When Eyrie, a pair of tiny, cedar-clad off-the-grid cabins with few traditional flourishes, won a national magazine’s Home of the Year Award, reaction across New Zealand was mixed. Modern architecture fans rallied behind the choice, in contrast to vocal opprobrium from some who seemed genuinely outraged by it, including one talk show host who described it as offensive.
The furor was notable enough that Eyrie was even discussed in mainstream media. Such a response wasn’t exactly a surprise: Despite their humble dimensions, the structures were created with sweeping intentions.
“The cabins have a polemic function,” says Nat Cheshire, codirector of Auckland-based Cheshire Architects, who conceptualized the project with the two owners, a pair of good friends: one a biologist, the other, one of the country’s leading contemporary art gallerists.
“We wanted a different vision for New Zealand’s coastal future,” Cheshire says. “We build houses that are far too big for us. Every cent we have is poured into increasing the footprint, without realizing that size is a currency of its own and easily transferable for quality.”
The project began in 2010, when the two friends jointly purchased a piece of rejected farmland with an untraditional sea vista on a mangrove-scattered inlet in Kaipara Harbour, north of Auckland. The land was listed at a fraction of the cost of neighboring areas to the east, home to coastal suburban lots and multimillion-dollar beach houses.
Initially, the duo camped out in a small utility shed, cooking over a fire and instituting a program of planting that would regenerate the soil and lure birdlife back to the area.
Local zoning would have easily allowed for an ostentatious eight-bedroom hilltop house with a five-car garage, but when the friends finally decided to expand beyond their shed, they instead fought for legal permission to build two cabins with footprints of just 290 square feet each.
The two buildings are not simply an aggregation of the standard real-estate units of kitchen, bedroom, and bathroom, Cheshire says. Each contains a single ground-level space with a mezzanine sleeping platform overhead, a lavatory tucked beneath the stairway, and a simple outdoor shower atop a rock. “The way the owners live was examined in a way that sought opportunities for efficiency,” says the designer. “What was saved was poured into the quality of life, not the scale of it. For example, there is no fundamentally programmed living room or bedroom in the space. They’re little platforms for a very precise, concise, and reasonably fluid way of living.”
Viewed from the outside, the cabins are deliberately abstract. Instead of blending into the landscape, they appear as strange, sculptural objects, “bobbing on the surface of this little hillside like boats adrift on a sea of grass,” Cheshire says.
There is no evidence of a roof, floor-line, or foundation—not even doors. To enter, visitors step onto a flat boulder and through a sliding window. The other windows are limited to small apertures in each wall that carefully frame specific views.
Building on such a consolidated footprint and sharing labor and resources enabled the owners to minimize their consumption of raw materials and keep costs low. Local carpenters were called in to construct the cabins very simply, using sustainable cedar and pine. And rather than employing synthetic preservation methods, Cheshire worked with an Auckland timber merchant to char the external faces of the boards with an improvised blowtorch system—a take on the centuries-old shou-sugi-ban process that originated in Japan.
The cabins are also self-sufficient and off the grid, harvesting solar power and rainwater, which is later treated by a low-pressure septic system and released back to the soil through a network of driplines (perforated tubes that release wastewater at a slow enough rate for the soil to absorb).
Inside, a radical inversion took place. Instead of opening onto the landscape, the interior of each cabin was designed as a retreat from it. The biologist chose a light, warm plywood interior, exhibiting natural timber grain, while the gallerist went with dark, gleaming remnants of formply—a resin-coated plywood—that, the designer says, give the feeling of stepping into outer space.
The controversy these modest buildings caused in New Zealand fits into a much larger conversation about the future of housing: “These cabins propose such a radically different way of living that it was immediately read not just as a proposition about the future but a critique of the present—for a lot of people that means a critique of their lives and assumed values,” Cheshire says. “Quality architecture with a carefully crafted atmosphere can compensate for a sacrifice of size.”