Everything from straw to steel feature as Kiwis take on their dream designs, writes Sarah Ell.

New Zealand's oldest buildings sit by a tidal estuary to the north of Auckland. The Stone Store and Kemp House at Kerikeri, right? Well, no, not any more. Thanks to an ambitious building project, featured on the New Zealand series of Grand Designs, the bones of two even older buildings closer to Auckland at a secret location now form part of a new waterfront home.

It's a grand design indeed. Timber miller Marty Verry, keen to build in his favourite material, decided to import the frames of two massive historic barns from the northeastern United States and use these as the basis for a new home for himself, wife Morella Lascurain and their two daughters, Alessandra, 12, and Sophia, 10. One of the barns was built in the 1810s and the other in the 1780s, shortly after Captain Cook visited these shores.

Verry, who runs one of New Zealand's largest timber mills, found heritagebarns.com through Google and became attracted to reusing and recycling two of these spectacular structures in a New Zealand setting. He just had to get them here.

"They are experienced in putting them up around the US - George W Bush has one on his ranch - but this was the first time they had exported them," Verry says.


The disused barns had to be carefully taken apart - the old cladding was discarded - and the solid beams packed into containers and fumigated for export. Then, once on site, the puzzle was put back together again by skilled craftsmen, using traditional tools and wooden fastenings.

They then formed the basis for a large main house, featuring huge north-facing windows dominating the double-height, open-plan living space, and a smaller guesthouse nearby. An addition to the larger barn contains bedrooms and living space for the girls.

The historic American oak timbers are complemented throughout with new-milled and recycled local wood, including macrocarpa and recycled rimu.

A big factor for Verry was the environmental benefits of reusing the wood. "When we were designing the house, the architectural designer was concerned that such a large house would go against his ecological principles, so we did some calculations using a couple of online tools, to work out the CO2 [carbon dioxide] impact," Verry says.

"It turns out the project will store 90 tonnes of CO2. This equates to driving 450,000km, or about the amount of CO2 my cars have emitted since I first started driving 30 years ago. The lesson we learned is that big can be good for the environment, provided the building is made of wood."

This kind of thinking appealed to Grand Designs New Zealand host Chris Moller, who takes on the Kevin McCloud role for the Kiwi series. Wellington-based Moller will be a new face to many New Zealanders but he has extensive experience in architecture and urban design, here and in Europe.

Moller was asked to present the show after speaking with the producer, Imagination, about potential projects to feature.

"I didn't have anything at the time so I put them on to some other things, then a while later they came back and asked me if I was interested in presenting.


"It took a while to get my head around what it would mean, then I realised what the possibilities could be, and it seemed like a wonderful chance to share good design and great architecture with a broader Kiwi audience," Moller says.

The eight-part series, which features projects as diverse as the Verrys' barns, a straw-bale house near Wanaka, a modern concrete farmhouse in the Catlins and a sculptural steel house near Pakiri, north of Auckland, draws on the Kiwi tradition of home-building.

"Building our own homes has always been central to our lives but I think it's interesting to start to see our homes as a device that improves our lives rather than simply real estate, and to think beyond the box." Moller says the featured projects aren't necessarily all large or expensive homes, but are "grand" in the sense of their creative aspirations.

"It's more about big ambitions and big ideas and what it takes to realise these things. Some people have professionals to help them and some people use their skills or develop new skills to pull it off.

"It's as much about the diversity of all sorts of people from different walks of life around the country, following their dreams and digging into realise them."

As the ad says, DIY is in our DNA, but Moller believes it comes down to "being ballsy enough to say, 'Let's just do it.' It's one thing to have a big idea but it's a whole other thing to think hard about not just the risks but also what kind of team you're going to need, what the challenges will be along the way, and being prepared properly.

"When I talk to people [on the show], I ask them: how prepared are you for this? What things are you good at?

"Have you got a good team around you to cover off the things that you are not capable of or need help with?"

Moller says one of the aspects of the Verrys' American barns project that appealed to him was the potential the project has to change the family's life, as they move from city living to a semi-rural existence on a 4ha lifestyle block.

There is also the physical combination of the modern timber-clad exterior and the massive historic beams revealed inside holding it up.

"It's also a bit of a surprise when you walk in," Moller says. "That's one of the things about architecture - there are so many ways you can delight someone through space and structure.

"You walk around the building, then you go through the door and it's something completely different to what you expected."

Grand Designs New Zealand starts on TV3 tonight at 8.30pm. The barns feature in an upcoming episode.