Grand Designs NZ returns with a bold off-grid build in the Chatham Islands

EXAM: It’s back – with a new presenter and a new location. A windswept Tom Webster on a long, lonely road in the windswept Chatham Islands is our introduction to the long-awaited seventh series from Grand Designs NZ.

And here’s the real boost: the couple featured this week are building a home designed by controversial and multi-award-winning architect Michael O’Sullivan of Bull O’Sullivan Architecture. So we can expect something special – it’s the same guy who designed the Cass Bay copper house that featured on Grand Designs in 2020, and an 80m long multi-generational “barrel” house in Tai Tapu .

You have to be tough to live in the Chathams, more than 800 km off the southeast coast of New Zealand. And you’re probably a bit crazy to build your dream home, given the challenges of an extremely remote location.

Presenter Tom Webster was blown away by this Chatham Islands build, not quite literally.  The house, designed by architect Michael O'Sullivan, features a double butterfly roof reminiscent of seabirds in flight.

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Presenter Tom Webster was blown away by this Chatham Islands build, not quite literally. The house, designed by architect Michael O’Sullivan, features a double butterfly roof reminiscent of seabirds in flight.

But John and Bridget Preece are in. As John, a commercial fisherman of Moriori descent, says from the start: “I knew she would be a Chatham Island girl – the outdoor, fishing and farming lifestyle she was right into it all.

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And Bridget admits that to live here, you have to make do with the little things, like not going out to eat and sitting in front of a crackling fire.

The couple, who have been together for 17 years and have a blended family of grown children, are building on farmland that has been in John’s family for generations.

Webster poses with Bridget and John Preece, who have built on land owned by John's family for generations.

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Webster poses with Bridget and John Preece, who have built on land owned by John’s family for generations.

O’Sullivan, who went to boarding school with John, designed a 40m long steel-framed off-grid house that hugs the ridgeline (yes, it’s exposed, like everything here). It will have a corrugated iron roof and siding, and a 3m wide deck that will wrap around the house, so there will always be somewhere to get away from that wind.

It has a fabulous “winged” double butterfly roof, reminiscent of a seabird in flight, anchored to 10 sturdy steel gates and deep stakes. O’Sullivan describes it as a “poetic response to landscape”.

Builders must be housed and fed – and paid

It won’t be cheap – you don’t just have to pay builders to work here. You also have to pay for their flights, set them up, and feed them for three weeks at a time for the duration of the build. And then there is the cost of bringing materials from the mainland. They hope to make it between $900,000 and $950,000 and finish it by the end of the year (2021).

But you just know that budgets and deadlines simply exist to be blown out of the water, especially in times of Covid. Things never go as smoothly as hoped, and it’s all the more difficult when you’re dependent on shipping schedules and know how to do things on the fly. But these builders are incredibly inventive. They may be from the mainland, but they have the island spirit.

The base of the bridge resembles an inverted roof shape, bringing visual balance to the construction.

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The base of the bridge resembles an inverted roof shape, bringing visual balance to the construction.

Bridget cooks three to four hours a day to feed everyone (it may not be fun, but she’s amazing). Meanwhile, their pet cow Molly eats their entire vegetable patch.

The family participates. John gets help from Bridget’s son Harrison, a professional roofer, and his partner Suzie, who have returned to the Chathams to help with the construction (they announce a pregnancy).

O’Sullivan comes for his first look, and he’s thrilled: “I worried a lot and worried a lot,” he says. “I thought maybe it was a little too reductive and tidy for the site, but every space we go into is damn good.”

We are lucky to hear great family stories of ‘getting by’ in the Chathams – John’s grandfather built an entire house from recycled wood from another house, as well as a heritage wool cabin still used. His parents helped build the only Moriori building on the island, an albatross-shaped marae.

But the construction of Preece is held up by Covid travel bans and rising material costs kick in. Bridget despairs. They drop plans to have it finished by Christmas. But they get a new bank loan approved and work continues.

O’Sullivan’s plans are taking shape – the fold of kauri lining the interior is typical of the architect’s work, and beautiful. There are many, but it is one with the landscape.

But there is a dead end. The architect would like the huge soffit to be painted in a dark burnt orange tone, to match the color of the kwila earth and decking. He thinks it will help with the “levitation” of the roof. He also chooses a beautiful green and yellow for the kitchen, from the rare Chatham Island yellow-crowned parakeet on site. But Bridget won’t have a bar of it.

Like a sea bird in flight

Finally, we get the big reveal. That’s all Webster says: “Beautiful, dynamic, angular.”

The roof is the hero – it looks ready to take off. But it is visually balanced by the kwila decking that wraps around the very large house. And the roof is not “interrupted” by solar panels – there are two large rows of them on the ground nearby, providing electricity to the house.

A wide walkway forms a rather clinical and partly sheltered entrance (there is a huge cellar-garage on one side). But inside the house everything is calm and warm, with a fantastic view of the painting to the west.

Built-in cabinetry includes a shelf and bench seat in the dining area.  Bridget particularly likes the wood veneer above the table because it looks like dolphins.

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Built-in cabinetry includes a shelf and bench seat in the dining area. Bridget particularly likes the wood veneer above the table because it looks like dolphins.

Light-toned plywood lining is contrasted by a black kitchen with black fixtures and fittings. No yellow or green paint in sight. “We’re really thrilled with the fold,” says Bridget. “I had no idea what it would look like and was a little skeptical, but it’s just beautiful.”

We agree. There are beautiful wooden built-in units, including a beautiful shelf and bench seat at the dining table.

Architects today often prefer to have glazed passageways on the sunny side of the house, with bedrooms exiting from them. But neither O’Sullivan nor Bridget and John wanted to block the view from their bed, so they left their bedroom open to the passage, with just a curtain to draw for privacy.

“I just wanted to establish a match with that”

You can see these two being very happy here, and they deserve to be. It’s always a privilege for the viewer to see a couple speak honestly and openly about their project, like these two do. If you’re planning a build, you might be interested to hear Bridget’s perspective on it.

The splashback tiles are a similar color to the crease.

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The splashback tiles are a similar color to the crease.

“It was a long build, much more stressful than I ever imagined,” she says. “And (I) felt like giving up, many times. I think about six months ago I just wanted to set up a game. I could have walked out of the aisle and given up. Everything was so difficult. We lost my mother…I think it was the hardest year of my life.

But they did, although it cost them financially. They spent $1.3 million, which includes over $120,000 in shipping costs. It’s about $400,000 over budget, but they’re rooting in family land and, as John says, creating new memories.

Friends and family gather as the credits roll – did you see the Islanders broadcast? Crayfish galore, and that was just the beginning.

In summary: It is a beautiful house in a stunning landscape, and is reminiscent of an arch with its inverted roof shape at the base of the bridge. But it would have been nice to have a little more detail on the off-grid stuff. (There is a backup generator.) Do they have battery storage? How much power will the panels generate? How much sun is there in winter?

Tom Webster has shown us that he’s more than capable of keeping up with Chris Moller’s shoes, although it will be interesting to see how he approaches a build he doesn’t like. Diplomatically, no doubt.

Grand Designs NZ airs on TVNZ1 on Tuesdays at 7:30 p.m. and on TVNZ+

John, Bridget and Tom stand in the front yard.

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John, Bridget and Tom stand in the front yard.

A large garage storeroom is to one side of the breezeway.

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A large garage storeroom is to one side of the breezeway.