Ahu Ahu Beach Villas is a sweet escape made from mostly recycled materials

The moment you arrive at Taranaki’s Ahu Ahu Beach Villas, you feel a sense of familiarity, of comfort. Stepping onto their concrete floors with inlaid shell and driftwood detail, running your hand over their plaster walls and timber benchtops, or tilting your gaze towards their weathered wharf-piles-turned-structural-beams, each of the four warm and tranquil dwellings greets you like an old friend. It’s a feeling matched by their owners Nuala and David Marshall’s hospitality and genuine excitement about sharing their slice of coastal Ōakura with you. 

TOP Sunrises here are extra-special, and at sunset on clear nights, you can keep your eyes peeled for the magical green flash that sometimes appears as the last rays fade below the horizon. ABOVE The four villas are housed in two self-contained buildings.

David, how did you decide on the look for the villas? During our travels in Europe, Nuala and I stayed in some beautifully timeless homes and historical buildings built from natural, local materials in Wales, Italy, France and Spain that left a lasting impression on us. We were also inspired by the late New Zealand architect James Walter Chapman-Taylor, who built a number of European-style, handcrafted buildings here in Taranaki. Friends of ours owned a house he designed, dubbed ‘The Castle’, and staying there influenced us too.

The villas have won several awards since they were completed in 2000, including one for sustainable architecture from the New Zealand Institute of Architects — who were the architects on this project? Boon Goldsmith, with Alan Reed doing the bulk of the work, along with engineer Russell Nagel. It was their challenge to assemble all of our ideas, influences and elements in an appropriate manner on our wonderful coastal headland. 

ABOVE The simple concept for the interior kept the focus on the architectural detail while creating a comfortable, natural, beachy personality. Nuala turned her attention to the colours and furnishings, choosing ultra-comfortable slat beds and going directly to manufacturers and distributors for top-quality linen and other soft furnishings. Meanwhile, David’s sourcing of materials included power-pole cross arms for the main structure of the kitchens, with old wharf decking for the benches, plus rimu for the drawers with carved boxthorn handles. Rather than spending hundreds on curtain rails, he exchanged a dozen beers for a bunch of rake handles, then foraged for driftwood to use as brackets.

The villas are made almost entirely of recycled materials — can you tell us a bit about the construction process? Channelling James’s use of local materials, we decided to take an unconventional approach: first gather materials, then design. It was a bit of a jigsaw puzzle — we didn’t find the pieces to fit the design, we made the design fit the pieces.
By upcycling materials from old buildings and sites around New Zealand, a sort of reincarnation occurred. Over a number of years, we sourced timber locally from Taranaki and Nelson, including from an old community hall, and we also cut some from our own property’s cliffs and milled it right here.
By far the most fruitful source of materials and treasures was the old Stratford hospital, on the opposite side of Mount Taranaki. It was due for demolition, so I marked the pieces that interested me, then took a team back to help gather them. We brought home heaps of native timber and American Oregon pine; copper spouting and ventilation domes, cast-iron downpipes and rainheads, beautiful windows and doors, door handles, taps and to top it off, 13,000 100-year-old French Marseille-style clay roof tiles. This seemingly random assortment of materials later took shape to become something truly unique.

TOP “Outdoor showers are a blessing when you live so close to the beach,” says David. “It’s so good to be able to come up from a surf and get out of your wetsuit in a hot shower, plus you can wash off the kids after a trip to the beach.” This one is made with a showerhead salvaged from the old hospital. ABOVE Recycled rimu was turned into tables and stairs, while weatherboards from Taranaki’s old Koru Hall were used for the mezzanine-level floors.

You also have a lodge, Oraukawa, on the property — how did that come about? Hosting smaller groups and conferences, the lodge emulates the character of the villas, but with a modern, functional twist. The challenge for the lodge was not to obscure the panoramic view that makes the villas so special, so Alan, Russell and I took an engineering focus to the design: by building down into the ground rather than up, with a flat-roof concept, we were able not only to conserve the villas’ view but also duplicate that same visual spectacle for those who use the lodge.
The structure is mainly concrete with a handful of recycled elements. With a large lounge, an industrial-style kitchen, two bedrooms and ample courtyard space for large gatherings, it’s proven to be a popular multipurpose venue.

TOP Imparting beautiful light, two of the villas and the lodge feature bottle windows inspired by the work of late architect and visual artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser. One of David’s friends helped build the famous Hundertwasser public toilets in Northland’s Kawakawa, and passed on his knowledge of how to make bottle windows, which David and one of his and Nuala’s daughters enjoyed doing in the children’s sandpit on site. ABOVE Also sourced from the old hospital, the villas’ lattice windows were positioned to take in the ultimate view of the ocean.

Organic gardening, boating, surfing… your lifestyle here is quite something. What can guests expect? The sunrise and early-morning swims are special; the middle of the day is for finding a spot in which to bask in the sun and read; and nighttime is for watching the moon rise, telling stories by the fire and looking out for shooting stars. We love to catch some fish, pick some veges and share meals with guests or friends on the clifftop. We also like to share our local knowledge to point guests in the right direction, so they get the best out of their Taranaki experience.

Interview Sarah Norris
Photography Trelise von Sturmer

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