The Knoll: a modernist dream - Megan Edwards Architects | ArchiPro

The Knoll: a modernist dream

Discreetly burrowed into a bush-clad hillside overlooking Auckland’s Waitematā Harbour, this family home pays homage to mid-century modernism and American architect Frank Lloyd Wright in particular, combining a rational plan and a richly crafted interior.

In the leafy suburb of Greenhithe, the owners of The Knoll instilled a love of Californian mid-century modernism into the architect’s brief for their new home. With a real interest in Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonian houses – about 60 modest family homes that Wright began designing from 1934 – the owners wanted to capture the warmth and free spirit of this New World style of architecture.

Unimpeded by previous architectural styles, the Usonian houses typically featured flat roofs, an L-shaped plan with strong internal connection with the outside, large overhangs, good ambient internal temperature and clerestory windows – characteristics that architect Megan Edwards has absorbed into The Knoll.

“We designed a rectilinear rational plan but the feel of the house is warm and organic,” explains Megan Edwards, director of Megan Edwards Architects. “Arranged over two storeys, the interior features lots of timber, built-in cabinetry and screens, and it has a flowing arrangement with a feature stairwell and a bridge linking two wings on the upper level.”

The name ‘The Knoll’ is a derivation of the name of an earlier family home, which was located on this prominent hill before the land was requisitioned by the former Waitematā Council to build the Upper Harbour Bridge on the Northern Motorway. Then, it took two generations before this leftover piece of land was built upon by the current homeowners.

“The neighbouring motorway created some background noise that could be heard from part of the site, so we needed to mitigate that,” says Megan. “The solution was to set the house into the hill so that the bank absorbs the sound. It’s actually quiet now, and you hear the sounds from the neighbouring bush and water. We also wanted discreet garaging, so we created garage spaces on both levels to break them up, and inserted two driveways to the upper and lower levels of the house from both front and back.”

Surrounded by rejuvenating bush, the property was recently made a significant ecological area (SEA), because it of its coastal location. “Part of the resource consent was an agreement to clear some of the rejuvenating bush to be able to site the house, in return for clearing out wilding pines and weeds and creating better bush around the house,” explains Megan. “The clients wanted garden spaces as well, so our aim was to create enjoyable terraces and gardens around the house without displacing too much of the site.”

Megan had previously designed a renovation for the homeowners not far away from the property; in fact, it was her first design project after starting her architectural practice 25 years ago.  Since then, the family’s four young children have grown up but, not surprisingly, the household remains busy. This property was always on the cards as the site of a potential new home and interest in a new build rose further with one daughter studying architecture.

The new house has been designed collaboratively, to cater to this large active family and its varied interests, including motor racing, mechanics, gardening and cooking. It is arranged over two storeys, with a stone-clad base and an upper storey that’s mostly glazing. The upper floor enjoys views of the sea and comprises a kitchen, dining and living area and a bridge linked to a master bedroom suite and a study, with two terraces that open up the spaces to the outside. Downstairs, there are four bedrooms, a living room, a media room, the laundry, two bathrooms and a grassy courtyard that faces north.

“It was interesting to design a large house, compared with the average or smaller homes we normally design,” explains Megan. “Even though it’s generous, we didn’t want it to feel too big; we still wanted it to feel relaxed and easy to get around, with a flow and a logic, rather than feeling like a rabbit warren. It equally works for two people to ten people, because their household changes in number, so the upper storey is used by the couple when they’re on their own, but the lower storey can open the house up for the whole family, as required.”

In the modernist tradition, big overhanging roofs with tongue-in-groove cedar soffits provide shading to the interior. Likewise, a high stud, large rectilinear volumes, clerestory windows, views of the bush and sea and crafted elements lend the home a real warmth and airiness.

The crafted details are intrinsic to the design, adding a comfortable vibe that are a reflection of the homeowner’s input into the project. A sunken snug within the lounge creates a cosy nook within an otherwise open pavilion, with bespoke Tasmanian blackwood cabinetry arranged in an asymmetrical pattern. Adjacent, in the kitchen, the same timber has been used for the cabinetry with cast bronze pulls, complemented by a solid American oak island top and a splashback wall of white, cream and pale green handmade tiles, inspired by tiles found in the kitchen of the artist Rembrandt’s House in Amsterdam.

Throughout the living spaces, hand-blown glass lights have been randomly-scattered, adding an ethereal element that also ties the different spaces all together, as does the American oak flooring and cedar-panelled ceilings that run throughout the home.

The main entry into the upper floor features a stunning cedar door that has random vertical battens interspersed with different width of glass and a bronze door handle. But the pièce de résistance at heart of the house has to be a brass and steel ‘sequin’ screen along the side of the staircase, designed by Edwards and crafted by Powersurge, which connects the upper and lower floors.

Outside, a terrace is framed by a pergola with a folded copper roof to match the cladding on the lower roof and copper spouting seen around the home. Rainwater is harvested from the roof and collected in a pair of large in-ground detention tanks beneath the lower driveway, which is used to maintain the extensive garden areas.

Otherwise, a warm roof helps contribute to the home’s thermal performance, which includes north-facing orientation, roof overhangs and shading devices, a fully insulated floor slab, low-e glazing to limit heat gain and loss, and high-level windows which create a cooling ‘stack’ effect as warm air rises through the building, helping to keep the home cool during the summer months.

“We did some modelling to make sure the house can operate without heating and cooling, although some heating is available if the homeowners need it,” explains Megan. “They say that the building has a very consistent temperature without them having to do anything, which is great.”

“The clients had a huge input into the process of designing their home, both in the planning and in the detailing and, above all, in their strong commitment to this particular place,” says Megan.

Having waited a long time to build their dream home, this thoughtful design is the perfect reflection of the owners’ lives and interests but it will also, no doubt, be a stunning home for any new generations to come.


Words by Justine Harvey

Photography by Sam Hartnett.

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Set within regenerating bush, The Knoll is a stunning example of Kiwi modernism – inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright's Usonian houses with a rational plan and a richly crafted interior.
The driveway to the upper level of the house. The owner's prize 'muscle car', a 1970 AMC Javelin (Mark Donohue edition SST model), takes pride of place in the driveway.
Hinuera stone on the base of the home helps to ground the building into the landscape, with gentle steps leading down to the main entrance.
The terrace on the upper floor creates an outdoor room with views to the sea, sheltered by a cedar soffit.
Looking along the balcony of the upstairs terrace over the lower driveway.
Potted plants blend the terrace in with the view of rejuvenating bush.
An outdoor room is sheltered between the house and established planting.
Inside the main etnrance on the upper storey.
Looking down the feature staircase from the upper to lower levels.
The kitchen and snug feature built-in timber cabinetry. The kitchen tiles were inspired by the artist Rembrant's own kitchen in his home in Amsterdam.
Handblown pendent lights speckle the open-plan living space and tie it together.
High-level windows draw light into the liviing/dining space during the winter months.
Step changes in the floor help to define spaces and create journeys around the home.
The bush view provides a wonderful backdrop in the home.
The staircase, with its brass and steel ‘sequin’ screen, sits at the heart of the home.
The beautiful staircase screen was designed by Edwards and crafted by Powersurge.
The bedroom is lined with timber panelling and enjoys views over the bush through large windows.
This elegant bathroom in monochromatic tones with timber.
The timber-rich laundry has louvred windows for extra ventilation.
Site plan by Megan Edwards Architects.
Lower-floor plan by Megan Edwards Architects.
Upper-floor plan by Megan Edwards Architects.
North and south elevations by Megan Edwards Architects.
East and west elevations by Megan Edwards Architects.