A magnificent gumtree once stood on the spot that Chelsea Thorpe calls home. As little girls, she and her sisters would swing from its branches on a swing hand-carved by their dad, high over the hillside below. Decades later, the old tree rotten and felled, her own little girls are continuing its legacy, their bright eyes embracing its view of the valley in the home Chelsea and her husband Gene Walker have built in its place.
Founders of Longbush Wines, Chelsea’s parents have owned this property in Gisborne’s Whataupoko for 35 years, and generously gave her and her sisters a section each. With three daughters — Primrose (10), Coco (8) and Orla (4), plus a fourth child now on the way — and budgetary contraints in mind, she and Gene imagined building a simple home on theirs that was a pleasure to live in, easy to maintain, and not too big but spacious enough to accommodate the kids’ home-schooling and Chelsea’s clothing-design side hustle. They also wanted it to run on sun.
Admitting it’s pretty extraordinary that she “just drew a picture and gave it to a draughtsman”, the clever creative says she had a strong vision and simply put her maker’s mind to figuring out a design. “Even though I didn’t know how to design a house, I’m able to visualise space quite easily, and I knew the site and how we wanted to live. It’s amazing to stand back now and look at a house that not that long ago was just a sketch on a piece of paper.”
With the foundations laid and some of the construction completed, March 2020’s lockdown threw a spanner in the works, but ultimately served to bring the project even closer to home, with artist/Longbush Wines sales manager Gene and Chelsea’s winemaker/ultra-handyman dad John taking over and completing the build after hours. The family raced around the day before lockdown, collecting paint, plywood, flooring — anything they thought they could use. Handily, they were all living with John, and Chelsea’s mum Wendy Baxter, at the time, so they were able to stick to their isolation bubble yet keep on keeping on.
They were aware of only a few homes in Gisborne that were off the grid, so their solar goal was kind of an unknown, but they thought they’d give it a go and see how it worked out. Turns out “it’s life-changing” according to Chelsea, who doesn’t miss electricity bills one bit. “We have gas for our hot water and cooking, but that’s not a huge amount. I think more people need to look into investing in it — it’s not even that expensive, it’s crazy! It makes us feel good knowing we’re doing something right. Without a doubt, it’s one of the decisions we’re most proud of.”
The four-bedroom home’s key design features also contribute to this cause: a double-height void in the living area connecting to a mezzanine, and windows and sliding doors positioned to soak up the sun. “Our only heating is our fire, so the large void and open mezzanine work well, staying really cosy in winter,” says Chelsea.
In keeping with the ethos of the build, the home is minimally decorated, guided by one of Chelsea’s favourite quotes, from late British textile designer/author/poet William Morris: “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.”
“Obviously, that’s not always possible, but I try,” she says. “I love vintage and the simplicity of Scandinavian design, and I am a bit of a minimalist, so I don’t have much that’s not functional.”
The pared-back nature of the spaces themselves means the family can repurpose them when the mood strikes. The girls choose to sleep solo or bunk down together, Chelsea’s workspace has moved from A to B, and she and Gene recently relocated from upstairs to the downstairs bedroom in preparation for the baby’s arrival.
Shaped by the family’s lifestyle and values, the house is in turn shaping them, working wonders on their wellbeing. “Even though we’re five minutes from the local village, we can escape into our own little world here,” says Chelsea. “I love being at home with the sun shining in and music playing in the background, while the girls craft and draw at the dining table, and I cook a meal or bake. These are the kind of days I dreamed of.”
This entire build has been about family — a beautiful thing if ever there was one. With a mountain on their doorstep to tame, it’ll be a life-long project, one that’ll see their collective roots grow deeper with the passing years, just like that wise old gumtree’s.