Willing Prisoners At Te Hīnaki

Mary Chamberlain opens her front door with a warm smile. “Come in, you’re just in time for pancakes!” A minute later I’m at their dining table, bathed in winter sunshine, with her partner Michael Absolum and two of their grandchildren, Oscar and Evie. As Mary makes me an excellent flat white, the kids crack jokes and Michael manages both to laugh at them and fix me with a keenly appraising eye. 

That look is the only thing in this bucolic scene which reminds me that I’m sitting with two of the most highly regarded and formidably qualified educational professionals in the country. These two have written curriculums at national and even OECD level; Mary is a member of the NZ Order of Merit for Services to Education. 

They’re directors of Evaluation Associates, the company Michael founded in 1999 to provide professional development support to schools and kura. The company now works with a large proportion of those within New Zealand, and they provide support to all our beginning principals. Michael and Mary have a staff of 90, and they travel a lot, so it’s important to have a peaceful and restorative home. 

Te Hīnaki has peace and restoration in spades. Designed by Crosson Architects to fit the narrow section overlooking the Sandspit estuary, the design concept was based on an ancient pā tauremu or eel weir – two fences of upright posts which led in a V-shape towards a woven hīnaki (eel pot), where the eels were trapped. “Those posts are my favourite bit of the house I think,” says Michael. Cut from South American purpleheart hardwood, they form majestic twin colonnades and create spectacular perspective.

The ‘hīnaki’ at the narrow end of the house is a screen snug and music room with sleek curves clad, like the living area, in a repeating pattern of irregular vertical cedar strips, which work well with the narrow horizontal windows. It houses a grand piano, played by Mary. She points out a neat detail thought up by one of builders – vertical strip lights concealed within the uprights of the wall. “The shadows they create at night are gorgeous.” 

Other playful features include a loft space for the grandchildren above the kitchen (reached via a beautiful, built-in ladder) and a brutal, double-angled granite island in the kitchen. “It’s meant to be a fish or eel heading towards the trap at the end – the round sink is its eye,” explains Mary. The island’s geometric mass is juxtaposed with the sleek David Trubridge light shade floating above it. There’s storage under the stairs accessed by a secret sliding bookshelf. And double sinks in the master ensuite at two different levels accommodate Michael’s two metre stature. This is design that’s intelligent and fun.

The north-facing site includes sustainable features including a solar array for hot water and concrete under the wide American oak floorboards, which combines with double glazing to ensure the heat pump is rarely used. 

The pair can’t speak highly enough of the main build team: Ken Crosson, Hicks Construction and Inger Electrical. Mary and Michael agree that the 18-month build was remarkably relaxed and problem solving was creative and collaborative. 

But Te Hīnaki wasn’t the house the couple imagined they’d have. “We were very clear with Ken,” says Michael, deadpan. “The one thing we definitely didn’t want was a wooden house. Ken just smiled and said it was his job to ‘stretch clients’ thinking.’ And here we are.”

“What do I love most?” Mary looks down the long, lovely length of her home. “All of it! Every time we come home I pinch myself. I can’t believe we live here.”




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