Despite oamaru’s prevailing north-easterlies, as often as not Vicky and Roan Lee can fling open the bifold doors on two walls of their rural living room and open it up to the elements. So almost everything that lives outside the house – known to locals as the Red Tin House – seems part of the interior. Which includes the drunken woman sprawling in the backyard planter box, two old biddies – Mrs Brown and Mrs White – scratching and prodding among the hazelnut trees (more about them later) and a peacock fashioned from moss, cabbage tree leaves and silver birch twigs that surges out of the Corokia ‘Silver Ghost’ hedge by the front door.
“What I like most about the house,” says Vicky, “is feeling like you’re outside when you’re inside and vice versa. We really worked on that when we were planning it.”
The Lees bought the 1.6ha bare block at Boundary Creek, 6km north of Oamaru, in 2001. The land was overgrown with willow, elderberry and blackberry, says Roan, a nurseryman and landscaper. “When we cleared it we planted the periphery in natives on the creek side, where the bank is 6m deep. We planted the opposite side so that we could look out from the house across the ponds to a variety of English oaks, which we chose for their summer shade and autumn colour. Our grandsons, Nico and Beau, love to play in the aisle of trees they call the tree tunnel.”
Along the long gravel driveway, Canadian maples form an avenue lined with hornbeam hedges, which also define the nursery and the orchard where heritage apples, olives and about 100 hazelnuts flourish.
“It’s an easy-care, no-fuss garden where native tussocks thrive on the sides of the building platform around the house and deciduous azaleas provide spring colour on the far side of the ponds. Other than that, it’s green all summer long,” says Vicky.
The ponds near the house sit in a natural depression defined as flood-prone by the Otago Regional Council. When they were thinking of buying the property, Roan and Vicky visited the former landowner, octogenarian Rex Murray, who had lived in the area all his life and never known the property to flood.
“We really enjoy the ponds – the bird life they bring, the reflections in the early mornings and evenings. Our border terriers, Tilly and Izzy, love playing in the water,” says Vicky.
As for the house, their original plan was to build a cottage but Barry Bracefield – their Timaru architect – said it would be a waste of a fantastic site, so they decided to ask him to design something he felt really suited the property. What he came up with is in effect a series of huts, pushed together in the shape of a cross with another hut sitting on top. Vicky says the concept drawings could have been a hobbit village – and they loved it.
“We didn’t have a lot of money, so we decided that we would camp on site for 18 months while the house was being built. Roan laboured for builder Grant Slater while re-establishing and running Rakaunui, our nursery, from here at the same time. Our son Adam, who was a stonemason in Christchurch (and is now a builder here in Oamaru), helped Grant when Roan couldn’t and our friend Gareth Mitchell (who trades under the name The Stoneman) helped with the extensive stonework.”
Vicky and Roan like simplicity and natural materials. They sourced the stone from Whataroa on the West Coast and chose to clad the entire exterior of the house in Pioneer Red Colorsteel. They also decided to use Colorsteel inside for skirting boards, trims and flashings. Says Roan with a grin, “The guys we bought the Colorsteel from couldn’t believe we were going to use it inside as well!”
The house is well insulated and makes full use of the sun with reticulated solar hot water. They put wool insulation in the walls and ceilings, 50mm of polystyrene under the floor and installed electric underfloor heating throughout the entire ground floor. “Although it wasn’t compulsory when we were building, we double glazed throughout and we don’t need curtains because the sun turns the place into a power house,” says Roan.
A cast steel Jetmaster open fire heats the living area in the colder weather and comes equipped with controls to shut it down when necessary. Roan describes it as being like a woodburner without a door. “It’s got a voracious appetite, so chopping wood is a really good physical workout.”
Owen King, a joiner from Otekaieke, made all the kitchen joinery using cross arms from the tops of old power poles. He used the same wood to edge the stair treads he made from laminating several layers of ply. Vicky finished the stairs with marine varnish and the benchtops with Liberon oil, which she says is very hard-wearing.
The furniture throughout the house is a clever assemblage of contemporary pieces and antiques, many of which have lived with the couple all their married life. Most were sourced from Evan Blair, Oamaru’s antiques connoisseur.
Roan enjoys playing the baby grand piano that once belonged to his father and Vicky spends her free time making beautiful soft furnishings and other decorative articles such as the pine needle baskets that lend colour and character to their home.
“I love to be creative and I love teaching others that they can be creative too,” says Vicky. “We never sit around doing nothing. We’re always busy, whether it’s weaving, sewing, knitting, reupholstering, gardening, cheese-making or cooking.”
Entertaining friends and family is central to their lives and the garden yields much of what ends up on the dining table. Mrs Brown and Mrs White, who live in the hen house beyond the kitchen garden hedge, provide all the eggs Roan and Vicky need each week.
In addition to what they harvest from the orchard, they grow most of their own vegetables in troughs, pots and planter boxes in a broad plot just off the back patio. Hence the Drunken Woman. She’s a lettuce.