Lisa Webb’s latest intervention in this modernist home is evidence of the intimate connection she feels for it. Her restorations and renovations to the house over the years demonstrate the deep understanding and enormous respect she has for Geoff Newman’s original language. Her attention to detail has been unwavering.”— Kristina Pickford, rōpū
“It feels like a long conversation between us, over 20-something years,” says architect Lisa Webb of the successive renovations she’s designed for a modernist house owned by her friends Martin Yeoman and Susan Verner. During dinners and holidays, over coffee and bottles of wine, there have been sketches and chats, as they slowly feel their way through the complexities of turning a particularly rigorous house into a welcoming family home. “Poor Lisa,” says Verner, “she never gets a break.”
The most recent project was to add a calm, floating oasis for Verner and Yeoman, separate to the house, but the discussions started almost as soon as they bought the place back in 2005. Originally designed by architect Geoff Newman for the criminal defence lawyer Peter Williams, it was kind of a big townhouse, sitting at the end of a delightful cul-de-sac in Remuera, Tāmaki Makaurau – and something of a modernist showcase.
Yeoman and Verner bought a townhouse designed by Claude Megson when they returned from London in the mid-2000s. It was perfect for a working couple, the more so after an intervention by Webb, but they realised it wouldn’t work for the family they hoped to have, so they posted notes in the letterboxes of houses in the area they liked, including this one.
“It’s hard to get a sense of this house from the street, but we’d always admired it,” says Yeoman. Initially there was no response to their maildrop, but eventually the owners got in touch to say they were planning to sell. For a few Sundays, the couple would walk up the street and try to convince the owners to sell to them without going on the open market. It worked. “We were quite amazed,” says Yeoman. “Everything was covered up but you could tell it was really good.” The owners had bought the house from Williams some decades before. They changed almost nothing, but redid the bathroom with a fetching blue glass sink just before they decided to sell.
That sink lasted longer than anyone ever thought it would – about 20 years, in fact. Initially, Yeoman and Verner moved in and loved the place as it was. Then came son Theo, followed by daughter Alex, and the limitations of a house designed 40 years before for a couple with no children became obvious. “I remember having groups of mums and kids around,” says Verner, “and I’d spend the whole time in the kitchen where I couldn’t see anyone.”
The original design was rigorous, with solid walls of painted concrete block that made the house feel internal and closed. “It was really fortress-like,” says Verner, “with that big block wall to the street.” The upstairs living room, which sits on the north-eastern corner, featured a line of windows down the eastern side but few other openings. The dining room was narrow, and the kitchen was closed off from the living areas. Williams was a well-known criminal barrister and it’s easy to imagine his brief was to create something of a fortress for security reasons, though he was possibly more worried about sunlight on the grand piano, which also necessitated an outsized living room. Downstairs was given over to a games room, featuring an original slate billiards table, and an airy office beside the front door.
Yeoman and Verner started chatting with Webb about adding a window on the northern side, but eventually, over a few dinners, that turned into a conversation about a new kitchen and a new living area, as well as doors to the garden. Webb also devised a new screen between the dining and seating areas. The first design loosened the house up within the existing footprint, with Artisan Builders carefully matching details as much as possible within the restrictions of the building code: dark-painted cedar on the outside, cedar panelling and rimu cabinetry inside.
A decade on, the family wanted spaces they could all pull away to when they needed – a house that would allow their kids to have friends around, without everyone feeling overseen. “There’s a lot of weight on opening up, but we talk less about the need to close down and find quiet,” says Webb. “It’s all about that line of connection and disconnection – specific spaces but open and visible.”
What would happen next to the house has been the subject of much discussion around dinner tables. Having retained and flattened the back garden, Yeoman was reluctant to build there. He felt strongly they should push out to the street, with new garaging below a swimming pool, converting the existing garage into two new bedrooms. They quickly realised the engineered complexity of the plan would make it untenable, so the focus shifted to adding a third storey above the living areas for a new bedroom. “But as soon as I got to the drawing table with that, I realised we would have had to rip the house apart to carry the load,” says Webb.
More dinners, more discussion. As Verner tells it, Webb would turn up and start a conversation gently with, “Are you sure…?” Eventually she persuaded them to build out the back, up the slope, and using a different language, minimising damage to the original house by cutting through the oversized bathroom to create a new corridor. “Once you’re detached from the original house, you’re relieved from the need to be so referential,” says Webb, “because you’ve flown free.” The idea was that two new bedrooms would go into the new wing for the kids, and the original bedrooms would become a new main bedroom suite. Webb came for dinner not long after the first lockdown of 2020, when the designs were well in train. She could sense Yeoman and Verner weren’t as excited as they should be. Webb: “Are you sure…?” And so, finally, a new idea emerged.
The result is a deliberately calm space, separate and above the house, linked to the main house by a long staircase and looking out over a new pool in the backyard. So far, they haven’t hung any art up there, and that feels right. (Their children, only half-jokingly, call it The Hotel.) Built by Mark Rodwell and Bill Henderson, it’s sympathetic, but also quite different, wrapped in wide horizontal cedar planks, but with a base of the same vertical cedar used on the original house.
There are other, more subtle touches: as you turn the corner, the fine panelling changes from cedar to hemlock, a paler timber that announces the change in era and function. “We’ve always thought about corridors as spaces to get from A to B,” says Webb, “but when you add something special, a recess, a cabinet, it becomes a moment in time.”
Upstairs, you’re conscious of floating above the house and the pool, looking out a wide-screen, fixed-pane window over the viridian hills to Rangitoto and the harbour. There’s a triangular window there, too, which delights Webb no end. It’s mesmerising, even spare, with a palette of rimu, hemlock, travertine and black-stained timber window joinery. “The pool was about being able to be here all weekend as a family,” says Yeoman, “and then upstairs was about quiet. It doesn’t ask anything of you – it’s just a calm place to be.”
While the materials are different, the finely grained knitting together of spaces that Webb oversaw in the original house continues: a scattered collection of functions and rooms, including a bath that sits between the ensuite and bedroom, and a built-in window seat. From here, you can head downstairs to the house, or slip out through the shower room to the deck, and even reach the pool – all without ever psychologically leaving your bedroom.
The house now functions for a family with teenagers. The original office – which had been a child’s bedroom – was converted back into an office with custom-made cabinetry and particularly fetching green carpet, since Verner and Yeoman now work from home a couple of days a week. Still, you get the sense it will never quite be finished. The day I visit, Webb and Yeoman are having a conversation about a design for the front door handle. Webb suggests something with a curve, reminiscent of the shape of the valley in the distance, and maybe it involves brass. Yeoman reserves judgement, head to one side. They park the idea, step inside, close the door. The discussion continues.