Building a holistic home

The homes that Brett Hulley and his family have designed for themselves.

Designing a holistic home Brett Hulley, his partner Rose Short and their two boys are living a dream of sorts, connected with nature in the holistic home they designed in Pataua North near Whangārei.

Seven years ago, the couple purchased an affordable 4-hectare bush block and moved from Wellington to Whangārei to build a tiny home surrounded by native bush in pursuit of a life of self-sufficiency, low environmental impact and a strong connection with nature.

They have also established a food forest, are keeping chickens and are part of a conservation plan to protect the native forest that surrounds them.

“We were keen to slow things down to a more natural pace that would allow us to enjoy raising our kids at home, and grow our own veggies. I wanted to be able to live in nature and have a closer connection, within reason,” laughs Brett.

Before having kids (Ted, 2 and Arthur, 5), the couple rented a place in Whangārei and pitched a tent on the property so they could stay on weekends while they built their tiny home.

Previous experience working on building sites over university summers came in handy as Brett and Rose were able to build it themselves, and then later focused on establishing a food forest.

They used New Zealand pine for the cladding and wherever possible they sourced second-hand and reclaimed materials – including the doors and windows, and the rimu floor and wall linings.

Two tree trunks also thread through the design in a beautifully organic, as well as functional, way. One has been used as extra bracing for the building, and the other as a part of the furnishing that supports the ladder to the loft bed and the boys’ bunk bed.

Brett also experimented with a natural passive ventilation system. “Essentially whatever the air is doing outside, we’ve got the same inside, without the mosquitoes,” he says. “It’s proven to be nice in some ways in that we have a really strong connection now with what the weather is doing. When there’s a southerly blowing, we feel it! In most buildings you can spend all day inside where the climate is the same as every other day of the year, which is just not natural. There’s sort of a groundedness that comes from being connected to what’s happening outside.”

Being short on space, the house only contains stuff that must stay dry, so the shower and toilet are outside.

Over the past six years Brett has learned a lot about sustainability, permaculture and what it is like to live in nature. These lessons and skills have put him in the unique position to be able to offer a comprehensive design service through his business Brett Hulley Architecture for anyone seeking to engage with the environment.

Being short on space, the house only contains stuff that must stay dry, so the shower and toilet are outside.

Big house

The family have outgrown their little 8m2 off-grid hut (which they’re moving out of soon) and have nearly completed the build of a beautiful larger 42m2 home (which was always the plan!).

“Winter in a tiny house with children is rough when you have a life that relies on the outdoors. When the outdoors becomes uncomfortable, life becomes uncomfortable, but it’s that yin yang thing. If you don’t have the negatives, then you don’t experience the positives. We really feel the seasons shifting,” he says.

And of course, Brett had lots of ideas for how the house could tie into the landscape. High up on a ridgeline, it backs onto the only bit of flat land from which the eye floats down towards the east with a glimpse of the sea and the sunrise.

Combining his skills in architecture and landscape architecture, he’s designed their new home in a way that connects their life with the outdoors.

Two separate areas are connected by a vaulted roof that covers a large deck that flows out to the circular backyard to the west – with beautiful, unobstructed views to the sunrise from the backyard through the covered deck.

The bedrooms and bathroom are on the south of the covered deck, with the kitchen, dining, living on the sunnier north side of the central deck. A large 4.2×2.2m triple slider opens the living spaces up to an elevated hexagon deck to the north.

“Most of the time these doors will just be wide open and we’ll be living half on the deck and half inside. The hex deck has no cover and the central deck has full cover, because sometimes you want to be able to look up at stars from your deck, or soak up some sun – but then sometimes you don’t want to be rained on or you need a bit of shade.”

The central deck has the biggest floor area providing some of the most usable space all year round.

“The whole idea behind the design was to create a home that enables us to live with more comfort and space, while capitalising on the site’s great views, and maintaining those connections with nature. The central deck pulls its weight here, giving us shade in summer, and shelter in winter. We’ll still get rained on occasionally on our way between the bedrooms and living spaces when there’s a storm blowing – but we’ll also still get surprised by the stars, and the odd ruru.”

Combining his skills in architecture and landscape architecture, he’s designed their new home in a way that connects their life with the outdoors.

Natural rhythms

The orientation of the house’s symmetry is also aligned to true east “to glorify that equinox sunrise”.

Brett believes being part of the natural rhythms around you can have a real impact on our life in a mostly positive way including “joy, frustration, challenges and excitement”.

“I guess it’s just a much less moderated way of living. There’s higher highs and lower lows but the underlining thing behind it all, I think, is a groundedness. You feel grounded when you’re in nature, and people seek it. They go for walks in the bush and feel great after it. So I was like, ‘well, why not just really embrace it and make a life that is really much more connected with nature than it otherwise normally is’.”

Food forest

When Rose and Brett first moved onto the property they made plenty of mistakes, such as thinking you could plant fruit trees directly into clay and expect them to not only survive but eventually thrive. They’ve since learned a lot about permaculture, and that preparing the soil is one of the most important parts of establishing a healthy food forest. Like our gut biome, the more biodiversity in your garden’s microbiome, the better.

Choosing a location on the ridgeline that naturally holds more moisture in the soil, and a place that catches the sun, they also spent time figuring out where the damp, dry and windiest spots were, which were the most sheltered and shaded, and figuring out where certain trees would grow best, then got started on the mid layers and ground cover.

And while the family is still far from 100 per cent self-sufficient, their grocery bill is starting to reduce thanks to a bounty of fruit, vegetables, herbs and berries.

“You want to create a functioning ecosystem of edible plants. Unlike a traditional orchard, there’s no grass, you might have beans growing up the trunk of a fruit tree and berries inhabiting the space underneath and the whole idea is that by having the increased biodiversity it’s a healthier functioning system,” says Brett. “The other plus is it’s low maintenance because it mostly self regulates.”

Land guardians

The property is part of the Tahere Catchment and spans from lowland salt marshes to established forest of pūriri and kōwhai. Initially Rose and Brett dreamed of finding a block of land to nurture and rewild, instead they realise their role is to protect what is already here. They’re part of Tahere Landcare group, a network of landowners in the area that coordinates trapping of pests. And it is making a difference as seedlings have begun to pop up where before rats and mice ate seeds that dropped to the ground.

Keeping costs down

Brett’s top tips for keeping the cost of a house build down are to design smarter and smaller. Usually standard homes that you get off the plans have a lot of fat in them, while you’re paying per square metre, he explains.

“For every square metre you can pull out of your house, you’re saving $3,000 to $4,000. So, I think that’s a huge opportunity people will start capitalising on by designing in a way that’s compact but still functional.”

Brett and Rose have achieved this to a degree with their new home by keeping the internal spaces compact (42m2) with the large covered deck providing more space to expand onto. A covered deck costs a lot less than a house because it’s just a floor and a roof – no walls, insulation, windows, etc.

The orientation of the house’s symmetry is also aligned to true east “to glorify that equinox sunrise”.

Sustainable home

Sustainability also doesn’t have to be expensive. Using and combining principles from environmental design, passive design, permaculture and off-grid living can enable outcomes that are both more sustainable and more affordable, says Brett.

He advises looking beyond just energy efficiency when it comes to sustainability.

“People often think that a sustainable home is one that has low power bills and low energy usage and that’s just one facet of sustainability,” he says. “Being sustainable doesn’t have to just be energy-efficient stuff. You can also look at sourcing local materials, for example, or closing resource cycles, embodied and lifetime carbon emissions, longevity and re-use.

There’s all these different tools and facets of sustainability and it’s really important to look at all of them. And some of them are more cost-effective than others.”

It’s about minimising that impact and choosing where you can best make use of your money on that.

“We’ve had to make quite a few concessions with our own aspirations around sustainability in the house just because our budget’s so tiny,” says Brett. “There’s nothing overly flash about it in terms of the higher-end sustainable things. But we’ve chosen all New Zealand materials, which reduces all of the carbon miles behind most of the products, and a local builder. And in terms of the passive design the house exceeds all the compliance requirements just by the window placement and orientation.

“In the end, we’ve chosen as best we can to suit our budget, and in my mind, that’s what it’s all about – maximising your sustainability as best as you can.”


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