A house built to keep the whanāu together

Donna Holmes readily admits she is not one of the world’s great planners. She and her husband Tim have four children, aged from 35 to 13 years. “We spread our family out – which has made for an interesting life,” says Donna, who was in her forties when she trained to become a registered nurse. 

Then, for seven years, Donna and Tim sat on the piece of land they’d bought at Herbertville, a quiet coastal settlement in northern Wairarapa, before deciding what to build on it. When the couple put their heads together to compare ideas, all their designs were tossed out the window by their two eldest sons.

“When we first sat down with what we thought were nice designs, our architect son Michael said, ‘No, they’re all horrible,'” Donna recalls. “He said, ‘Mum, if we put something up there that we don’t like, no one in the family will come.’ Herbertville is a bit of a backwater.” It’s also nearly two hours’ drive from Masterton on the infamous Route 52, which is not for the faint-hearted.

Donna now realises the years of vacillation and deliberation were worth it. The beach house that stands at Herbertville is an award-winner, cleverly designed to take advantage of the sun and the coastal vista, to blend in to its windswept surroundings and to accommodate the ever-growing whānau. Donna could not be more proud of the outcome, and of her family. “We all worked together really well,” she says. “And fortunately we all love it; we love the building, and we love being in it.”

The Holmes’ eldest son, Michael, had just finished his Master of Architecture degree at Victoria University when he designed the family bach. Second son Ben is a project manager for the family firm, Holmes Construction, and managed the build remotely, employing tradesmen and suppliers in Dannevirke.

While Michael put his own stamp on the bach, he remained loyal to his mother’s brief. Donna wanted open spaces with mezzanine levels, shared sleeping spaces, two bathrooms, and an outdoor area sheltered from the coast’s notorious wind. 

Most importantly, the bach’s footprint had to be kept small. Although Donna wanted to create a special gathering place for her family – four children, their partners and six (soon to be seven) grandchildren – she didn’t want “a big sprawling place… Herbertville isn’t exactly the GC, which is the way we like it.”

Michael created two pavilions linked by a covered outdoor living area, under one gabled roof, all on a footprint of just 85sqm. It reminds Donna of staying at her family’s marae, Tākitimu, near Gisborne, as a child. “We all slept in close proximity on the marae, and I remember lying on the floor and listening to the adults talking. It was a nice way to drift off to sleep,” she says. 

“So at Herbertville, our kids throw down their mattresses on the mezzanine floor, and they’re still close to the adults below. They hang their heads over the railing in the morning, and watch us make breakfast. It’s about us all being together and not spread out through a big building.”

For the adults, there’s one bedroom in the main building, while in the second smaller pavilion, sleeping and living areas intertwine. The rule is, whoever gets to Herbertville first gets the pick of the beds. 

“I love having two buildings that gives us separation if we want it, but opening up the portico allows us to all be together. The guys can barbecue under cover, and the girls can all be inside, only a few metres away, chatting and listening to music,” Donna says.

The family could have bought land closer to home, but they liked the solitude of Herbertville. The beachside hamlet, named in honour of pioneering settlers Sarah and Joseph Herbert, has about 30 permanent residents, a pub, a fire station and  community hall. “This isn’t a resort; it’s real,” Donna says. 

But the main drawcard was the unhindered view of the 14km sweep of coastline all the way to Cape Turnagain, with only a golf course between them and the sea.

“The beach is so vast you can have a huge patch to yourself,” Donna says. The kids ride their bikes along sand carved by the wind, run across the dunes, and swim in the lagoon where the Wainui River runs out to the sea. 

“We don’t come here as often as we should, but when we arrive here, we feel like we’re home,” says Donna. “This place is about making sure our family connections are strong and building memories for our grandchildren.”

Best bach tip: Don’t skimp on bathrooms and toilets. We love having a second bathroom outside – great when kids come back from the beach covered in sand. It’s also a good excuse to go out and stare at the big sky at night.

Bravest thing we did: Keeping it small, which was hard because it was so tempting to make it bigger. But we wanted a Kiwi bach and we agreed to keep it small right from the start. And the decks add “living” space with wonderful views. 

One thing we might have done differently: Visited the building site more often. It’s hard making long-distance decisions only working off a plan. 

Holiday tradition: Whenever we’re here, we always make a visit up to Cape Turnagain and see the seal colony. 

Why do you love it here: It’s the East Coast and I’m an East Coast girl! It’s wild and beautiful.

Donna Holmes