Life’s A Bach—The New Zealand Beach House
Growing up in Wellington, summer meant long hot days spent at the beach barbecuing, swimming and surfing. Ditching the trappings of city life and escaping to a simple bach on the coast.
The iconic New Zealand “bach” (pronounced “batch”—the term comes from “bachelor” which also gives us the Kiwi phrase “baching” meaning to live by yourself) is at the heart of New Zealand culture. The mere word conjures up the nostalgia for simpler times.
The traditional bach has its roots in the years immediately after World War Two. As the economy picked up, families had enough money to buy a second plot of land (“sections” in New Zealand) by the beach—or by one of New Zealand’s many lakes—where they could spend the summer. Often the summer was spent in a camper van (aka caravan) parked on the section. If the family budget could stretch to it, a bach was built.
The first baches weren’t summer houses or even cottages. They were summer sheds, grounded caravans, intended for one-season living only. If there is such a thing as bach vernacular style it would be: simple architecture, lightweight construction built from whatever materials were at hand (corrugated iron), and second-hand decor. Often remote rural locations had no running water or sewage. Bach living meant showering in water from a rain barrel and cooking in a basic kitchen, but that didn’t matter as days were spent outdoors or on the water.
As real estate prices and the Kiwi standard of living rose, the original large sections in these bach communities were sub-divided. As the sections shrank the baches grew, larger and showier. And at some point the summer home a family built was no longer a bach, but a beach house.
The bach, as a simple structure, is disappearing and is being replaced by the beach house. But at what point does a bach become a beach house? We think a beach house is a year-round dwelling with the size, amenities and price of a house in the city. A bach is a house where surfaces do double duty, utility is the watchword and the focus is outward-looking—driving you outside to make the most of the setting and the summer. And yet a bach can be modest and elegant.
We would call the house above a bach, the blue one below, a beach house. Both use traditional materials of corrugated iron and wood. Both take inspiration from iconic NZ building traditions; above has the lines of the traditional bach “shed” school of architecture, while the blue beach house below has its architectural pedigree rooted in the “farm outbuildings” tradition. This bach is an easy keeper; the ability to close the bach up securely and stylishly for winter was clearly part of the architect’s brief.
The blue beach house below has its architectural pedigree rooted in the “woolshed” tradition, but with lofty second home, year-round aspirations; double height living rooms and second floor decks make the most of its sea views. Sheep love a good sea view. Although larger, the minimalist design is a nod to utilitarian agricultural building style and forms.
So, in our ode to the Kiwi summer place, we’ve assembled this sampling of abodes from the Coromandel Peninsula on the North Island down to the Abel Tasman Coastal Track on the South Island. They range style from the humble bach to the fancier “the architect strikes” variety which, let’s face it, are at the beach house end of the spectrum. We thought they all exhibited characteristics of, or were inspired by, traditional bach or farm outbuildings that are part of the iconic New Zealand landscape. Extra points for spotting the use of corrugated iron.
The rustic bach communities of my youth on the Kapiti Coast have long since morphed into Wellington’s dormitory suburbs, but bach life and the Kiwi love for the endless summer still exists. Times and locations may change, but the bach remains a quintessential New Zealand summer feature… as Kiwi as a cold L&P or hokey-pokey ice cream on a hot summer’s day.