Contemporary house styles

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Reading a culture’s architecture reveals a huge amount about that culture. So what do our buildings say about us?

Wellington architect Gerald Parsonson muses on the evolution of New Zealand architectural styles from north to south.

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I think New Zealand Architects have been developing a confident and distinctive architectural language that begins to speak uniquely of ‘people’ and ‘place’, especially in housing. It is interesting to consider how this language varies across the country based on regional climate and culture.

To my mind, Pacific Rim architecture embraces lightness, stick structures, warm climate, natural ventilation and connection to the outdoors. This is often seen in northern parts of New Zealand, then the further south you travel, the more this lightness gives way to a language of insulation, solidity and shelter.

Today there are so many new technologies available with a growing lack of restrictions in articulating form. Budget is often the main constraint. However even this has evolved into another defining attribute of New Zealand architecture: the ability to develop robust and articulate architectural language on the smell of an oily rag.

Modern Building Types


Martinborough House, Parsonson Architects
Martinborough House, Parsonson Architects

Buildings can be layered in many ways: vertically, horizontally and materially. Layering is one way of relating a building to its context.

In a rural setting, a layering of roofs and walls may relate to lines of trees and fences and allow a flow of spaces from outside to inside.

In a tight urban site or forest setting, the layering could easily be vertical. As well as layering form, materials and structure can be regarded in the same way to add further resonance and richness.

Box form

Great Barrier Island House, Fearon Hay
Great Barrier Island House, Fearon Hay

Box forms are common in architecture from ancient times to the modern day.

A Great Barrier beach house by Fearon Hay (above) consists of two box forms supporting a flat roof between.

Here the boxes have a character all of their own. They are made of dark stained regular ply sheets, referencing DIY bach construction but are put together crisply. Perforated metal shutters on the same rhythm open up the box filtering the interior spaces in a magical way.


Stick architecture
Stick architecture. Sketch Gerald Parsonson.

The main building material in the Pacific Region has been timber. It is readily available, economical and sustainable.

What’s more, building with it is fun. Buildings can be raised off the ground, touching the earth lightly or to facilitate construction on steep sites.

Sticks can be used as cladding (weatherboards) or layered to form screening from sun and wind, and draw relationships with the way light filters through trees.

Pitch roof

Ngamatea by John Scott
Ngamatea by John Scott. Sketch Gerald Parsonson.

Pitched roof forms are the most prolific of all building forms covering most houses in New Zealand.

They are the most practical, economic way of providing shelter and can be shaped in infinite ways and convey different meanings.

Ngamatea by John Scott is composed of two pyramidal roof forms (house + garage). It sits hunkered into a hilltop on a large sheep station between Taihape and Napier. John Scott recognised the importance of the hilltops in the region in choosing the form and ‘blew out’ part of the roof to create a tucked in sheltered area in this windswept and rugged site.

Landscape form

RTA Studio
Design by RTA Studio.

New Zealand has many different landscapes, from mountains and rural pastures to forests and coastlines.

Historically we have built ‘object buildings’ – that is buildings that stand apart from their context, villas, cottages or modern suburbia. An alternative approach is to create a poetic relationship with the landscape, engaging in a conversation with the subtleties of the location.

This produces buildings that are far more ‘of their place’. The illustration here is of an un-built scheme in Otago by RTA Studio. Solid stone walls anchor it into the landscape with contrasting lighter forms that are folded and fractured speaking to the wider environs. This same approach can even be applied to high-density inner city situations to generate appropriate architectural language.


House designed by Fran Silvestre.
House designed by Fran Silvestre.

Walls are how we usually define space, both inside and out. A floor plan is a plan of ‘walls’.

In a house this arrangement defines a pattern for living or the bones of the house. Walls and holes in walls edit how spaces interrelate with each other and the outside.

The dramatic cliff side house in the above illustration by Fran Silvestre is made of entirely plain white walls inside and out. Even the roof reads as a folded over wall.

These walls and openings are expressed clearly and precisely and create a sculptural architectural form. Contrasting this is an economical house in coastal Pekapeka, where walls have been carried up past the roof to divide the house into three pitched roof forms allowing straightforward construction. These walls are clad in modular battened fibre cement sheet for economy. But this adds rhythm and creates a connection with the local baches. The exterior cladding flows from the outside through to the inside.

Folded – extruded form

Salamanca House, Parsonson Architects
Salamanca House, Parsonson Architects.

The roof and wall can be considered as one surface shaped, cut and folded to articulate spaces, create form, provide privacy or open up to views.

The example illustrated here is a house on a very tight inner city Wellington site.

The cut and folded roofs develop a relationship with the more traditional houses in the area, provide privacy with the adjacent south neighbour and at the same time, allow light and sun inside and focus the view onto the harbour.

Author: Gerald Parsonson of Parsonson Architects.



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