Design destination: Homer Martinborough, made with Modhouse

For art director Katyana O’Neill, being the daughter of moteliers and niece and granddaughter of builders meant developing a dwelling in which to host was a goal that had been in the back of her mind for many years. Realising it came down to a series of unexpected events and Te Matau-a-Māui/Hawke’s Bay architect John McNamara’s Modhouse concept.

TOP “The property had about a 600mm fall from the street, so we moved the house to the back corner so it sat on a flat site, which also maximised the northern outdoor living areas,” says John.

You’re currently living in New York, Katyana, so why build your first home in Huangarua/Martinborough? My husband Matthew [Swinbourn] and I were on the other side of the world when our plans fell apart because of the pandemic and we found ourselves back in Martinborough, my hometown, in the midst of a lockdown. During one of our many mental-health bike rides, we came across a sunny little section. As we slowly pieced things back together, that became Homer.
In those ever-uncertain months, Homer was our sure thing — a place we could always return to. We’re of a generation of people who don’t really know where we’ll end up, so the comfort of having our family around the corner was a big drawcard. We’re blessed — they’re always there to lend a hand, their trailers and their weekends.
We also just adore Martinborough. Its natural surroundings attract so many visitors and bring an energy to it, and even more importantly, it’s a gorgeous little community; chances are someone’s going to say hello when you walk down the street. Because of that, it’s somewhere we’ve always found peace, both in those quintessential Aotearoa summers and bitter southerly-filled winters. 

ABOVE “I made minor changes to the floorplan to accommodate the site and client requests,” says John. “Although the external footprint was unchanged, the layout was fun to play around with to meet their needs, for example pushing the kitchen to the north end of the house. It worked out really well.”

What made you choose to build a Modhouse? Being such a prominent site in an area that’s predominantly original villas, it was important for us to build something that was respectful of and added value to the area. For us, that meant architectural, but unfortunately we didn’t have access to a traditional architectural budget. We were searching for a solution when we stumbled across Modhouse online, offering architectural homes that were sustainably minded, beautiful and, because of their modular design, financially manageable. After a call with John and a drive up to visit the first Modhouse he completed in Hastings, we knew it was the right move.

Did you have a clear idea of what you wanted? The only thing we knew we definitely wanted was to clad the house with timber screening — we used Abodo — because we love the way it elevates a simple facade and is reflective of the old barns on the surrounding farms. We wanted the house to have the ability to reconnect us with family and ground us with nature, so we were looking for a floorplan that had a small footprint and prioritised entertaining. After years of city living, being able to open the doors and spill out onto the land is something we do not take for granted.

ABOVE “Sustainability is a core tenet of the Modhouse ethos,” says John. “We make small, high-performing, timber houses oriented to capture the sun, with doors and windows placed to heat the slab for free passive solar gain. A wood-burning fire heats the living areas and a heat pump supplements this for the three bedrooms.”

What was the process like? Once we’d mastered the art of the Zoom call — 2020 was a different time — it was such good fun. Modhouse is modular, so our initial meetings were about redesigning the plan to suit our site and all the ways in which we wanted the house to be used. John would scribble down our initial ideas, then draw them up and come back to us.
Next, the process of creating the plans began and we got to see Homer come to life in elevations. At this stage, John educated us on different materials and played a big part in the detail of the windows and doors. We had a site meeting, during which we marked out everything with our builder, my uncle Wayne Johnson of Johnson Brothers, and suddenly plans were being submitted to council for consent.
Maybe it was the naivety all over our faces, but John truly looked after us throughout the process. He visited the site, kept us honest and was always available. If you’re looking for an architect who’ll happily jump on the end of the wheelbarrow, John is it. 

TOP “The door handles were painted by Kat’s grandfather, and it was wonderful to see how their whole family came together to help on the project,” says John. ”I take my hat off to everyone involved!”

Was creating a colourful interior your intention from the outset? Yes. We’re ’90s kids. We grew up with primary-colour bunk beds and feature walls. Nostalgia is powerful and in an increasingly serious world, the joy colour can bring felt imperative at the time.
The choice to line the interior with stained gaboon ply gave us a rich, warm base and inspired a natural yet still colourful palette of deep clays, sage greens and blue accents. We found it hard to find colour options within our budget, so where and how we used the palette evolved as it was informed by what was available to us. The ensuite we’d imagined would be green ended up terracotta and the main bathroom went from having blue grout to clay, so we started to build the palette back in with furniture. 

How did you land on the right pieces? We went for a minimal amount of furniture, so we could be brave with the colours of the big pieces. As an art director by trade, I was inspired by the physicality of placing tangible objects, which led to choosing more sculptural and colourful items.

How often do you get a chance to come over from NYC to stay? So far, about once a year. In the interim, we’re very lucky that our amazing family puts a lot of time into keeping Homer happy. 

What are your favourite things to do in the area? I won’t say drinking wine… but drinking wine, wandering into town to sip coffee, having the whole family over for dinner, and taking a drive out to Ngawi on the coast — it’s rugged and glorious. We hope that for our guests, Homer inspires a sense of play and is a place where they can gather to chat, cook, snack, drink, read, write, rest, laugh, feed the soul and solve the problems of the world.

TOP & ABOVE “Externally, the rainscreen is the show-stopper and then you enter and go ‘Wow’, as the interior really makes it such a fun place to be,” says John. “My wife Nikki and I loved our stay in the house — we couldn’t stop staring and taking it all in.”

One last question: what’s in the name Homer? We want to say it came from the phrase ‘Home away from home’ somehow, but actually, it was a nickname that just kind of stuck. We’re not sure why, but we were both raised on The Simpsons, so there’s that.;

Interview Alice Lines
Photography Bonny Beattie

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