Emigrating from the Netherlands in 2008, Ellen Naudts and Ron Otten were looking for space, freedom and greenery for their two young daughters. They hadn't expected to find it so close to Auckland's central city. "This place was just perfect," says Ellen. "We felt like we could start breathing again."
What they found was a private tree-lined property, where Ellen could take preschoolers Stella and Hannah on nature walks in their own backyard. "Coming from a crowded city, they were so excited to put on backpacks and look for insects and lizards in the bush," says Ellen. Ellen and Ron thought the split-level house - designed by architect Carl Thomas for his own family in the 1980s - was marvellous, too. Perched on poles in a bush setting, the weatherboard and clay-roofed house was a bit different from the typical Amsterdam townhouse. "We loved its creativeness - the different angles with nooks and corners," says Ellen.
They've rebuilt the front deck, and gradually modernised the network of timber decking around the house with dark stain and Oriental trellis.
Inside, the stone-floored mid-level entry, with a dramatic sloping ceiling, directs visitors down to living areas or upstairs to dining room and kitchen. The family can spread around several zones in the living space - a sunny sitting area off the deck, a library space for piano practice or a snug TV den, off another tree-framed deck. All revolve around the efficient Kent fire that warms the whole house.
Ellen's favourite spot is the timber-lined window bay, with wrap-around seats. After school, the family settles into the dining room above, with another built-in seat overlooking the living space. "We can do homework on the table, listen to someone's piano practice," says Ellen. The sunny dining deck is also ringed by bush and a popular spot for Sunday morning breakfasts.
On summer evenings, they gravitate to the westerly covered deck off the renovated kitchen, with its classic cream cabinets and black benchtops. They kept the spacious U-shape and efficient storage. "I like that I can keep an eye on the girls playing outside, and look across to the bush while I'm cooking," says Ellen. The flat side yard is linked to terraced gardens above, complete with a Wendy house for tea parties, opening off the generous laundry.
Overseas guests tend to stay for weeks at a time, so the family has made good use of the bedroom (with generous walk-in closet) and full bathroom on the same level. When guests are gone, it's a handy office or teenage space.
Nestled at the top of the house are three more double bedrooms, with a shared bathroom. Ellen and Ron's sunny master bedroom enjoys the best view. "We feel like we're waking up in a park," says Ellen, "it's like a marvellous retreat."
Ellen has also enjoyed her retreat from European corporate life, to a painting studio below the house, and a return to study. But although the family's loved their bush retreat, "It's time to get out more and see the rest of New Zealand," they say. They're downsizing so they can travel and let another family play in their spacious parkland.