The Treehouse

Modern, spacious tree houses on Auckland's North Shore

For this property development project on Auckland's North Shore, we were designing for a section where our clients were building two new homes – one to sell and one to live in themselves. We started with a clean slate, having an empty site after the previous (leaky) home was demolished. While a blank canvas in residential architecture is always exciting, an empty site doesn't necessarily mean a site without restrictions. In this case, we were working around a number of protected, mature trees.

The Brief

Our clients were fully aware of what they were working with when they purchased the site. They knew they'd need to remove the old house and build something new. And they knew they were required to maintain the protected native trees on the site.

The owners were actually quite excited about making the trees a design feature for this corner site. So they briefed us with the request to make the trees a focal point for the development.

Their vision was to have a couple of spacious, three-storey homes with plenty of parking and storage, two living areas, four bedrooms, including a master bedroom with en suite.

They also wanted north-facing outdoor living spaces where each home would have enough privacy from the next-door neighbour. They were very specific about what they had in mind because their goal from the start was to live in one of the homes.

The Design

With that clear vision of what our clients wanted for the property, we set to work, starting with the design focus around the trees. We looked at how we could use the trees to our advantage and how to design the houses around them.

The site is a corner site, with the road on the southern and western boundaries. There are three protected trees on that corner along the boundaries, which are noted on the title. Not only are the trees themselves quite large, but they also have mature, extensive root systems that need to be protected during building. This limits how close to the boundary the houses can be.

Because they need to build a bit further away from the southwest boundary as they normally would if the trees weren't there, the size of the north-facing living areas and outdoor spaces are, in turn, affected.

So we started thinking vertically and how we could use the height of the homes to create sunny and open living spaces.

We've designed two semi-detached homes in the style of a duplex. But each home is quite large, with three levels that deliberately push and pull towards the trees.

The design for both units is similar. The ground floor contains a driveway for off-street parking, a garage, a secondary living room, a bedroom and a bathroom.

The middle level houses the main living area, with an open-plan kitchen and dining room, as well as a guest bathroom/powder room. Just off the kitchen and dining areas we've incorporated several windows and a built-in window seat area that looks out onto the trees. There's also a large north-facing, covered deck that allows them to open out the space and enjoy the surroundings.

On the top floor there are three bedrooms, a family bathroom, plus a master bedroom with en suite. On this level we've also inserted grand corner windows to create the sense of being nestled in a tree house.

When it came to materials, we've used concrete block walls, plastered and painted, for the ground floor to anchor the homes into their surroundings. For the upper levels we've used lightweight timber framing and horizontal timber cladding that draws upon the look of rings on a tree trunk.

The design intent of these homes is to blend in and be part of the environment, letting nature be the focus.

We've brought that warm, timber feel to our designs for the interior aspects, like the window seats, stairways, wall panelling, as well as the design of the kitchen. There is a harmonious flow from nature outside to the rooms inside, and upwards from one level to the next.

As you go up each flight of stairs, the stairway is oriented to face a full height window at the landing that looks directly out to the trees. You almost feel as though you're outside, climbing through the trees.

The Result

This project is a wonderful example of how we can turn a building restriction imposed on Auckland residential architecture into a design feature. We've made the most out of the site and have used the trees to our advantage. Each of the two homes is spacious and laid out to provide multiple areas where family members can work, study or relax. As well as having a north-facing outdoor deck, there are also window seats and little pockets where the residents can enjoy the outlook while still having privacy from their neighbours.

This project is a great example of efficient work by our planning partners, as the homes were consented under the new Medium Density Residential Standards (MDRS) that came into force in Auckland in August 2022.

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