House & Garden: House of the Week

Salvaged wood makes for rustic retreat on Waiheke Island

As featured on

For years, Bob McMillan resisted the pull of Waiheke Island. “I thought it was a bit too bohemian and way out for me,” he says. “Now I regret not coming here years ago.”

It was his wife of 50 years, Kerry, who had been urging Bob to consider buying a beach house on the island. So, one sunny day in August 2009, the couple caught the passenger ferry from the city to look at three properties for sale at Onetangi.

“I didn’t even take my chequebook but, by midday, we’d bought a place on the beachfront,” says Bob, now retired from his Auckland car dealership, Team McMillan.

It certainly wasn’t the mundane cedar house that had won him over. It was the location: a patch of mostly flat land at the secluded end of the beach, sheltered by the headland, and only a stone’s skip from the sea and views across the Hauraki Gulf.

Bob and Kerry spent that first summer in the house, trying to find its redeeming features. But, by summer’s end, they had decided to start afresh (the old cedar house lives on, however, moved to another spot in Onetangi; recycling features large in the McMillan mind-set).

Designing and decorating the new house was Kerry’s mission. Although born and raised in Australia, she dreamed of a quintessential Kiwi bach. But, with the guidance of architect Paul Macintosh, of Macintosh Harris Design, “it became more of a beach house”.

With the idea of sharing their retreat with their three adult children and partners, plus six grandchildren, the McMillans divided the house in two. The main section includes the living and dining areas and the master bedroom suite; a separate pavilion with two bedrooms and an en suite is linked by a decked outdoor entertainment area.

Living on Auckland’s mainland, and often travelling overseas, the McMillans monitored the build from a distance, trusting Waiheke builders Tomik with their new house of mostly recycled wood. “They really enjoyed building this place, and being able to use their carpentry skills with all of the timber,” says Bob. “I took the architect and builder to Brisbane to meet the guy who sourced all the salvaged wood.”

Much of it is Indonesian hardwood, but the floors are reclaimed French oak – great for camouflaging sandy footprints, says Kerry – and the living room’s exposed trusses are Australian ironbark.

The house is filled with art, most of it from local Waiheke artists or collected on their travels. (The couple met on a cruise ship crossing the Tasman when Bob was 20 and Kerry, travelling with her parents, was 17; this year, for their 50th wedding anniversary, they’re off to the North Pole on a Russian icebreaker.)

One touch that’s pure Bob is his “pièce de résistance” – a section of the kitchen floor that rises by remote control, revealing cantilevered stairs to an underground wine cellar. Water tanks beneath the deck keep the white wines chilled at a constant 13°C.

The landscaping took cues from the relaxed, beachy style of the house and its rustic timbers. Bryan McDonald of Auckland Landscapes describes it as one of the most satisfying projects he’s worked on. The house was raised and initially didn’t connect well to the sloping site, so Bryan’s design solution was to terrace the entire front yard to “mirror the layers of sand, sea and horizon”.

earching for old marine timber, Bryan found a complete Tauranga wharf in an Onehunga demolition yard and used the wood throughout the landscaping – in retaining walls, lawn edges, pathways and “treasure chest planters, like out of a Robert Louis Stevenson pirate story. The result is that you feel that the sea comes right up to the house.”

Kentia palms anchor the garden, with red hibiscus and bird of paradise. The hardy but graceful Australian grass Lomandra ‘Tanika’ has a dual role – as the base of a frame for the sea vista and as ideal vegetation over a soakage field required by the council.

The outdoor fireplace between the two wings of the house is a welcome spot year-round and has a view of the ocean through two sets of glass doors. And the McMillans can park their Sealegs amphibious boat (which takes just 90 minutes to whisk them from city to island) on the sand out front, ready for action.

Kerry and Bob are living permanently at Onetangi this summer while their new Remuera apartment is completed, which has only intensified their love of the beach house.

“There’s nothing about it I would change,” says Kerry. “It’s not an ostentatious house; it just blends in. I only wish my mum [Val, who died the year the house was being built] had seen it. She would have loved it. But the house is filled with her furniture, so I feel her presence here always.”

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