Given all the attention our Home of the Year is getting, we thought many of you might be interested in hearing some of the thinking behind the jury's decisions. 

The Home of the Year jury was made up of HOME editor Jeremy Hansen, Gary Lawson of four-time Home of the Year winners Stevens Lawson Architects, and Stirling Prize-winning London architect Amanda Levete. 

Here, Jeremy talks to Amanda about the judging process. This interview was conducted in mid-March, soon after judging of the Home of the Year was complete. 

Architect Amanda Levete. Photo: Peter Guenzel.
JEREMY HANSEN Let’s start by talking about the winning project: Eyrie, the black cabins by Nat Cheshire of Cheshire Architects.

AMANDA LEVETE That project was very finely tuned, such a poetic response to its site. It was a complete merging of idea and form. And there’s a narrative behind it that’s as poetic as its realisation. The idea that an architect would negotiate with planners to allow a smaller and much more modest footprint on the site is a fantastic inversion of expectations: it captures the mood of the world right now by demonstrating a greater respect for modesty and a reining in of consumerism. It shows how much you can do with so little and still hold such resonance.

The landscape it’s situated in was not the most beautiful or most dramatic of the sites we saw – far from it – but it had a sensibility of its own. You could sense this through the success of the dialogue between the client and the architect. It felt like there was a complete synergy between architect and client, and that is quite rare. It feels like the relationship with the client pushed the architect to go beyond his repertoire and explore ideas and an attitude that perhaps hadn’t been expressed in his work before. You need that input from a client, you need that challenge – and you need that energy and inspiration to make your work better. It’s those kind of relationships and moments that push an architect to develop and become great.

The cabins were beautifully detailed in a very simple way but every move, every line held the idea of the house. The tiny brass recessed kitchen area, which was like a little jewel in this simple black container, lifted it from being prosaic to something exceptional. The cabinets around the kitchen, which used a crude black-painted form-board, had chamfered edges that revealed the colour of the ply behind it, a tiny shadow line that, because the space was black, had a lustre almost like there was a light behind it. And what was so revealing about that space was that it was a black interior and black exterior but it didn’t feel oppressive. You were drawn into the space by the light and felt uplifted and serene and at one with the world and with nature.

The Home of the Year 2014, designed by Nat Cheshire of Cheshire Architects.
Photo: Darryl Ward.

JEREMY HANSEN What made the other homes worthy of inclusion? Let’s go from north to south, and start with the house by Herbst Architects. 

AMANDA LEVETE This house expressed very clearly how the forces of nature can drive design, with a clever layering of openings between indoor and outdoor spaces. There was a very strong relationship between a deep gabion wall and the passage between the bedrooms and the main spaces of the house, an outside but protected area that reinforced it as a beach house, so whatever the weather and time of year, you have to go outside to get inside, and that was very charming.

The Castle Rock House by Herbst Architects. Photo: Patrick Reynolds.
JEREMY HANSEN On Waiheke Island we visited a home by Wendy Shacklock. What did you enjoy about that?

AMANDA LEVETE This was an incredibly difficult site and a huge amount of thought had gone into exploring ways in which you could liberate it. That’s been achieved in a way that appears effortless, thanks to much of the site engineering being invisible – but it was far from straightforward. There was also a delicacy about the use of materials and the contrast between the solidity and brutality of the concrete wall and the openness of the elevations looking down at the water. The clients wanted the house to feel like a nest, and it did feel very protective and precarious at the same time. 

Te Kohanga, a home on Waiheke Island designed by Wendy Shacklock in association with Paul Clarke. Photo: Samuel Hartnett.
JEREMY HANSEN How about the small house by Andrew Simpson?  

AMANDA LEVETE This was a studio house, just 50 square metres in which every little square foot was accounted for and exploited. There was a wonderful, huge opening up of a view on a very difficult site. What I loved was the ambition and endeavour that was invested into such a complicated site. That endeavour was palpable and real – the architect built much of the interior – and it shows again how much you can achieve with a modest budget, which is always refreshing. 

The Nine Tsubo House by Andrew Simpson of Wiredog Architecture.
Photo: Paul McCredie.
JEREMY HANSEN On Banks Peninsula, we visited the Scrubby Bay Farmhouse by Pattersons.

AMANDA LEVETE I found this house incredibly beautiful. Proportionally there was a real kind of magic about the delicacy of these barn-like forms that just slipped one in front of the other in a strong sectional relationship sited in a completely spectacular bay. The plan of the house was understated and restrained, and that restraint was very powerful when matched by such a spectacular backdrop. The house also made beautiful use of wood, with a subtle scent of the macrocarpa cladding inside that was just magic for me.

The Scrubby Bay Farmhouse by Pattersons. Photo: Simon Devitt
JEREMY HANSEN We saw homes on beautiful sites, but the suburban house by LO'CA in Wanaka was different.  

AMANDA LEVETE This is a house for a retired couple with a brief that was far from glamorous, but the architects managed to lift it by creating a kind of respect for the span of a couple’s life, and I was very touched by that. It wasn’t just the clever planning but the way in which the clients’ lives – their past as well as their future and the present – were mapped into the planning; I’ve never seen that done before. It made me think how important houses are as containers for your life and your history. Some of the houses we saw had an absence of the soul of the owners, and a house needs soul. This one had it.

The Lovell House by Tim Lovell and Ana O'Connell of Lovell O'Connell Architects.
Photo: Patrick Reynolds.

JEREMY HANSEN This is your first visit to New Zealand. What are your impressions of the country's architecture after a week here?

AMANDA LEVETE It’s clear that the bach is a powerful genre, and we’ve seen it interpreted differently in extraordinary settings that are very particular to New Zealand. There is an incredible and inventive use of woods, which has been inspiring to me, and makes me want to explore that in our own work. But I worry that there’s a kind of complacency in New Zealand’s architecture. I have seen some of the most spectacular sites in the world on this trip and some of the most extraordinary pieces of landscape – I don’t think I’ll ever see anything more beautiful. With that goes a huge responsibility to respond with an ambition that matches that drama and the beauty of the location. That responsibility is sometimes taken too much for granted. I think architects need to remind themselves what a privilege it is to design in a piece of nature that is unsurpassable.

Clients, too, need to have that same sense of ambition and responsibility in selecting their architect and in their own briefs. It’s not just about designing a house. You have to respond to the magnitude and power of nature at its most beautiful. Houses are relatively modest in scale but historically they have defined an architectural era, and not enough architects here feel that sense of potential. Architecture here is quite self-referential and it shouldn’t be, because what we’ve seen in this last week is a fantastic abundance of talent and inventiveness and clever thinking. Architects in New Zealand should be more ambitious in terms of their place internationally – you have a great tradition of house design that could be defining and having an influence on the rest of the world.

JEREMY HANSEN Lastly, do you have any thoughts about awards like this in general?

AMANDA LEVETE The Home of the Year award is important because it’s not just about applauding excellence; it’s about marking turning points in architects’ careers. The purpose of awards is to recognise talent and to lift the standards and advance the debate. The cross-section of projects we’ve selected for this, the Home of the Year issue, is testament to all of that.  

Amanda Levete travelled to New Zealand thanks to the support of Altherm Window Systems, our Home of the Year sponsor.