Our ‘Grand Design’

After an  endless six months, I’m able to tell you that our local council has finally approved our building design and okayed us to start on our new little house. Whew. So the waiting and anxiety is over and we can get started…not.

In the meantime, our builder, Rico, as could be expected, has become busy on somebody else’s build because nobody knew when (or if) the council would award building consent. However, this necessary delay has afforded us the opportunity to see the type of construction we’ll be using before we are involved in our own build.

We met up on site with Rico and Neil, the expert who will do the earth reshaping to produce a flat area for the house and terrace, the garage and some sort of ramp to allow trucks to bring building materials needed up to the building site. He’ll build retaining walls to hold the hillside off the house; he also will be in charge of the concrete floors and the block work for part of the garage and back wall of the house. Best of all, his work can be done in the summertime when the ground is dry and well before Rico is free from his current responsibilities on his current build.

We walked over the hillside pointing out which trees must be saved (like our 500 year old pohutakawa tree, duh…) and which must go for access to the site. Neil promises to keep the trunks for our wood-burning stove.  Not that we think we’ll need much extra heat – our architect has designed the house for so-called ‘passive solar’ heating, aiming that sunshine will provide natural heating, absorbed by walls and floors during the day, then given out in the evenings and nights.

The earth bricks are naturally insulating. Another of Rico’s builds is beautifully warm in the winter, with one stove heating a large two storey house, a house that is also cool in the summer. It’s a lot to do with the overhangs, I’m told. Winter sun reaches in; summer sun is high enough in the sky to be kept out of the house when at its hottest. Sounds good to us.

The day we were invited over to see Rico’s current earth-build was a normal working day so we could see bricks being manufactured in situ. To get there, we drove for about an hour south towards Whangarei on a series of windy roads through interesting countryside, and to the east out towards the Heads. The building site was superb, overlooking the outer reaches of Whangarei harbour and out to sea, an extraordinary section high in the hills, surrounded by farmland and bush with stupendous views. Eat your hearts out, rest of the world – yes, there are building sites here available for ordinary folk – not just the rich and famous – like this one in this beautiful land.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The owners, Carolyn and Rob (emigrants from the US), were pitching in just like we propose to do during our build – Carolyn fussing with some impressively large macrocarpa wooden beams and Rob heaping a mixture into a cement mixture consisting of earth, a couple of types of rock, paper, clay, water and a little cement. After adjusting the water content until it was acceptable, he wheeled the mix up huge scaffolding to the top of the walls. One of the builder’s assistants was doing the same, each producing a mix for a separate section. Once they got to their own bit of construction, a metal former was balanced on top of the previous row of mud bricks and filled with the gloopy mixture from the wheelbarrow. Rico took over at that point, lifting the former, smoothing the outside of the brick, emphasising the division between each brick with a few artistic swipes of his trowel and scraping off the inner side of the new brick so plaster can ‘key’ into the earth-bricks when it is eventually applied to the inside of the room. Meanwhile the other two men were back at the work area making more earth mix in their cement mixers. This is hard physical work which is keeping everybody very fit. I bet they sleep well at night.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Bob and Rico’s team are almost finished the outer walls. Soon the roofers will arrive and the construction of the inside walls and all that entails will start. Naturally we’re hoping their build goes perfectly smoothly and quickly – both for their sake…and for ours.

Later we met with Dave, the man who provides wooden framed windows. So far, we’re pricing up wooden frames for inside the deeply inset windows on the ground floor earth-brick walls and aluminium windows on the second storey which has a more conventional wooden construction. Dave is trying to persuade us to have cedar frames – they go beautifully with the earth-bricks, he says. I’m sure they do. But how much more will they cost? Watch this space – I’ll let you know.

But, it really feels like we are moving forward. I must have watched hundreds of  “Grand Designs” programmes over the years (Kevin McLeod, you’re the best!). And, yes, this does feel like a Grand Design of our own. I can just see those deep set windows with their wide sills…in cedar….

FINDING THE SITE (Building at The Bay) 1


We have our Resource Consent for building the house at The Bay! Yippee!

It finally seems to be coming together. Our own Grand Design is going to happen. At last.

It all started almost twenty years ago. One November while eating lunch at the hospital across the road from the Medical School where I was finishing my PhD, I saw an advertisement for a section of land overlooking a deep inlet up in the northern parts of New Zealand in an area appropriately called ‘The Far North’. I rang the vendors and arranged to visit the next weekend, taking my boy-friend (later to become husband) with me.

The weekend was hardly propitious – rain off and on and cool for November. We travelled three hours to the section that Saturday. The view was outstanding, a complete 180 degrees of water view. But it was a long, long drop down a cliff to the water, and we’re water babies. Discouraged, we drove to a friend’s bach at Oakura, enjoyed a social evening and went to bed. The next morning, we fixed sandwiches, in spite of the weather being not exactly conducive to picnicking, and re-visited the section to have one last look, just in case we had changed our minds overnight. After all, it was a fabulous opportunity to acquire a waterfront section with amazing views. We spent another hour looking and debating the strength of wanting a seaside section, a beautiful view, a beach for swimming – all at an affordable price. Our conclusion? We would have to compromise.

We set off north to make a grand circle of driving back to the city well to the south. Hey, why not? Lunchtime came and we stopped at a lovely bay – yes, lovely even in the rain – with black volcanic rocks jutting into the sea on either side of a sheltered sandy beach. Mike spotted a ‘For sale’ sign on the uphill side of the road. We climbed over the fence with our sandwiches to shelter from the misty rain under a gigantic pohutakawa tree, and munch and look. We couldn’t see the road from our perch on the massive tree roots as it was hidden below us but we could see the entire bay and a large tree-covered peninsula to the north. And we could look out at the arrow straight line of the Pacific Ocean’s horizon to the east (next stop, South America). Totally outstanding.

‘Wonder what they’d want for this section?’ I asked.

‘Half a mil? A million?’ Mike said. ‘Paul McCartney could build something really grand here. Or Kiri Te Kanawa.’

‘She already owns a place up the road,’ I said. But I agreed. This was millionaire territory. Still, I copied down the telephone number. Curiosity, nothing more.

The real estate salesperson told me the price over the telephone, only a small percentage of what we’d figured. I almost dropped the receiver; I just about yelled ‘sold!’ right then and there. It was not only within our budget, it was not even at the top of it! Instead, I coolly – oh-so-coolly – arranged for us to meet the vendor to negotiate.

We walked away from that meeting having brought the price down a few thou. Correction – we didn’t walk away from that meeting – we floated away with the sales document clutched in our hot little paws.


As I said. Twenty years ago. We’ve been spending weekends at our caravan on the site ever since. Really using it – every fortnight in the summer and probably every three weeks in the winter, plus spending every Easter, Christmas and other assorted holidays there for twenty years. We love it.

And now we’re going to build. We’re calming down our working lives and ready to put up a boutique (read ‘small yet uniquely designed’) home that will be tucked into our 2000 m2 (half an acre) hillside, not two minutes from the beach.

We have Resource Consent! That means we’ve fulfilled the arduous requirements of ‘Coastal’ regulations plus those of ‘Outstanding Landscape’. Yes, even the Far North Council thinks our place is pretty darn special. We do too.


To be continued…


You’ll notice I mentioned that I was pursuing a PhD way back when. My new mystery ‘Half Truths and Whole Lies’ takes place in academia. See the blog below about it.