The tree house

Five incredible levels ascending a bush-clad hill, this family home is the height of ingenuity.

Try for a minute to recall the childhood sensation of climbing a tree: the shadows at the base giving way to light, the thrill of being so high, the bird’s-eye view of the world below. Pass through the dusky blue entryway and up, up, up the steep central staircase in the house Francine Smith and David Cunneen built, and you get a similar sense of floating on air.

TOP The spine of the home is a staircase lit by skylights. ABOVE Francine and David on the deck off the kitchen, where the view extends right out to the Waitemata Harbour.

This house is nothing short of spectacular: five beautifully crafted levels scaling a Titirangi hill. “Our architect, Hamish Stirrat of Fabricate Architecture, is young and passionate about design, so we gave him the artistic freedom to surprise us with it,” says Francine, who relocated to Auckland with David and their sons in 2012, after the 2011 earthquake changed life forever in their previous home of Christchurch. “We were working within council height restrictions and, as well as creating a great family home, wanted to step lightly on the earth. The end result works so well. There’s an overall connectedness about it where every corner is utilised.”
Clad in cedar that has been left to “silver off” and blend into the surrounding natives, and with American oak underfoot and angled birch ply ceilings overhead, the house is conceived as a series of distinct living areas (a summer room, a winter room and a kids’ lounge) linked by a 2m-wide hallway comprising 42 stairs that lead from the ground-floor entrance to the kitchen high above. “And they all work,” says Francine, “from sitting in front of the fire watching a movie with the kids, to us hanging out with friends upstairs, to the kids playing with their mates in their living area.” Each child’s bedroom is on a different floor, with the couple’s master suite separate again.

TOP Finn’s sun-drenched space features open shelving and a Kiss light by Catherine David Designs. A Banana pillow by Thing Industries teams with bed linen from Father Rabbit and a cushion made with leftover curtain fabric by Marimekko from Bolt of Cloth. MIDDLE Oliver in the winter room. “The louvres are great, both a nod to modernist design and supplying constant airflow,” says Francine. “Plus cleaning them is easy – they can be thrown into the dishwasher.” ABOVE Leo in the summer room’s hanging chair – a Trade Me find.

Arriving in the eye of a storm, homestyle watched from the open-plan kitchen/dining area as clouds rolled across the suburb below. Throughout the house, cleverly arranged windows draw the eye out to the Waitemata and Manukau harbours, through Cornwall Park and over the Bombay Hills.
“To help us finalise the orientation of the windows, we brought a chair into the shell of the house and sat in each room to gauge the best vantage points for the light and views,” says Francine, an interior designer who regularly joins forces with builder David on projects. They also paid close attention to privacy, requesting oversized windows on the plans, then downscaling them visually while sitting inside the home’s framework to ensure maximum seclusion from the neighbours.

ABOVE “I wanted tofeature mustard Dulux Mana somewhere prominent, so the pantry doors were perfect,” says Francine. “Using the Muuto Dots as handles adds a textural effect. The stainless steel benchtops are hard-wearing and bringan industrial element to the kitchen that we enjoy, andwe also love black ply, so that was an easy choice for the cabinetry; we used it for the main bathroom’s vanity too.”

It might appear sprawling, but in fact the rooms are modest, every inch serving a purpose. The décor is a mix of old and new, with a focus on the functionality that’s a hallmark of Francine’s style; she believes a home should be an expression of your best self and embody the Danish hygge ideal of human connection, warmth and pleasure. “We love Scandi, modernist and minimalist design, so our finds are a bit eclectic,” she says. “But combining ideas and looks is what makes a house a home.”
The material palette incorporates complementary textures and fittings throughout; the couple used natural materials wherever possible, including Hemptech curtains to soften the living areas, leather for the window seats and sound-absorbing cork in the kids’ lounge. All the glass includes argon gas to minimise heat loss and the concrete blocks on the entry level’s exterior also retain warmth.
The blown-glass pendant lights in the dining room were a previous purchase from Matisse and dictated the colour scheme. No one in the family needed convincing to make bold choices such as in the kitchen and on the front door, which is painted in soft pink Dulux Dunedin.
“The kids are interested in design and colour, so it’s something we encourage, and this experience has reiterated the importance of being true to what you want,” says Francine. “For years we’ve seen things we’ve liked, and we were able to bring it all to life in this house.”

TOP “This is where we tend to come together for homework, dinner and drinking wine with friends,” says Francine of the top-storey dining space that includes a wrap-around window seat with hidden storage. David gets a kick out of paying attention to detail and in this room recessed the blinds so they’re concealed. “And there are lights under there as well,” says Francine, “so at night, they glow.” ABOVE Having lived without a bath for some time, it was a must for Francine to have one in her ensuite. Combined with a smoky grey glass shower box and matching pendant lights, “it’s a bit glam and grown-up”, she says.

At the very top of the ‘tree’ is a multi-level courtyard with a fire and barbecue area and the pool David made from the container used to transport the family’s possessions up from Christchurch. It’s been such a success, he’s keen to branch into making more. “I’d been tossing around the idea for a pool made from a shipping container for a while, before it became ‘cool’,” he says. “It’s cost-effective and a great upcycling idea that we made work by creating our own conversion and design process to create an awesome family pool that we can also take with us if we move.”

TOP With a louvre system overhead, the barbecue area outside the summer room is functional in all weather. ABOVE Surrounded by a hardwood Vitex deck, David’s container pool has been an absolute hit. The couple intend to add bamboo in moveable planters behind it to form an organic screen for privacy.

Having weathered the upheaval of the earthquake and a subsequent short-lived shift to the Gold Coast, the couple reason that home is not a thing but where the heart is. “If you’ve got your family, it doesn’t matter where you are,” says Francine.
That doesn’t stop them being rapt with their latest creation. “When we walk in the door, we feel at home,” says Francine. “We all have our own space, yet can easily gather together – the house accommodates everything. Dave has said it’s a gentle and relaxed house, and it is. It’s beautiful but not precious. It’s soft but with some hard edges, warm, unique and comfortable in its own skin.”

Words Philippa Prentice
Simon Wilson

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