Summer Time and the Living is Easy

Lazy days, a leisurely swell slapping the shoreline, heat hazes and cerulean skies. Sandy feet seek the outdoor shower and the wave-weary relax with brews and barbecues on the deck as a slow zephyr cools the heat of the evening.

This is summer, this is Sumner, and this is the story of a Sumner beach house that is smarter than many.

He is a software developer for an offshore company and she a journalist working for a company in communications. He bought the original house on the section in 2001, while still single and living overseas, then returned in 2006 and lived there before building a new home, getting a feel for the property's angles, faults and benefits; its sightlines, views, and wind and sun aspects.

The old house was eventually taken away on the back of a truck to a section down in Palmerston.

"I put the house on TradeMe for a $1 reserve - take it, as is, where is ­ and they paid for removal," he says. "It cost me probably 10 or 15 grand less than the demolition cost would have. It was a bit of a stab in the dark, but it worked out."

Gone and largely forgotten, the dark old bungalow has been replaced with a sun-seeking, energy-efficient contemporary home, using sustainable products where possible. It exemplifies the best in comfortable modern living, while never forgetting its prime purpose as an easy-going beach house.

Sumner, the obvious choice

Sumner is the owner's home territory. He's a water man, loves being in, on and near the ocean, whether swimming, surfing, boating or diving. There was no question this is where he would build, with the sound of the nearby waves and ozone filling the air.

"I was born and brought up here. I wanted to do something for myself and it was easier to start from scratch than renovate," he says.

The old house was built back to front, facing the street and the dark southern side. The first requisite was to site the new house the other way around, and to have a light-filled living area opening on to a wide, open deck to take advantage of outdoor living and the long hot summers. "Basically to have a light, airy, warm, easy-living house."

He chose the same architectural designer who had designed his brother's house - Aaron Jones, of Urban Function Architecture - who set about delivering the beach house described to him in the brief, while adding many innovations of his own. The resultant house answers every stylistic and practical question asked of it with sleek simplicity.

Deceptively narrow at first glance from the outside, but wide and spacious inside, the house takes up the full allowable width of the 12-metre section. It is deep from front to back, and downstairs is essentially divided in two, from dark to light, either side of the atrium stairwell. The office, one bedroom, amenities and utilities lead off either side of the entrance hallway, and beyond the stairwell is the huge open living area, for kitchen, dining, seating and lounge - contemporary living at its best.

Floor-to-ceiling bifolds span the entire back wall, facing the garden, and flood the area with light. Five panels of bifolds open on to the house-width deck (made of sustainable imported hardwood), with its seating pit and surrounding benches. Its table can be replaced with a small gas fire on cooler nights.

The former double garage, which took up half of the back section, was demolished and replaced with a lawn edged with native trees and shrubs. Off to one side, there is an outdoor shower, which is hooked up to the house's warm water supply and is in regular use almost year round. A double garage with work area, plenty of shelving and room for the dive boat the owner shares with his brother was built at the street frontage.

The kitchen has a deep bench with bar stools along one side to keep the chef involved in whatever conversations are going. There's a microwave, adjacent wall oven and a gas hob, and a large pantry for storage and a place to hide dishes and leftovers until washing time.

"We spent a lot of time getting everything right, but the end result of putting in the scullery or pantry was genius," he says. "It's a very easy-to-use kitchen."

Bench seats by the window provide more storage, and this is the perfect spot to relax as the sun goes down or to make the most of winter sun.

"With the bi-folds opened up, you almost feel like you're outside, but it's nice and sheltered."

A colour consultant helped choose the neutral palette in grey, soft white, charcoal, stone and black tones, which is punctuated by carefully selected artworks and scarlet cushions and throws. Paler tones are in the kitchen, dining and sitting areas, and dark, enveloping shades in the snug lounge retreat.

Black shelves for the audio system are edged in bright white, there's a long leather modular sofa stretching along one side, and the back wall is visually fractured by a graphic and functional shelving designed by Aaron Jones.

"It's a wicked feature. Everyone comments on it. I love it."

The core of the house acts as a light-well, and here is where it gets really interesting. Double-height windows give views on to an outdoor garden and its sculptural feature tree, and a glass-sided stairway leads to the upper level.

There are two bedrooms here: the "premium guest room", with views of the valley and the sky, and the secluded master bedroom with its views of the rugged cliff face, hidden walk-in robe and ensuite. These two rooms are divided by a beautiful floating bridge or skywalk, and skylights and windows in tricky roofing angles fill the space with light. While the house has no direct views of the ocean, you can always hear it through the windows and skylights.

Over the bed, there is a special skylight for stargazing. It was an essential part of the original brief: "I had to see the sky. I can lie there and watch the stars."

Beauty and brains

This Sumner house is smart in various ways. For a start, it has both active and passive energy collection and dispersal. The builders began to build just two months before the February earthquake struck and continued for the next nine months, re-evaluating methods and decisions with the designer as they went along, and stop-starting as necessary with the rocking, rolling aftershocks.

Certain design elements introduced at that time have proven most beneficial. Aaron explains: "We went from a 90mm stud to a 140mm stud so we could over-insulate and we wrapped the entire building in a 7mm eco-plywood skin. We were framing during the earthquake sequence, so we decided to use this external bracing, and it created an airtight barrier. There's no air leakage inside, so this improves your thermal performance."

Joins in the plywood skin were all taped and the exterior was clad in lightweight aerated concrete panelling, which has its own thermal benefits. This was then plastered over. The house sits on a concrete slab set on a pile foundation. Quake tested on the job, there were no cracks or movement, and the slab remained level throughout.

With the house built to face the sun, its concrete slab captures the sun by day and releases the heat slowly by night. There is solar hot-water heating, under-floor heating, and a heat pump in rare use as back-up on extra-cold nights. The aluminium windows are thermally "broken" (separated from the glass with plastic strips), so there is no transference of cold air to the glass, thus no condensation, and all the lights - low-voltage LEDs, which are expensive initially, but cost-saving in the long term - are surface mounted, so there is no break in the thermal skin.

"The insulation has made a huge difference," the owner says. "We only run the under-floor heat pump from nine at night till seven in the morning when power is 11 cents a kilowatt rather than 30 cents. That is enough time for it to heat up the slab, then during the day it just radiates heat. Even at eight o'clock the next night it's still 22, 23 degrees in here. It's a great, comfortable heat. There's no air being blown around by a heat pump."

The house operates on its own cyber-brain, an automation system the owner designed that communicates with an app on a cellphone.

"It tracks our phone and soon as it knows we're not home, it shuts off all the lights, the TV and any appliances that are left on. It arms the alarm automatically, warns if any doors are opened and, when you come home, it turns the lights on, opens the garage door, disarms the alarm and so on. Basically, everything's hooked up to an automation system."

This is one of several ideas for automated housing systems that the owner is developing through his own company. The system's "mechanics" are simple and what makes it smart in its own right is that it can be retrofitted to a house of virtually any age. "You don't want a complicated system; you just want things to happen automatically."

In a romantic quirk of fate, after he finished building his beach house, the owner met a lovely someone with whom to share it. They fell in love and were married recently. Neither realised it when they first met, but it transpired she is the sister of the house designer, so not only can he continue to enjoy the house he designed, but a whole new branch of the family is starting to enjoy summers in this Sumner beach house.