Grand Designs NZ: Crazy, backbreaking DIY in a vineyard pays off

REVIEW: New Zealand is a nation of DIYers. We love stories about people who have built stuff themselves, and nothing is more impressive than building your own house from scratch.

But how many of us would actually take on a pioneering project while also running a business? This week’s Grand Designs NZ show follows a family doing just that: Roland and Lucienne van der Wal are building a house (with tasting room) beside a picturesque lake on their 20ha vineyard in Central Otago.

Roland wants to do all the schist walls himself (78 square metres), despite no experience. Their 26-year-old son Michael, who is a builder, comes down from Wellington to be the “main man”, but he has not yet built a complete house himself.

Roland and Lucienne van der Wal, and Frankie, look like they may have bitten off more than they can chew in this episode of Grand Designs NZ.

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Roland and Lucienne van der Wal, and Frankie, look like they may have bitten off more than they can chew in this episode of Grand Designs NZ.

The couple emigrated from the Netherlands 35 years ago, and say their family back home couldn’t understand their decision to buy the neglected vineyard.

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“My family in Holland thought we were absolutely bonkers,” Roland says. “Are you guys crazy? What about your retirement? What about your savings?”

But where would we be if we listened to conservative family members all the time? In a rut and well and truly bored, most likely.

The house has a strong presence in the landscape, enhanced by the picturesque lake on the property.

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The house has a strong presence in the landscape, enhanced by the picturesque lake on the property.

Schist is heavy, though – Roland’s neighbour Damian, who owns a schist quarry suggests he schedules his back operation in advance. Even the task of choosing the pieces in the quarry seems daunting, let alone putting them up. (No stone left unturned.)

But, this is Grand Designs. And it wouldn’t be a show without sacrifice – this couple has already lived in a caravan over winter in one of the coldest parts of the country. Now they are in a small kitset house with their dog Frankie (quite the scene stealer). Michael shares a tiny cabin on site with his partner Lauren.

Of course there are hitches. The 16mm structural steel arrives with bolt holes that are too small. So 140 holes have to be redrilled by the end of the day, and someone has to go back to Invercargill, negotiating torrential rain and flooding to bring back a drill that can do the job. Then they need a bigger generator – and of course they end up working through the night.

Son Michael was head builder on the project, while Roland built all the schist walls himself.

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Son Michael was head builder on the project, while Roland built all the schist walls himself.

Another one for the family album – Lucienne and Roland are pictured with Grand Designs NZ presenter Chris Moller, who was in awe of their achievement.

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Another one for the family album – Lucienne and Roland are pictured with Grand Designs NZ presenter Chris Moller, who was in awe of their achievement.

The portals go up, and then the block walls. But, this is a vineyard, and the family stops work on the house to harvest the grapes by hand. After hours, they lay a few more blocks. It’s exhausting just watching them.

They choose wonderful old demolition timber for the rafters. “Each piece, etched by time, has its own story to tell,” says presenter Chris Moller, poetically.

Winter hits and it’s reminiscent of those builds we see on Grand Designs UK. This family is trying to build a house in -5 degrees. And it can’t be easy when both son and father are “the boss”.

Demolition timbers were chosen for many areas of the house, including the front door, rafters and window frames.

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Demolition timbers were chosen for many areas of the house, including the front door, rafters and window frames.

The ground floor is designed as a public space - the tasting room - where visitors can sample the wines at leisure.

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The ground floor is designed as a public space – the tasting room – where visitors can sample the wines at leisure.

“He swings moods like frigging night and day, and I have to deal with that,” says Roland. “I’ve only walked off once.” While Michael says he hasn’t walked off the job at all. So they even have an argument about who does or doesn’t throw tantrums, which is hilarious.

“He doesn’t like being told what to do,” says Michael.

“I don’t take authority very lightly,” Roland says in response: “He started to dick me around and I thought no, this is it; I’m gonna go for a cup of coffee.”

Damian comes to check on the schist walls, and the first, and most obvious, wall inside the house is a bit wonky. But hey, you learn as you go. “He wasn’t supposed to start with the lounge wall, but he didn’t listen,” the neighbour jokes. “But I think he’s making a nice job and it’s something he can be proud of.”

Structural elements, including the large steel portals, are exposed.

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Structural elements, including the large steel portals, are exposed.

And that’s not all. At the roof shout we hear Roland and Lucienne’s Ruru Immigrant’s Vineyard pinot noir has won a gold award at a prestigious wine competition. Which is seriously impressive. (We’re off to buy some.)

LOCKDOWN HITS

Lockdown hits in March, but Roland keeps up with the schist walls, and Michael buys what he can the day before the shops shut, so they can keep working. When Moller returns in May, he has a go at laying the schist and discovers just how difficult it is.

But in the middle of the second winter, Michael breaks his wrist – not snowboarding, but on a night out with a mate. And all he can do is direct Roland.

Then it’s time for the grand reveal. It looks wonderful from the outside. As Moller predicted, the simple shape lets the materials take centre stage. You wouldn’t know a novice built the deep schist walls. It’s an appropriate barn-like structure for a vineyard, and in keeping with the local architectural vernacular.

Other notable features include deep window reveals, and sliding barn doors.

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Other notable features include deep window reveals, and sliding barn doors.

The composite stone benchtop that will serve as a bar for the wine tasting features embedded river stones.

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The composite stone benchtop that will serve as a bar for the wine tasting features embedded river stones.

Inside, the double-height ceiling with its exposed portals and rafters makes for a very spacious tasting room. We’re not convinced about the handmade terracotta tiles on the floor though. The tiles may be durable, but they do look a bit “90s”. A different type of stone may have worked better.

The kitchen is impressive, with a schist island that will double as a bar for wine tasting. Visitors will no doubt wander out to the terrace overlooking the lake – the setting is magical.

And the views across the vineyard to the snow-capped tops of the Old Man Range are especially good from the bedroom upstairs. Who wouldn’t want to wake up to that? And, unlike the couple on last week’s show, these two have a bed facing the view.

The main bedroom is a large room on the top level.

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The main bedroom is a large room on the top level.

There’s a lovely scene where Moller chats with Michael on the jetty. Michael can be rightfully proud of what he has achieved. And Roland and Lucienne, of course, who are also incredibly proud of their son.

This build kept to budget, coming in at $853,171 (that is Lucienne’s bookkeeping to the fore). Moller is impressed they got so much for this amount.

And don’t you just love those closing scenes when everyone gathers for a drink? Roland gives a speech, gets halfway through and is overcome with emotion when talking about his son. Cue, a hug with Michael. Not a dry eye in the house.

Grand Designs NZ screens on Three on Mondays at 7.30pm

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