At home in the landscape (+video)

By Claire McCall

The award-winning home designed for the Harvey family by architect Michael O'Sullivan makes full use of its compelling surrounds.

A run along a winding bush track at Karekare in the Waitakeres changed the shape of architect Michael O'Sullivan's future. It's how he met the clients who gave him the well-balanced gift of trust and direction that allowed him to design Home New Zealand magazine's 2011 Home of the Year winner.

Bob and Barbara Harvey first laid eyes on their future architect when he was standing, breathless and agape, on the land they had bought for their retirement. His running mate was a Harvey family friend and O'Sullivan was overwhelmed by the potential of the intense landscape that stretched out before him.

"I saw the site and thought: 'this is fantastic'." Too fearful to broach the subject at the time, he later wrote the Harveys a letter offering his services and, two years down the track, his old-fashioned invitation paid off.

"I didn't imagine that they would hire me when, in their position, they were involved with so many big hitters in the architectural world," says O'Sullivan. "But we had an instant rapport."

It's commendable that the former Waitakere City mayor, Bob Harvey, recognised a kindred spirit in a boy from South Auckland.

O'Sullivan grew up in Papatoetoe, in an Irish Catholic family. "There were eight children and our house was filled with aimless laughter and madness," he recalls.

His father, Patrick, came to New Zealand just before World War II. He was a carpenter who mainly built bridges over the Southern Motorway but also, a house - a design of his own - a generous place full of sun.

When Michael was 10, the family upped sticks to relocate to "a God-forsaken villa in Waiuku".

It was a sensible move in many ways, on to 4.5ha of land, but the wind whistled through the rooms and the kids were seconded to help fix it up. An enormous shed out back became a sanctuary for O'Sullivan. It was a magical storage emporium for tools from his dad's construction plant - including buzzers, welders and gas sets that could heat and sculpt steel. "It was so big that Lotus New Zealand now uses it as a showroom, but it was once alive with energy and productivity."

Making furniture, including a rocking chair, from rescued rimu and kauri, was a release for his restless teenage spirit, but it was a week spent at the offices of Buisson & Strez Architects in his 4th form school holidays that gave him the buzz he'd been searching for. "Architecture became a burning desire."

It's a spark that has never fizzled out. Newly graduated from Auckland University, O'Sullivan spent two years in Hong Kong, where he was commissioned to design a rugby stadium that, not uncommonly, was never built.

"You could work in Hong Kong for 10 years and only see one or two projects constructed. It's such a speculative society and a highly regulated, stifled place."

Is getting resource consent in New Zealand then, like a breath of fresh west coast air? "That side of the game is not taught at university," O'Sullivan admits.

Throughout his career as a partner in Bull/O'Sullivan Architecture, he says he's been privileged to design many wonderful homes in strong landscapes, including his sister's home in the Westport bush when he was just 17. He's also designed law offices and a Mitsubishi car dealership, both of which earned New Zealand Institute of Architecture Awards.

He takes a wry view of the red tape all this creativity has to cut through to be expressed.

"Architecture is a thought form. Every mark you make on paper has to be considered and then justified on site, often to a multitude of people. It's just a matter of how you place people in that hierarchy on any given day," he smiles.

The Harveys were decisively at the top of the particular project pyramid that has earned him his latest accolade. "Bob's knowledge of the area was phenomenal and he was really articulate," says O'Sullivan. The Harveys' brief was for a low-key, yet rich and nurturing family home, in keeping with their principles.

Inevitably, and rightfully, cues came from the land. "Architecture filters and controls how you relate to those natural influences," says O'Sullivan.

To start with he placed three cardinal points on the site: one in the southwest corner picked up on the focus of the Tasman Sea, another, in the southeast corner, linked to caves in the hillside which were the scene of a great atrocity in the land wars. Finally, the northern aspect of the site lay beneath a stand of majestic pohutukawa trees.

The combination of such compelling surroundings and clients with deep-seated, powerful opinions has made for a very special home. At 129sq m, it's about the average size a New Zealand house was in 1975. The floorplan is not huge, rather, it's intimate with rooms well-articulated around a private internal courtyard.

True teamwork is evident in the finished result. Barbara Harvey acted as the interface between client and architect. "The Harveys made very successful, very swift decisions - just what you'd expect from a former mayor and a midwife."

And O'Sullivan drew on more than innovative design skills. He used his own Mangere home that he was designing simultaneously - a finalist in last year's Home New Zealand Home of the Year - as a living canvas for the Harveys'. His long-suffering fiancée, Melissa Schollum, whom he proposed to on Karekare Beach, was in full support.

The roofing membrane, for instance, that clads the Waitakere home is meant to evoke the black-sand surrounds - as if the house were a found object happened upon on the beach. "It was a material that wasn't normally used vertically, so we tested it out in Mangere first."

Black is a running theme. Barbara confidently chose the black fossil marble that clads the kitchen bench and black, too, is the colour underfoot. Picture the scene: O'Sullivan, Bob, Barbara, and two of their five children, Claris and Celia, trudging buckets of black sand back to the home to spread on the floor.

It was an idea O'Sullivan borrowed from Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater where the living room floor uses the same stone that sits on the bed of the river that runs through the property.

"We sifted the sand first using a kitchen sieve - and then sprinkled it on the floor before putting an acrylic polymer over the top." They repeated this laborious process 10 times to achieve the desired result.

And O'Sullivan seems more than happy to have had a chance to return to his shed. For the Harveys' 40th-wedding anniversary, he made them a pendant light that hangs above the kitchen bench. One part of it shines up, the other down, a reflection of their symbiotic relationship.

"I also made the kauri and steel dining table, the front gate, the bookshelves, door handles and a sculpture in one corner of the building," says O'Sullivan.

"I'm sure they got sick of me and my input! I considered making knives and forks but drew the line at that," he laughs.

Now with a prestigious architectural award under his tool belt, O'Sullivan takes his place in a line-up of who's who in the local architectural scene. But the greater thrill comes from a job well done.

"When I see Bob and Barbara in their home they both seem to glow - like Mr and Mrs Fox in the final scene of Fantastic Mr Fox."

Architect Michael O'Sullivan talks about the award-winning house

- NZ Herald

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