Written by John Williams
Photography by John Williams and Andy Chui of DrawPhoto
Although I’d only been on the road for just over 30 minutes, it may as well have been three hours, as the native bush enveloped me and the bustle of the city became a distant memory.
I was on my way to see Len Prager, a sprightly 86-year-old with a soft American accent, and the ‘eco’ house he’d conceived and hand built for himself back in the 1980s. Disillusioned with the path his native country was heading down, he had made the decision to leave America in the early 1960s and settle here in Aotearoa. Why New Zealand? In part, he says, because we were the only country that shared his anti nuclear stance.
“I read an ad in the paper that said ‘section for sale’,” he tells me, as he hands over a large mug of freshly brewed coffee. “I was keen to explore an alternative way of building and owning a home, based on a premise of buying a section and paying it off immediately, then buying components of the structure of the house and paying them off as I went along, so that when the house was eventually finished I’d have no debt. That was the theory,” he laughs.
The core of Len’s house is built around a kitset design, based roughly on the dimensions of a standard eco barn, with two curved additions at each end to expand the floor plate, a drive-through car port at the front, and a cylindrical tower containing the entry stairs.
Living on site in a 10sqm hut for the entire build, Len says it took slightly longer than he anticipated – ten years, give or take. This may seem like an inordinate amount of time, but you need to bear in mind that he completed the vast majority of the work himself. “Once the steel framework of the home had been bolted together and erected, I had to make the bowed, tongue-and groove insulation panels needed to line the interior of the walls and ceiling. There were 35 of them, so that took some time,” he says.
Only after this monumental task was complete could the whole structure be clad in its distinctive cloak of curved, corrugated iron sheeting. Being a perfectionist, Len wanted the windows of his new home to be curved and frameless, to match the profile of the steel cladding, but that technology was not quite there in those days, so he had to settle for flat glass panels – although he did make a feature of many of the windows by shaping them into various sized ovals.
With the house closed in and weather tight, Len then launched into designing and making the interior of his new home, handcrafting virtually every part – the built-in furniture, the kitchen, the bed… the list goes on.
Apart from a coat of distinctive mustard coloured paint, the house today is pretty much as Len finished it back in the 80s. Set out over two, expansive levels, it is configured as a large, one bedroom, loft-style ‘apartment’ on the top floor, and the ultimate ‘man cave’ below. “My workshop is 70 years in the making, and I’m 86,” he smiles. “Down there, I have facilities to do anything you might want to.” During his time here, Len has turned his hand at many crafts, from carving and dying custom leather belts to developing a process for colouring glass with resins. “All those tools are still down there and can come with the house,” he says.
Conscious that not everyone needs (or wants) a commercial sized workshop, Len says that his beloved workshop could easily be converted into up to three bedrooms, plus a bathroom. And underneath the protective plywood floor is a brand new Tawa floor, to match the one above.
The parallel story to the construction of this unique house surrounds the way it functions. True to his strategy of creating a natural habitat that would allow him to live efficiently and sustainably, Len has introduced a number of environmentally friendly systems into his home. Being an early adopter, he installed one of the country’s first composting toilets, which he says not only negates the need for a septic tank sewerage system, but also feeds his sixteen organic raised vegetable beds with nutrient-rich compost.
For the uninitiated a composting toilet may sound like a bridge too far, but Len insists such thoughts are unfounded. “All you have to do is throw in a small cup of sawdust after each time you use it, and there’s no smell whatsoever,” he explains. “About every two years, I have to empty the tank in the basement, by which time it’s all decomposed into wonderful compost that can then by turned into the raised beds, which I then use to grow all food I need.”
Waste water from daily washing, plus any run-off from the land, drains into an evapotranspiration pond, which then runs harmlessly into a creek that flows through the bottom of the property. “Everything grows like crazy down there. I haven’t had a chance to plant it out this year. I guess that will be for the next owner to enjoy.”
Len goes on to say that his home is not connected to the water mains either. With plenty of rainfall and two huge water storage tanks under the house, he’s never been short of water – and it’s great water, too, he adds.
As technology has evolved, Len has upgraded his systems, as needed, such as the new pump he’s just put in for the fresh water system, which he tells me is now fully automated and very efficient. However, despite the numerous systems he has installed in his home, he says it’s not a complex house to run. “It’s mostly automatic, and because I’ve chosen to use quality materials, like the stainless steel for the hot and cold water tanks, there’s very little maintenance to be done.”
The only utility this house currently relies on is electricity – and even then, if the supply goes off, there’s a wet-back hot water system on the log burner in the workshop, plus it’s all ready for solar power should the new owners want to go completely off the grid. “ When I first moved in I did experiments with solar panels. Technology has moved on immeasurably since those days, so I’m sure that it wouldn’t be an issue finding an appropriate solar power or a solar heating system that would work very well here.”
It will be interesting to see who becomes the next owner of Len’s house. It’s not for everyone, that’s for certain. It could suit a creative, a craftsperson, an artist, a builder, a mechanic, or anyone that needs a large workshop space, coupled with an alternative way of living. Or maybe it’s a family who want to get off the grid, grow their own food and be self-sufficient. Perhaps it’s just someone who wants to have a beautiful beach at the end of their road and be surrounded by some of the most stunning bush walks in the country… yet still be within easy touch of the city. Whoever it is and whatever they want, it’s all here at 81 Anawhata Road.
To view the listing, visit rwponsonby.co.nz/PON26104