It’s likely every architect’s fantasy. To escape the demands of capricious clients, and build something just for themselves. Plenty do it, of course, but few do their own thing quite so completely as Peter Shaw. The Wellington architect not only brought his new Karori home to life on the drawing board, he then built it himself.
“I was the architect, the project manager and the builder,” he says. “It was an interesting process – we certainly had some fairly fascinating discussion amongst the three of us – but it was a fun experience to take something from the drawing board and then build it myself.”
To do so was no mad experiment. Shaw spent the first decade of his working life as a builder after beginning an apprenticeship straight from school. It was only after returning from overseas in around 2000 that he decided he wanted to try something else, and moved to Wellington to study architecture at Victoria.
So, when he and his partner Rachel Dickinson decided a few years ago to fulfill their dream of building, he resolved to do it himself. He wasn’t entirely rusty either; in the years since changing career, he had kept his hammer hand in with renovations on their previous homes. Still, he knew his first complete build in two decades wasn’t going to be without its challenges and its risks.
Initially, the couple planned to extend the original 1940s state house and connect it to the garden – but when a friend suggested they subdivide and build new, a lightbulb went on. “Councils around New Zealand are encouraging infill housing, but much of it has been done cheaply and with little consideration for design or quality of life,” says Shaw. “The opportunity to build a thoughtfully designed home on a small site really excited us.”
“We kept saying it was going to be like Grand Designs,” Dickinson laughs, “that I would fall pregnant with triplets or we would run out of money halfway through.” In the end, there was nothing approaching that sort of drama. After slowly designing the two-bedroom house at night and on weekends, Shaw took a year off from work to do the job, a project made easier by the fact he was building at the rear of their existing home, a former state house with a full section they’d owned for four years.
“I found I had really missed the process of building,” Shaw says. “Yes, as architect, I get to do the drawings, yes I get to turn up and see a project as it is built, but I haven’t had the opportunity for years to pull something together myself. It was a bit challenging at first, but it was really enjoyable to be able to step back at the end of a day and see that I’d stood some frames up, or there was a roof going on.”
Sitting at the bottom of a sloping site, the completed home has masterfully created privacy and found the light. Both required not only thoughtful design, but good community relations. Surrounded by five neighbouring properties, the couple made the decision to keep the project within boundary rules so that a resource consent was not required. However, by keeping their neighbours in the loop anyway, nerves were calmed and agreements could be made about co-planting and hedge heights that enhanced privacy for all.
The home’s final footprint is just less than 100 square metres, a compact design which has allowed – given the close neighbours and the half site – for an ample backyard with room to retain a large, old weeping willow, and to put in a good-sized shed, raised garden beds and a generous deck and entertaining area.
The project’s design inspiration combined ideas they liked in their two-bedroom state house, such as the covered entrance, and their love of Californian mid-century modern architecture – “the design principles,” as Shaw notes, “rather than the trend” – meaning full-height windows and sliding glass doors, built-in furniture and a colour palette that mixes white, timber and pops of colour. It’s a simple, efficient house built to a tight budget that nevertheless manages to feel generous and calm.
The living area – with the kitchen at the southern end – has been designed to dissolve the line between indoors and out, taking in views of the garden, which is sheltered from Wellington’s notorious wind and neighbours close by. “It isn’t a big house, internally,” Shaw says, “but the living area has a real sense of space because – when the weather is half decent – you can go out onto the decks. The floor-to-ceiling windows help bring the outdoors in, too.”
The striking, vaulted ceiling in the living room, finished with a bright plywood, and with fins created around doubled trusses, gives the space an airy feel. “One of the reasons we chose to do that with the ceiling was to create a sense of volume, and a little bit of difference,” Shaw says.
The handsome, aluminium-framed windows and sliding doors – which are from an architectural rather than residential range – were among the areas where Shaw and Dickinson allowed for a larger budget. So, too, was the elegant, bespoke joinery made by Matriks in Wellington, high-quality fixtures and full-boarded American white oak floors.
The specially ordered steel roofing – there is no missing its bold kōwhai colour – was another budgetary indulgence, but an important one because of its visibility from the street, and Shaw’s idea to fold the material over the roof’s edge, giving the cedar cladding a bright, modern border.
The interior is filled with playful design features too: inset skirting boards; negative detailing around the door jambs; and a window snug for their old dog – sadly, now departed – in the master bedroom. “Some of the details that I wanted to try here, I wouldn’t do as an architect if I was expecting someone else to make it, because it just takes too long – and they would never get it right,” Shaw says. “Thankfully most of my carpentry work is good enough that I don’t sit there and stew about it!”
In hindsight, there is the odd thing they might have done differently, he says, but the end result has been so satisfying the couple are very keen to do it all again. “You don’t get too many chances as an architect to design your own house – and I have a lot of ideas that I couldn’t get into this one.”