Heaven in the Hills

Standing on the corner of the cantilevered bedroom deck that hovers above the lawn of this Cambridge house, is an exhilarating experience for the owners who treasure a long family history in the Waikato.

From here, the land drops away to a rural tapestry and, in the distance, the volcanic cone of Mount Pirongia is a familiar presence on the horizon.

When they decided to give up dairy farming for a still-active lifestyle that offered more flexibility, Michelle and John Keeley did not want to surrender the day-to-day immersion in a bucolic landscape. Michelle, who owns a floristry business, and John, who still works in the agricultural sector, bought this site on Mangakawa Mountain because it had enough acreage to still run “a few beefies” but also sported wraparound views – rolling paddocks in the immediate foreground to the pretty river town and, further out, the well-loved landmark of Maungatautari, an ecological sanctuary.

Here was an opportunity to reinvent themselves, and craft a forever place for family and friends. They were impressed by the style of Turner Road Architecture’s award-winning Karapiro house. “The Keeleys wanted something contemporary that reflected the same materials as that project – and were fantastic clients who trusted us implicitly,” says Lee Turner.

All well and good but this was a more challenging piece of land situated on top of a steep ridgeline. “Context is king in architecture; we believe architecture needs to not only look good in itself, but also in its environment. We wanted a design that would not protrude unnecessarily and interrupt the profile of the mountain,” says Lee.

It was natural, then, for the plan to emulate the topography, stepping down and hunkering into the hillside. The dwelling is a lean, low series of pods that has the flavour of the Californian Case Study houses but with a Kiwi twist – a palette of darker tones to retreat rather than reflect. “There are four pods over five different levels,” says Lee. The master suite on the highest eastern end of the slope is separated from the main living zone by an office a few steps down, while the bedroom wing is to the west on the lowest part of the site, allowing lots of privacy for the owners and their guests. It is linked to the central living by a glass walkway and covered deck. A garage slotted in on the southern elevation is on yet another level.

“It was a difficult house to build,” admits Lee. “There was a lot of excavation and retaining required.”

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