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Building relationships

1 February 2023
© stephen goodenough photographer
Mitchell Coll and Amy Douglas in their Corten steel-clad Christchurch house. Photo: Stephen Goodenough

Christchurch couple Amy Douglas and Mitchell Coll have only been working together a little over a year, but they’ve already notched up some big wins for their cool, clever and innovative designs. Words Josie Steenhart

Set like a tiny timber and polycarbonate jewel in the kānuka belt wrapping around Akaroa township at Banks Peninsula, sits ‘Nightlight’ – designed and built by its owners Mitchell Coll and Amy Douglas of Fabric.

Despite being described as “a shed at heart”, the exceptional wee structure was designed as much as a practical utility space as it was to be a celebration of clever architecture in its own right.

“Rather than locating this building out of sight like a typical shed or using it only for its services, Nightlight was reimagined as a light sculpture that will proudly be seen from the future outdoor living space,” says Mitchell.

Not only is it the first building to sit on their site, it’s also the couple’s first complete build. And, unsurprisingly, won a swathe of significant awards in 2022, including a New Zealand Architecture Award for Small Project at the New Zealand Institute of Architects awards held at the Christchurch Town Hall in November, where the judges described it as “a beautifully crafted, experimental stick in the sand and first step to building a forever home”.

“A basecamp, Nightlight is a shed tightly packed with useful things, including a kitchen, bathroom and workshop. By night it’s a sculptural lantern lending delight to outdoor areas. The project’s success extends beyond the shed to an open fire, bench seats and in-ground hot tub. The assembly of built forms facilitates elemental experiences and connection with the landscape,” the judges’ citation reads.

“[That] was a huge honour,” says Mitchell. “Made even more special as it’s our own project.”

“The site in Akaroa is where we hope to build on further and live eventually. We needed to get it established with services and a lockable space. Instead of doing something temporary we wanted to start off how we intended to finish and create something that was worth our time.”

A key challenge for Nightlight was location. “All materials had to be hauled up the steep site, which is 4WD only,” says Amy.

“The use of polycarbonate for its shell not only allows Nightlight to shine bright, but it could be easily transported to site and worked with hand tools. The aggregate used for the concrete pile footings and columns was wheelbarrowed up from the bottom of the site and hand mixed in location.”

The pair agree that rather than being harder or easier to design for themselves as the clients, the experience is “just different”, though Mitchell says “some aspects can be harder as you don’t get the brief or client driven constraints that you can often draw from”.

“For Nightlight it was different because it’s the first building on site so it may (or may not) influence the future buildings that we do,” says Amy.

“That added an extra layer of consideration for the form and material selection; plus the fact that we knew we were going to build it ourselves meant we had to design within our abilities.”

The couple (Amy a designer, Mitchell an architect) have only been working together for just over a year, but Amy says she has always felt part of Fabric and architecture because of Mitch’s strong relationships with other designers, contractors and clients.

“We have great architecture friends,” she says.

Mitchell, whose father was an architectural designer, says he “was brought up in the industry”.

“I’ve been working as an architect for 20 years now, and started this business, originally called Coll Architecture, in 2009. Last year we rebranded to Fabric. My focus is on creating spaces that enhance the occupants’ connection to their environment and local context.”

Amy was previously a graphic designer, and joined the business around a year ago “to add a different creative perspective to our client’s projects”.

“My background means I love form and colour, but I am most passionate about using design to make people’s everyday lives better – it’s all about understanding and empathising with our clients wants and needs to then provide something that’s equally functional and beautiful,” she says.

Among Fabric’s recent projects are two adjoining residential units in Christchurch known as the ‘Corten homes’ for their liberal use of Corten steel – one of which they live in – and ‘Biv’, a collaboration between Mitchell and its owner, a Kiwi architect based in Hong Kong, nestled in the Punakaiki bush and intended as a reinterpretation of the region’s old mining huts.

Both, like Nightlight, have collected numerous awards and accolades.

“We largely took inspiration from historic goldmining huts local to the area,” says Mitchell of Biv, which features a mostly timber interior and full metal exterior.

“The form of the building takes cues from the exterior chimneys repeated on those huts. Internally the sky-facing sk ylight represents the top of a smok estack, while the large number of windows offer views into the bush or the cliffs beyond for an all-encompassing West Coast experience.”

For those curious to experience this unique build for themselves, Biv is available to book on Airbnb.

Designed with young professionals in mind, the two 74m2 Corten homes have been designed to prioritise energy efficiency, sustainability and durability “without making aesthetic compromises”.

“These floor plans are small but efficiently laid out to give adequate space for everyday living,” says Mitchell.

“Their high skillion ceilings give the feeling of space while the low roof pitch keeps the overall heated volume of the building down. Strategic placement of skylights ensure their low roof pitch does not restrict the use of the upstairs floor area or restrict movement around the building.

“We like projects that allow us to consider the exterior, interior and landscaping together so everything from the big picture to small details is cohesive. In this case, special attention was given to minimalist detailing throughout to give the overall feel of a refined singular ‘product’, as opposed to a building which has been pieced together from various parts.”

Amy adds that having no skirtings or large trims in the interior, and a palette kept “to a minimum”, ensures each room feels large and connected to the others. The dark blue from the outside has been brought in to connect interior and exterior spaces, and the open staircase built from the same materials as the rest of the structure merges into the space to lend the downstairs living areas a spacious feel.

The pair recently returned from a trip abroad. “We usually travel to see a specific building or style of architecture, but our last holiday was to visit friends and meet their families in the USA. We did sneak in a few days in New York, which has such great big city vibes and art – Claude Monet’s ‘Water Lilies’ was a stand out,” says Amy.

Mitchell says there’s always plenty of inspiration to be had while travelling (“Everywhere we go we’re taking pictures and looking at the detailing of all the buildings around us. Looking at a different way of doing things and thinking how we can apply these thoughts to our projects.”), but there’s no place like home.

“Having travelled a lot we’ve seen what it’s like to live in a large part of the world. We can’t help but imagine every time we go somewhere what it would be like to live there, but I feel that nothing compares to Christchurch.

“The location just can’t be beaten, with its proximity to the mountains and the sea. I’m a person who needs to be out in the outdoors, hunting or fishing. The access to such a vast amount of space to do this, while still living in a large(ish) city with all its modern conveniences, is quite unique.”

When they aren’t building in Banks Peninsula, Amy says she likes to get out on the Te Ara Ōtākaro Avon River trail – “it’s Christchurch’s best kept secret” – while Mitchell is currently particularly partial to a spot of fly-fishing.

And their passion for the region extends to its architecture. “I love the architectural lineage of New Zealand and especially Christchurch,” says Mitchell.

“We have such a strong aesthetic here from the ‘Christchurch Style’ initially developed by Sir Miles Warren and his contemporaries. I love to draw inspiration from the buildings and help add to the continuation of a local vernacular.

“In terms of new buildings, one of my favourites is the recently completed Ravenscar House, along with many private residential homes designed by some of the talented architects around Christchurch.”

Amy adds that she’s “so stoked” that the city has included Te Ao Māori in many of the rebuilt public spaces and buildings.

“The design narratives and artworks bring so much depth to our city, which may be missed by some today, but it will be treasured by future generations.”

Of the last two years, Mitchell says it has been “an absolute rollercoaster” of the unexpected, both good and bad.

“Who would have thought that out of the first Covid lockdown that everything would take off. We’re now having to deal with challenges that we haven’t in the past, such as very lengthy wait times for common materials. But these are just the normal curveballs from the industry that you never see coming. This is what keeps the construction industry interesting and one of the many reasons I love it.”

What’s on for the year ahead (aside from getting further stuck in on the Akaroa site)?

“This year we have in construction a dentistry and a church, which we’re really looking forward to taking shape on site,” says Mitchell.

“We’re privileged to work with many great clients and find we all have so much fun that we often end up doing multiple projects over time with the same clients. In design we’re currently working on a highly detailed bach for some clients we have done a few projects for over the recent years.”

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