It may be a giant leap of the imagination to transport the concepts found in Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona pavilion to a Southland paddock, but that’s exactly where the roots of this concrete farmhouse home in New Zealand lie
Deer farmer Lachlan McDonald was studying Spanish and investigating the history of the city of Barcelona when he stumbled across an article about the pavilion. The photos captured his imagination and his heart while the pared-back, modernist lines and gutsy, no-fuss materiality won over his mind.
“Holy smoke!” was the utterance that proclaimed the start of a process to fashion a dream home that was as far from a traditional farmhouse as you could get. That was seven years ago and Lachlan’s friend Kevin De Groot — a builder who specialised in milking sheds — was the first to be put in the picture. He was the one to convince his mate to choose a at spot where trucks could easily manoeuvre, rather than a precipitous part of this farm that had been in the family for generations. “I wanted to build an even more daring thing, hanging off a bank at first,” says Lachlan.
Taking advantage of wraparound views, including a conical hill dubbed Sharp Point, was a given. To ensure the best orientation on the site, architects Richard Naish and Natalie Stebben from RTA Studio were next to come on board. An Auckland friend introduced the farmer to his future design partners. “I was going through a weird stage where I really hated wood and peaked roofs,” says Lachlan. Dispensing with traditional weatherboard and gables in favour of a composition of concrete and glass with a flat-top was an idea RTA readily adopted. And Lachlan got to incorporate a sense of daring when the living area was designed to cantilever over the paddock.
The architects’ original plan comprised four pavilions — three for the concrete farmhouse plus a utility shed. When it came to the crunch, however, financial considerations meant that only the sleeping quarters and a living zone were constructed. “The house was always designed to be done in stages,” explains Lachlan, whose vision is tempered by a strong pragmatism.
Whereas Mies van der Rohe chose travertine and marble for his pristine palette, concrete claims a starring role in the material line-up here. The wall panels were poured in moulds at the factory in Balclutha and later transported to the site. Ornamented with rebates that mimic the strata lines found in the surrounding rocky hillside, they posed quite a challenge. “A tremendous amount of drawings were needed for just one panel.”
Kevin De Groot and his team spent back-breaking hours lining up the decorative detail, but the result allows the slabs a finer touch that elevates the whole. Despite his loathing for wood, Lachlan was convinced to include timber ceilings which offset the concrete of the floor and walls. “I’d lined a deer shed in the stuff and the architect quite liked it,” he says. Stained, rough-sawn macrocarpa milled on the farm brings a rich, golden hue to the interiors.
To furnish the home, Lachlan headed off with Natalie for a shopping adventure in the big city. “We talked a lot about it beforehand so I knew exactly what was required.” A sculptural red chair against an angled wall, a dining table where friends and family can gather and a low sofa that does not interrupt the view across the open-plan space were all bought on the same day.
Careful coordination between the team Lachlan had gathered seven years prior meant the home was finished the day before the final filming for Grand Designs New Zealand. That may have been the pinnacle for the television show, but living here, the ordinary becomes extraordinary on a regular basis. Every room in this 280-square-metre home has a view. Whether enjoying breakfast at the little table that leads off the end of the bench, showing off his cooking skills in the user-friendly kitchen or stretching out on the super-length sofa after a hard day on the land, the outdoors is ever present.
As a farmer, Lachlan has an instinctive connection to the elements, a trait which the concrete farmhouse seems to mimic. “The concrete is so beautiful the way it changes colour,” he says. Today, after the rain, it’s dark grey and moody, but often the concrete farmhouse is pale and almost white like stone.
During the day, he can watch as thunderstorms move across the vast landscape. At night, a skylight above the bed frames the Milky Way where the odd shooting star streaks across the dark. Occasionally, Lachlan is treated to a spectacle very few get to experience as the Southern Lights’ aurora swirls colourfully across the heavens.
Gathering the right people around him has been the secret of success. “There is nothing I would do differently. And I’d do it all again tomorrow.”
Love the TV houses from Grand Designs? Read more great articles like this in our Grand Designs Archives.
Written by Claire McCall
Photography by Jackie Miering
Originally in Grand Designs New Zealand Volume 2 Issue 1