House for Five

October 17, 2012

With the award-winning House for Five in Auckland, RTA Studio delivers a high-impact residential project that makes paradox of its wide site.

This article first appeared in Architectural Review Asia Pacific issue 127: The Residential Issue.

Here is something I have been hearing about at work lately: ‘merit relative to opportunity’. It is a human relations term, describing an approach to performance evaluation that takes into account the messiness of life: raising children, ill health, family obligations and other career interruptions. Rather than assuming high performance is demonstrated by relentless productivity – that is, spectacular quantities – it places more emphasis on the quality and impact of achievements given the opportunities available.

Crafted and urbane, House for Five makes a virtue of its circumstances.


It is an approach we might employ in the complicated and inherently uneven world of architectural practice. We look at finished buildings largely unaware of the host of factors that have impinged for better or worse on their production – budgets, planning constraints, building codes, client taste and so on. You will know the mix of amazement and suspicion sometimes aroused by other architects’ work. Why do Japanese clients have so few possessions and such little concern for their children’s safety? How did Frank Lloyd Wright attract commissions on such dramatic sites? What happens to the rainwater that lands on those detail-less Portuguese roofs? Here in New Zealand, most of our architectural magic is created through the rather brute forces of budget and context – extravagant holiday houses set in pristine coastal or alpine landscapes. It is tempting to conclude that some architects have all the luck.

Operating for just over a decade, RTA Studio initially seemed a bit short of luck. Their early work was characterised by difficult sites and the need to convert or extend existing structures, but they established a reputation for producing great buildings from unpromising commissions. Knitted into the urban and social fabric of Auckland’s inner-city suburbs, these buildings were sensitive to the scale and textures of the context while also being functionally and aesthetically bold. Whatever the circumstances, their thoughtful, urbane approach seemed to result in award-winning architecture – one early project with a budget of $20,000 (including architectural fees) was described in an award citation as ‘small but perfect’.

The plan is anchored by a suite of narrow wings.


For RTA ‘merit relative to opportunity’ soon became ‘opportunity relative to merit’, and in recent years they’ve been able to step up to much larger and less constrained work. Skills honed through years of doing more with less were amply demonstrated in projects that supplied more freedom, including a lecture theatre complex (2009) for one of Auckland’s big universities and the Ironbank office development (2009), perhaps New Zealand’s most awarded building ever.

Another of these golden opportunities came when RTA co-founder Richard Naish designed a house for himself, his wife Andrea Hotere and their three kids. Located in the inner-city suburb of Grey Lynn, a fashionable area densely packed with century-old wooden houses, the project was unusual in having a double-width site and in facing across the street to a park. The usual Auckland response to a large site is to throw up high fences and wedge in a huge house. Typically, Naish wanted to be more sympathetic to the context, and designed a house of modest size while exploiting the site’s extra width by exploding the plan and leaving much of the site empty.

Sliding screens admit dappled light – a delicate interior ambience.


In contrast to the compressed planning of its old wooden neighbours, House for Five is laid out as a series of narrow wings. The front wing follows the pattern of the neighbourhood, with a wide gabled form spanning almost the full width of the site. At ground level it contains a sequence of living spaces and an outdoor room complete with fireplace, cosy lounge and master bedroom tucked onto a mezzanine floor. Two more wings – a TV and living zone, and a low block of bedrooms positioned towards the backyard – are wrapped around a generous courtyard oriented to the sun. Intriguingly, pulling the house apart has made it more intimate: views down the length of the wings and across the courtyard mean occupants can be aware of each other even from opposite ends of the house.

Like RTA Studio’s previous work, the house fits its context. It is set back from the street in line with its neighbours, and a rain-screen of white cement board panels echoes the weatherboard texture of wooden neighbours. Some panels have been waterjet cut with a pattern abstracted from the fretwork of a nearby Victorian villa. The pattern was inverted and laid out in a grid rather than a line and applied to large sliding screens. Moving these screens allows the degree of openness to the street to be adjusted according to the weather or time of day, and creates a delicate dappled light in the interior. Andrea is the daughter of Ralph Hotere, one of New Zealand’s most important contemporary artists, and the screens also protect her collection of Ralph’s extraordinary art from the effects of sunlight.

The sequence of living spaces adds a cosy intimacy.


The unique opportunities presented by the wide site were balanced by Naish’s self-imposed constraints, particularly the desire not to overwhelm the suburban street with either a size or shapes that were out of place. In lesser hands such limitations would have neutralised the project’s opportunities and likely resulted in insipid architecture.

But despite the reticence of Naish’s design, it has made an impact: it was a finalist in a recent House of the Year competition and received a national award from the New Zealand Institute of Architects. The house proves that modest means or constrained circumstances need not imply a lack of ambition, and the design is proof of the value of intelligence over extravagance and finesse over flamboyance.

Merit can come from any opportunity.

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