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Herbst Architects is renowned in New Zealand for its signature remodelling of the classic Kiwi bach. Taking the spirit of of the traditionally cobbled-together holiday home or beach shelter, it has been designing a series of highly sophisticated, sustainable dwellings – eight of them so far on Great Barrier Island, a mountainous ridge of land 100km by sea from downtown Auckland.

The practice’s latest, and largest, project back on the mainland marks its crossover into new territory. Designed for an Auckland couple who are patrons of the arts and architecture, the Butler Beach House is designed to be not just a holiday house but a coastal retreat for extended periods of time.

“Conceptually, detail-wise and materials-wise, this is the most advanced project we’ve worked on so far,” says Lance Herbst who, alongside partner Nicola, leads the small Auckland-based firm. The airy cedar and glass pavilion lies within a belt of native pohutukawa trees that soften the force of the onshore wind at Piha, one of a chain of moody, often blustering black-sand surf beaches on Auckland’s west coast.

Building regulations in this part of the world, especially ones pertaining to the natural landscape, are tight. While it seems voluminous inside, the house is nearly as tall as it is wide, so the floor plate is, in fact, very small. “We were cutting down trees – a serious act in New Zealand,” says Herbst. “The house is replacing them, so it has to refer to that. We were essentially building it inside and beneath the canopy.”

As a result, the beach house is ­composed of two black-stained wood-clad towers that visually reference the surrounding trees and contain the private spaces – the bathrooms and bedrooms. As in other Herbst projects, the latter are designed as simple, distraction-free “cells” lined with poplar ply panels.

Throughout the house, the use of exposed wood gives the light a mellow quality, the grain lending its own low-key detail. “We’re interested in the patina that develops through age, using cedar that fades to driftwood-grey colours, and letting nature do its thing, instead of plasticising everything,” says Herbst.

Between them, the towers support a roof that “frays” from solid wood to glass, above a central, double-height living area, the public space, which gives a full view of the surrounding trees, firmly establishing a sense of place. Sliding doors on both sides can be rolled completely away – the Herbst’s clean (and now trademark) take on the outdoor room.

“It’s a model we’ve used before,” says Herbst. “It’s a room that is an interface between inside and outside, but in winter the owners can close it up and really get the fire going.” Above, a bridge between the two towers acts as a mezzanine area, and the balustrade has been detailed with shelves to collect books and objects discovered from the beach. “The longer [the clients] live there, the more it will reflect the life of the beach,” says Herbst.

LANCE & NICOLA HERBSTS' CV

The couple met while studying architecture at the University of Cape Town.

After graduating, they worked partly together and partly independently on projects in South Africa.

Immigrated to New Zealand in 1998.

Established Herbst Architects in 2000.

One of the couple’s first projects was their own bach, for which they received the New Zealand Institute of Architects Award in 2002.

Great Barrier Island is home to eight of their houses.

As the island is off the electricity grid, each project was designed to have minimal impact on the environment.

The Lindale Bach is one of the practice’s most significant projects: an example of an environmentally sustainable casual shelter created to high specifications.

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