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Ferns, feng shui, and fusion: integrating Chinese and New Zealand design in high-end housing

12 May 2020

Senior Architectural Designer Samantha Zhang discusses how to marry design languages when you're building your dream home in New Zealand.

There’s no place like home — but what does ‘home’ look like when you’re building it in a new place? New Zealand has traditionally been a hotspot for people from all over the world, each drawn by our country's renowned beauty and by the promise of a safe, peaceful, prosperous life. So how can you work with architects and designers to integrate cultural elements from your homeland into your new space here in New Zealand?

And what can you expect when it comes to New Zealand building and consent processes?

We spoke with Context Senior Architectural Designer Samantha Zhang — whose work on private residences for Chinese clients demonstrates mastery in balancing Chinese cultural elements and New Zealand aesthetics in housing design — to get her take on New Zealand-Chinese design fusion and what’s involved in successfully navigating the design and consenting process in New Zealand.

Here, she chats considering feng shui, overcoming Building and Resource Consent challenges, and designing comfortable, enduring, respectful homes away from home.

When you’re working with Chinese clients on housing projects, where do you search for design inspiration?

“Well, it varies heavily depending on type of project and individual client. I don’t think all projects necessarily need to have a Chinese-influenced inspiration, but in the cases when they do, I like to think about classic and significant elements in the Chinese culture.

For example, a luxury house I’m currently working on is inspired by a modern interpretation of the traditional courtyard houses of China — and a hotel project I worked on previously was inspired by the layers in and relationships between dozens of small courtyards like the Imperial Palaces in China.

Something that’s good to always consider is feng shui. Almost all projects I’ve done with Chinese clients have a certain degree of feng shui consideration — be it retail, hotel, or private houses.”

What are these clients' typical likes and dislikes? Are there commonalities in what they look for in housing design?

“With regard to working processes, they like things fast and efficient. The speed of things in China tends to be a lot faster than here in New Zealand.

Design preferences depend on project type and, of course, on each individual client. Many Chinese clients are attracted to New Zealand by the land itself; many of my current projects are located on incredibly beautiful sites, and it’s of the utmost important to the client that we make full use of that in every possible way.

Feng shui is something they take notice of at a very early stage. For the high-end projects, the clients always prefer really large spaces, and it’s our job to create these spaces with appropriate and beautiful proportion and scale.

They all also want efficient, practical, and well thought-out designs.”

Would you say there's a New Zealand design language or vernacular? If so, could you describe it?

“A lot of the houses in New Zealand have a cabin-like quality to them. Elements like the A-framed roofs, timber claddings, and minimalist aesthetics and colour tones make the houses quite attractive, with a unique homely and relaxing vibe.

This is different to a lot of the houses in China, where many times things tend to be overcomplicated — although I’m noticing a trend moving away from that overcomplication.”

What does the design process look like in terms of achieving fusion between New Zealand and Chinese design languages?

“It’s very important during the early stages of each project to really understand the client’s preferences. I tend to ask a lot of questions not only about the project itself but also about their personal preferences — their likes, dislikes, and desires. In the cases when this is hard to achieve, we’ll start by coming up with a few different big-idea options at the pre-design stage to test the client’s likes and dislikes. This is usually done through 3D studies and mood images.

It’s important to have a narrative that clearly explains the design concept, as this serves as the guidance for all the design work that follows.”

Are there any common conflicts or issues that arise during this design process? If so, how are they typically resolved to achieve the best design outcome?

“Perhaps one of the biggest challenges is that Chinese clients tend to not be so familiar with the authority processes here in New Zealand and with what’s required of them for both Resource and Building Consent. There’s often some frustration over how slow things can be, especially as the authority processes in China work very differently and much, much more quickly.

It’s useful to have a flow chart that clearly explains the steps and everything required for the different consent stages. We provide the client with guidance on all of this from the project’s outset; this way, we can manage expectations and make the entire process as smooth and hassle-free as possible.”

A note on the processes here: in New Zealand, Resource Consent and Building Consent are the two key processes that projects undergo. Resource Consent pertains to land, environment, and people; as the name suggests, it focuses primarily on use of resources and any environmental impact or effects on other people that your project might have. Building Consent must be obtained before breaking ground on your new home. It allows you to undertake construction on your site and ensures that all Building Code regulations and requirements are being adhered to.

To learn more about how we can help you design your dream home here in New Zealand, please email us at [email protected].

Samantha Zhang is a Senior Architectural Designer at Context. She has extensive experience working with Chinese clients on high-end private residential designs here in New Zealand, as well as a broader background informed by work on mixed-use developments, urban masterplans, and projects across the commercial, retail, and hospitality spaces here and in China, Fiji, Indonesia, and Singapore. She’s deeply passionate about merging design languages to help clients realise the full potential of their designs.