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Of the earth: A Portrait of Graeme North’s House

By Heidi North-Bailey

When I first saw our new house my heart didn’t just sink, it capsized. This was to be our new home? Shipwrecked in the middle of a muddy paddock was a run-down, turn-of-the-twentieth century farmhouse. Bare boards trailed the ghosts of once-white paint. Wind rippled under the peg-legged foundations. The house was placed oddly on the land, looking like an impostor even after almost a century of doing battle with the elements. Outside, a rotary clothesline stood jaunty, permanently buckled under the weight of years’ worth of washing.

We picked our way over the cattle-ruined ground to the front door. The hallway loomed dark before us. Though well past the age when this was cool (I was eleven, my sister nine), we instinctively linked hands to enter. The house was around ninety years old, Dad told us, as if that was supposed to make it any better. It had history, he said; people had lived, loved and died here. 

So? we asked. We were deeply unimpressed, as only pre-teens can be.

‘We’ve moved,’ we told extended family. ‘To Warkworth. It’s muddy here. The house is down the end of a gravel road. There isn’t anything here.’ 

We unpacked our rooms (‘So spacious – and look at that kauri skirting, those kauri ceilings and doors!’ Dad gushed) and went about the daily business of hating the house with great relish. 

Quietly, with the patience that comes from being a solo father with two girls, our father went about rebuilding the house and repairing the property. He sluiced out clay to make a duck pond and rerouted the guttering so the water no longer thundered down our bedroom windows. He sliced walls open and inserted large windows and skylights. He crawled under the floor to fix the rotten floorboards under the bath before we fell through.

Outside, mysterious piles of recycled ‘building material’, ferreted from here and there, grew under tarps buttoned down against the elements. Dad threaded poplar trees along the fenceline to shelter us from the driving wind. He installed an enormous wood-burning fire in the living room. And he built a ferro-cement composting toilet right down the back of the section, to give himself some peace.

Over the next few years he chipped away at the house and property. He would lock himself in the small front room to design aesthetically pleasing and interesting houses for other
people, while around us the walls – with occasional help from his chainsaw – fell down. We spent time at dinner picking at the layers of wallpaper accumulated over the house’s many years, taking turns to guess what colour might be underneath, what era it might be from.

‘This isn’t what I imagined when I said I’d move in with an architect,’ our stepmother muttered when she moved in a year later, while pulling an undercooked and over-charred roast out of the ancient kitchen oven in which a previous tenant had tried, unsuccessfully, to fire ceramics.

 

Heidi North-Bailey is currently enrolled in the University of Iowa distance writing programme. Her work has appeared in ‘Poetry NZ’, ‘Takahe’ and ‘4th Floor Literary Journal’, and she has recently published a book of poems, ‘Possibility of Flight’. In collaboration with her architect father, Graeme North, she is working on a book about natural material buildings in New Zealand.

My father is a passionate owner-builder architect. He was ecofriendly before eco-friendliness was a thing. He believes in being so connected to your particular place in the ecosystem, to your small patch of earth and its unique environment, that you should sculpt your dwelling out of the very ground itself. Dad has made earth houses in all their forms: rammed, mudbrick, cob, light earth, strawbale, in-situ adobe and earth plasters. He has received many accolades; an NZIA/Resene Research Award for New Zealand Earth Building Standards, a Commemoration Medal presented by the Queen for services to New Zealand, a Winston Churchill Fellowship. And there’s more, but, ahem, why were we living in
the middle of a badly designed, oddly altered farmhouse? The bathroom was literally in the middle of the hallway. You had to go through it from the bedrooms to get to the kitchen. Having a shower – let alone a leisurely bath – was never a casual pleasure. We’d pick our side of the house and stay there till the person using the bathroom was done.

Perhaps this, along with poor shower pressure, was part of Dad’s plan for dealing with two teenage girls in a one-bathroomed house. But, really, why were we living in this old farmhouse, rundown and resolutely facing west?

Money, that’s why. Most people – Dad included – can’t afford what they want straightaway. This house and property was seriously cheap. This is a skilled architect’s gift: they can see
something in nothing. In this broken-down property, Dad saw something no one else could see: he saw a home for us. He saw the rich, deep earth and the colour of the bricks which that earth would become. He saw the creek snaking around the edge of the property feeding a pond, with ducks skimming its surface. He saw the way the light could come through fruit trees, with plum blossoms glowing in the dusk. He saw the way the cattle-ruined ground could rise up to become gardens studded with old coloured bottles. And he imagined it all before anyone else could. He spent the seasons with his hands dipped in clay, building everything up from nothing.

Ten years passed. The hallway was an oasis of light; mud from the duck pond smothered the walls in ochre plaster. Vegetable gardens flourished. Matai floorboards were smooth under our feet. The oven was new.

Twenty years passed. Next to the old house, not replacing but complementing it, stood a new house, curved around the old one like a protective hand. Its French doors opened to windows opening to plants, trees, birds. Over the years, and in the course of Dad’s workshops for people keen to learn the craft of earth building, the clay from the duck pond had been sculpted into mudbricks to form an open-plan kitchen/living/dining area with a bedroom and bathroom tucked behind ornate doors discovered during a trip to Bali. Earth walls held old leadlight and art-deco tavern doors. Mud bricks propped up the wooden kitchen counter that Dad had rescued from being discarded as firewood. Branches from those very first shelterbelt trees became rafters holding up the draped-earth plaster ceiling. Like the beams in a wharenui they formed the house’s smooth skeleton. Inside gardens grew
pineapples, coffee.

And at the centre of it all, in a soft patch of late afternoon light, sits my father, in his lush garden. Feet resting on the warm, packed-earth floor – ‘Dancers won’t dance on concrete, but they will dance on this’. People who visit, and there are many now, making the pilgrimage to see this place, cannot believe how temperate the house is in winter, ringed as it is in curtain-less windows, or how cool it is in the Northland summer. 

‘It’s earth,’ Dad always says. ‘It’ll do everything you need. If you let it.’

People visit this house for its many technical accomplishments and quirks, but they love being in it because it is not just a house. It is the architectural history of my father, fashioned from the very earth he rests so lightly upon.

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