the harbour — offer solitude, but you never feel as if anyone’s too far away.

TOP The bed in the downstairs sleep space features linen by Thread Design. Emily wanted all of the bedrooms to feel nest-like, and chose to do without a walk-in wardrobe or an ensuite in her own bedroom for that very reason. ABOVE In the bathroom, the basin by Duravit and tapware by Astra Walker are sophisticated complements to a ledge constructed from American walnut and travertine mosaics from The Tile Shoppe that’s used for storage and display. Above it, a mirrored cabinet turns the greenery outside into a dynamic living artwork.

This bond between those inside the home also exists between the dwelling and its site. “I wanted the house to blend in with the hillside by using simple materials,” says Emily. “From a distance, the dark-stained cedar works perfectly. The shape Nic designed stands out in that it’s modern, with a container-like look, but its clean, crisp aesthetic melds with nature and will age in a lovely way, especially as the garden grows.”

ABOVE The home has a beautifully smooth relationship with the outdoors. “We knew the house would be a magnification of what was there in terms of the original L-shaped footprint, especially to maintain this garden relationship,” says Nic. Reinforced with local red rock walls by Terraforma, the natural dip in the property provides both shelter — particularly from the southerlies Emily says “hammer” the section — and privacy from the road.

Emily once had her heart set on a heritage home. Today, this wonderful alternative is proving a rewarding solution that stems from her embracing a new design journey, and Nic’s considered approach to an aesthetic that responds so respectfully to its surroundings.  

Words Catherine Steel
Photography Sarah Rowlands

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