Recycled Retreat

Recycled Retreat



When New Zealand architecture student William Giesen went to Bordeaux University in southern France in 1997 he was following his passion for rugby rather than his career. But the move yielded unexpected results when he teamed up with fellow architecture student Cecile Bonnifait. The couple moved back to New Zealand in 2000 and established the Wellington-based Atelier Workshop, a practice that specialises in sustainable design.

Like countless other Kiwis, William’s family had long spent their summer holidays in a “bach” (“crib” in the South Island), a holiday shack on the north coast of the North Island. And as is also common in New Zealand, the Giesens’ bach was on Maori leasehold land. When the lease expired, the family had to demolish the building to return the land to its original state.

“The situation set us thinking about the nature of temporary dwellings,” Cecile says. “Along with increasing appreciation of the New Zealand landscape there’s a growing desire not build anything invasive.”

At the same time the architects wanted to explore the notions of the small footprint and reduced emissions of micro-housing and translate it to a contemporary take on the traditional bach, which is a shelter for eating and sleeping at a time of year when most living takes place outdoors. Portability was also an important consideration but they wanted to design something more sophisticated than a caravan.

Their solution? The Port-a-Bach, a compact yet stylish holiday home in the shell of a shipping container. It’s relatively easy to transport (by ship, truck, or helicopter) and install with minimal impact on the site. It provides an immediate yet fl exible accommodation solution that is ideal for lease land situations and future development.

The portability means owners can use their land without committing to a permanent property development. The unit can be connected to mains services or adapted for independent water harvesting and power generation.

The architects are currently working with assistance from the NZ Foundation of Science Research and Technology to explore the potential of a combination of photo-voltaic cells and wind generation, stored to batteries. A back-up generator would supply power when the sun and wind fail and, when grid connection is available, surplus electricity could be fed back into the system. The unit comes with the latest-generation composting toilet, further adding to its potential for self-sufficiency on land that isn’t connected to the mains.

At the push of a button the steel shell folds out to create an indoor/outdoor living space and refolds to create a secure unit for in-situ storage or relocation. The rear wall of the Port-a-Bach incorporates storage cupboards and shelving, a fold-out double bed and a stainless steel kitchen. A bathroom with an open shower, sink and toilet fills one end of the shell while bunk beds line the other.
Interior fabric screens provide the versatility of creating rooms within the living space and an exterior canvas screen system creates shelter for the deck area.

With fitout and flooring in environmentally friendly bamboo and all furnishings, the total cost of each unit is about $NZ100,000, which in terms of cost places it midway between the traditional “four planks and a tin roof” bach and the “concrete behemoths that some people seem to think they need for holiday houses”.

“We’re not the first people to do something with shipping containers,” Cecile observes. “And it’s not the easiest thing to transport, but it can be moved and it does have the potential to provide a very secure shell for the periods when the unit is unoccupied.”

“Within that rough shell is a highly crafted, cost-effective piece of architecture,” William adds. “Of course, manufacture in multiples would make it much more cost effective. We have several joint venture options available but nothing firm as yet.”

The interest the Port-a-Bach has generated has been amazing and Atelier receives emails from all over the world on a daily basis. Inquiries range from people such as the prototype owners who are looking for temporary yet stylish accommodation on their properties to mining companies and a corporation requiring display space and a hospitality venue for its clients to visit at a trade fair.

Since Atelier launched their prototype in 2007 their initiative has had unexpected benefits for the business, which, typically for a young firm,in its early days was mainly dependent on residential work.

“The attention the Port-a-Bach has attracted has been good for us,” William admits. “We are now getting more commercial work and have recently been commissioned by a regional branch of the Department of Conservation to design a building for them.
“In the long term, sustainability is what we are about. It would be great to see the transformation of housing generally from energy-consuming units into something that generates power and is energy positive.”