Grand Designs: House in the woods steps right out of a fairy tale

Steve and Chrissy Sygrove prove passion is a strong motivating force as they complete their handcrafted American Gothic home in TItirangi.

“Expect the unexpected” could have been the catchphrase for this Grand Designs NZ project. In an era of bold, contemporary architecture, the fairytale house created by builder Steve Sygrove and his wife Chrissy is a step back, not only in time, but also into the realm of childhood fantasy.

The couple have had a lifelong love affair with old villas, restoring numerous properties over the years. “We love ruins, and the history and the romance that comes with these old homes,” Steve says.

But it was the American Gothic style – the forerunner of the traditional New Zealand villa – that captured their hearts for their own grand design. In the United States these homes were originally quite flamboyant, almost fairy tale houses, often painted in bright, gaudy colours.

The Sygrove’s dream was to build a three-storey house in this style, which would sit like a cottage in the woods, on their large bush-clad site in Titirangi, West Auckland.

To preserve funds, the couple lived “like gnomes” at the bottom of the site in a collection of prettily painted shepherd’s huts built by Steve, one of which was subsequently sold off to secure more funding for the project.

As with most Grand Designs projects, cost escalations were a concern. For this project, building was delayed several months while Steve built more shepherds huts to raise money.

But compromise was not on the agenda – another familiar story on Grand Designs. Steve was dedicated to preserving the American Gothic architectural style. Framing in the house is spaced at 400mm rather than the standard 600mm, just as it was in the original homes.

The house also features traditional attic rooms and a steep pitched gable roof. But it is the handcrafted elements that make this such a labour of love. Steve handcrafted elaborate, decorative Gothic frills, ornate vergeboards decorated with spandrels, heavy drip mouldings that curve like eyebrows over the windows, a little porch with lacework valances, a horseshoe window and a Juliet balcony made from antique cast iron.

Although the ground floor is still not completed, the Sygrove’s have moved into the floor above. And, yes, it is decorated in the bright pastels so loved by Chrissy.

Architect Chris Moller probably best sums it up when he says, “I feel as though I have stepped through the looking glass into a house full of curiosities, handcrafted objects and furniture.

“Architects don’t often use the word pretty, but that’s what this house is. Steve and Chrissy’s house is one out of the chocolate box, and it seems a foregone conclusion that Steve and his family are all going to live here happily every after.”