Architect Nick Bevin with his family’s “permanent tent” in the Tararua foothills. An architect who likes to escape the rat race has built what he describes as a “permanent tent” in a secluded clearing off Carterton’s Norfolk Road.

Based in Wellington – where he has an award-winning practice with architectural partner Ric Slessor – Nick Bevin, his wife Jude Vickerman and friends Ron and Pauline Muir bought a bare paddock in 1985 and began planting. Seriously planting. Like, tens of thousands of trees planting. In Nick’s mind, planting is never finished and the forest was intended to provide not only an endless supply of firewood and timber for future building projects but a peaceful, private, bird-filled environment in which to take time out from the modern world.

The land (they named it Onetotara) has plenty of local flavour. Both the historic Taratahi water race and the interconnected Booth Creek crisscross it. Piles of large stones, created when building the race in 1903, remain dotted around the property. Dairy cows bellow on neighbouring farms. The feeling is one of connectedness to the land, to Wairarapa in particular.

Conceived as a glorified camping spot, there was little thought of city-style amenities when an elegantly simple shelter was built in a deliberately planted clearing in 1997. Kerosene, candles and gas provided refrigeration, cooking, hot water and light while a wood burner supplied warmth to the single-room, portal-framed structure. “We couldn’t really say we were ‘off the grid’,” says Nick, “as we weren’t actually trying to run anything electrical.”

More recently, the desire to run a conventional fridge and charge the inevitable portable devices has persuaded the owners to install a simple micro-hydro in the form of a water wheel built by mechanically-minded Ron. This small concession to today’s technological requirements has added some convenience to an otherwise fundamental escape – and it keeps the wine cooler. The building, too, has evolved a little with spaces defined to accommodate the owners’ family requirements.

Nick Bevin’s architectural life evolved in a somewhat roundabout fashion. After leaving St Bernard’s College in 1973 he began a variety of occupations including surveyor’s chainman, farm worker, fashion design student, alterations tailor and zookeeper. A career in the latter nearly stuck but returning to Wellington after a stint at Perth Zoo, Nick decided, for no apparent reason, to “give architecture a go”. He still seems a little mystified by that decision, the only possible prompt being that he used to babysit for an architect – “but that fact never made a particular impression on me as far as I can recall.” 

Completing his intermediate studies in Wellington, Nick moved up to Auckland to finish his architectural degree. “It had a reputation as a very vibrant, practitioner-led, less formal course which suited me well.”

Nick’s connection with Wairarapa goes back to early practicing days when he landed his first job with Stapleton Architects in 1987. The director Reg Stapleton had an orchard in Greytown and Nick’s first house design was for clients in Jellicoe Street (they are still living there today – always an indication of a house that ‘works’). Around the same time Nick’s sister wanted a home designed in Hawke’s Bay and, as happens, one thing led to another and the two provinces have become a significant source of Bevin + Slessor Architects’ work. Wineries have become a bit of a specialty – Matahiwi and Gladstone in Wairarapa, Te Awa and others in Hawke’s Bay.

When friends bought a block next to Onetotara, Nick was commissioned to design them a house. While not specifically intended to be ‘off the grid’, the preferred site was set so far back from the road – and across three waterways – that running conventional power to it was going to be prohibitively expensive. So the decision was made to go solar.

“The clients understood the logic and the physics so we set about building a low-maintenance house with enough generation to run most things, plus sufficient storage for life to be pretty normal.”  The project, named Omarapeti, has won several awards in national building and architectural sustainability categories.

Arriving at Onetotara is like stumbling upon somebody’s secret. Picking one’s way through the forest along lightly-formed tracks, catching glimpses of habitation – a puff of smoke, a glint of corrugated iron – then having the campsite open up in front of you is a profound experience. It harks back to simple, pioneering times. It’s an idea perfectly realised.