By Jane Brenan
In the early 1920s the Miller family bought a 7 acre block of native bush, set in the Waitakere Ranges, high above Piha Beach . They were attracted by the isolation and the beauty of the property, surrounded by rainforest, with views over the Tasman Sea and Lion Rock. Jane, one of three of the Miller’s grandchildren who now own the property, says her grandparents did not live here, and had a property in Taupo where they spent holidays, so it was really a desire to preserve a unique piece of forest that inspired the purchase. It is hard to believe that today it only takes 35 minutes to reach this Piha retreat from downtown Auckland. Unsealed roads used to make it a slow journey, and only the very keen made it “out west”.
Peter Miller, father of the current owners, spent the last 30 years of his life here. He lived in the old cottage, built in 1910. A fisherman originally, Peter spent his time here clearing tracks and welcoming guests from N.Z. and abroad. He grew vegetables, and made a small dam near the little waterfall on the property, to create a swimming hole. He wanted the place to remain special and open to all those who wished to visit.
Protecting the land with an open space covenant
In 1988, Peter Miller registered the land with the Queen Elizabeth II National Trust (QEII) under the Open Space Covenant Legislation. QEII National Trust is an independent statutory organisation, set up in 1977, to help landowners protect significant natural and cultural features on their land through open space covenants. The Waitakere Ranges are home to a wealth of native tree, fern and flowering plant species, as well as native birds, geckos and Hochstetter’s frog, so this small piece of forest was a precious thing to protect. The family are now amongst 3,400 landowners throughout NZ who have voluntarily protected over 111,000 hectares of land through QEII covenants. The land can be sold, but the open space covenant will remain on the title, protecting the bush.
Building something special
The original cottage is also rented out through Bookabach and in 2010 a new house – called The Retreat – was built on the one clear piece of land on the entire property. The owners wanted this house to be unique and looked for someone who had experience in the area, and who they felt would understand this land. They came across the work of architect Chris Tate and started the long process of merging their dreams with his bold ideas. The result is an elegantly simple and modern response to the environment and its requirements.
As a second dwelling on the property, the Retreat was not allowed a kitchen. Cunning use of sliding doors means the kitchen sink is outside, but can be accessed from inside, while a dishwasher takes the sting out of washing up. With a barbeque on the front deck and a portable oven, cooking can also take place inside or out, depending on mood and weather. The beauty of the natural environment is preserved, with creature comforts to boot, such as being able to have a hot bath outdoors, surrounded by bush and the sound of native birds. In winter the fierce storms coming across The Tasman can be viewed cosily from beside the fire. In summer the low eaves provide shelter from the hot sun, and the floor to ceiling glass doors can be slid back so that the house feels like a viewing platform in the forest. If one should want to move from the deck, there is a wealth of beaches and bush walks in the area to choose from.
With the old cottage having a renovated but original feel, the owners liked the idea that the Retreat could offer something modern and special, and the two dwellings could thus appeal to different sorts of people. The process of working with architect Chris Tate was a smooth and happy one. It was the two and a half years of gaining consents, and having to employ an arborist to measure the dripline of trees, for example, that was sometimes frustrating. Now both baches are available for rent throughout the year through Bookabach.
Twenty years after Peter Miller placed his small corner of the forest under covenant, Parliament passed the Waitakere Ranges Heritage Area Act, in 2008, protecting the Ranges for generations to come. By building an architectural retreat in the heart of the rainforest, the Miller family can continue to keep their forest block intact, and welcome vistors to share it.