Grand Designs NZ: Owners of $5 million copper house show huge ‘leap of faith’

REVIEW: If you owned a waterfront site in a picturesque location, and had a budget of $3 million, how much free rein would you give your architect? I am guessing not as much as the couple featuring on the final Grand Designs NZ show this season.

Software developer Aaron Green and wife Christine, a French scholar, give local architect Michael O’Sullivan the broadest brief possible for their new family home at Cass Bay near Lyttelton – they leave it all up to him.

Even O’Sullivan himself says: “Every architect in the country would be putting their hand up to work on this, and with that comes an element of anxiety and expectation.”

Owners Aaron and Christine Green with Grand Designs NZ presenter Chris Moller - the copper cladding is already weathering and will eventually have a greenish patina.

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Owners Aaron and Christine Green with Grand Designs NZ presenter Chris Moller – the copper cladding is already weathering and will eventually have a greenish patina.

If the architect’s anxious, how does that make the owners feel? But it turns out Aaron quite likes taking a risk – he did that with his software business 17 years ago, and is now reaping the rewards. But he admits: “You have to be a little bit crazy to get something that is fun, remarkable and different.”

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O’Sullivan comes up with an organic-wave-shaped design they love, inspired by the “lyricism of the landscape”. Moller describes as “exceedingly unconventional”, which fits the bill for a grand design. It’s certainly a change from the black box glass pavilions much favoured in recent years.

The house is supposed to be clad in cedar, but the cost for that comes in at nearly $1 million. Gasp. Even Aaron flinches at that, so O’Sullivan suggests copper, which will age beautifully to a green patina.

The house appears different on all sides. The concrete block fence incorporates planter boxes.

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The house appears different on all sides. The concrete block fence incorporates planter boxes.

It makes sense not to choose cedar, which will need maintenance every year in the seaside location. But will copper prove an eco problem in this environment? It is, after all, a toxic material. But clearly, the local authorities are satisfied.

A high water table proves to be a problem – the hole for the subterranean basement keeps filling up with water. Clever (expensive) engineering sorts this out. The engineers design a heavy concrete structure to anchor the house to the ground, so it won’t float. (Who knew?)

Meanwhile, the couple don’t quite know how they are going to live in a curved house, or how it will work for them, and which rooms will be used for what purposes. This is bizarre, considering the money they are spending.

“This anxiety happens because we put all our trust in Michael, and we’ve let him do his thing,” says Aaron. “We have an idea of how it might work, but I think until we actually we get in here, we’re not going to know.”

The curved double-height window at left provides views from the stairwell.

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The curved double-height window at left provides views from the stairwell.

REAL STARS OF THE SHOW

As the build progresses, it’s clear the real stars of this show are the crew working on the complex build –those curves are a real mission for everyone. The site foreman says everyone contributes their ideas and one of them eventually comes up with a solution.

There are even curved sliding glass doors with wood joinery. One of the young blokes in the joinery team comments he can’t find anything like it on Google or Youtube. It’s all about learning on the job.

Even the entry is copper clad - Moller describes the house as a "work of art".

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Even the entry is copper clad – Moller describes the house as a “work of art”.

And Aaron is on site “working from home” every day, which can’t be easy for the builders, but they’re not complaining.

Interestingly, Aaron gives the neighbours a tour – this is a great idea, and a good way to get them onside. The couple is very aware the project is changing the local landscape and attracting attention. “For us doing this crazy build, it was always going to be ‘look at us, look at us’,” says Christine. “But we didn’t really want it to be like that.”

There’s a great shot when dozens of the locals turn up to watch the action, with one saying they thought it was going to be a community centre. OK, it’s THAT big.

Large skylights and beautiful timbers feature in the large, open-plan living area.

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Large skylights and beautiful timbers feature in the large, open-plan living area.

The handcrafted coffee table takes the shape of Quail Island in the harbour beyond - much of the furniture was designed by architect Michael O'Sullivan.

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The handcrafted coffee table takes the shape of Quail Island in the harbour beyond – much of the furniture was designed by architect Michael O’Sullivan.

There are constant design tweaks, small and large, during the build, so the cost blows out, but that doesn’t phase Aaron.

“You cannot price something like this. You really can’t,” he says quite happily.

“It’s a very fluid process, and we are very fortunate to have the family on board with that fluidity,” says O’Sullivan. He’s right. These clients are an architect’s dream.

The dining area also features banquette seating.

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The dining area also features banquette seating.

GRAND REVEAL – IT’S A WORK OF ART

There’s a stronger sense of anticipation for the grand reveal of this project than I have ever seen on Grand Designs NZ before.

And not without good reason. The house is mind-blowing. The “curve” flows around the corner site, with the contoured roofline dropping down at either end. Visually, it fits right in with the topography.

Moller’s “wow” is not always justified when he turns up for a reveal, but it is this time. For a nano-second he is even speechless.

O'Sullivan crafted the brass fittings in the kitchen.

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O’Sullivan crafted the brass fittings in the kitchen.

The gleaming copper-lined entry leads into the massive, open-plan, timber-lined living space that’s flooded with natural light.

O’Sullivan has designed built-in furniture, and it’s brilliant. Moller gives him the ultimate accolade – he compares him to legendary greats Frank Lloyd Wright and Alvar Aalto.

This is a very handcrafted house, right down to the coffee table in the shape of Quail Island in the harbour beyond, and the huge, curved window in the stairwell. The architect has even talked them into brass kitchen cabinetry, which I have never seen before. Not exactly necessary, but stunning, with fittings crafted by the architect himself.

The master suite on the upper level looks out to the bay.

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The master suite on the upper level looks out to the bay.

The master suite and Laura’s bedroom are on the top level, where the views are even better. High copper louvres are another masterly touch. And there’s a hidden door from a mezzanine level in Emma’s room downstairs, so the girls can clamber from either bedroom onto a cargo net to just “hang out”. That’s every kid’s dream.

Then we get to check out the display garage on the ground floor, a stainless steel prison toilet that’s kind of in keeping with the bunker feel of the basement, and the real pièce de résistance on this level – a hidden cinema and bar.

But do they love it? Of course they do. “The first weekend we were here I texted Michael and said ‘I actually get what you were trying to do now,” says Christine.

And that budget? It turns out they have spent “a number that starts with a 5”, counting the build, which was just over $3 million, and including the land and professional services. But this is no temporary build – they and the house are here for keeps.

Moller sums it up beautifully: “Everyone involved in this extraordinary project was taken out of their comfort zone, but together they created something truly remarkable… it’s a masterpiece.” And a fitting finale to a great series.

A wall of shelving accommodating Aaron's camera collection swings open to reveal a hidden cinema and bar.

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A wall of shelving accommodating Aaron’s camera collection swings open to reveal a hidden cinema and bar.

The office also accommodates a "display" garage.

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The office also accommodates a “display” garage.

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