With open spaces and striking colour, a young architect couple rehabilitate a cookie-cutter apartment that came with great bones.

Light up the Room

Light up the Room

Imagine you live in one of Aotearoa’s cities and, like seemingly everyone else in the country right now, you are looking to buy a house. Maybe this is your first home, or perhaps you just sold because it’s time for a change. Now imagine that over many months of checking your saved searches on the Trade Me Property app you notice that not only are prices increasing, despite the country facing a global pandemic and economic uncertainty, but you also conclude that there’s simply nothing worth buying.

Bungled villas in far-away suburbs soar out of your price range. Villa-fied bungalows are snapped up by investors. All that’s left are new-ish apartments that bring to mind bausünde, the excellent German compound roughly meaning a ‘sin of construction’. What do you do?

Geordie, an architect, and Emma Shaw, who has a masters in architecture, show us one possibility: buy an inner-city apartment with ill-conceived renovations, live in it for a year (old pink carpet, green kitchen with terracotta tiles included), then work hard to make it your own. For anyone continually disappointed by the homes for sale, it’s inspiring to see what’s possible.

Granted, the Shaws’ apartment building in central Wellington was never quite a bausünde, but their first look didn’t offer much in the way of inspiration. “Tenants’ laundry hung on a drying rack by the windows, and there were false ceilings from previous renovations that made the space feel like a dark and compressed tube,” says Emma. The second bedroom was in the wrong place, forming a narrow hallway that became uncomfortably crowded with even a few friends over. 

A false wall obscured part of the north-east facing windows, and the pink carpet had passed its ’90s best-before date. But the apartment did meet two requirements – they could walk or bike everywhere they needed to get to and didn’t need a car, and there were a few interesting features they could work with. It offered enough to warrant a second look.

Before putting in an offer, Geordie visited the library to research the building. “It was built by Fletcher Building in the 1920s and was a chocolate factory where they also made ice cream,” he says. “It has an original lift with folding doors. We knew we could rescue the high ceilings. And, interestingly, one of New Zealand’s great unsolved murder mysteries occurred in the lobby.” Geordie’s account of the murder of the chocolate-factory manager in the mid-1940s is complete with an illicit love affair, a mystery box of matches found in the building’s lobby, and foreign sailors in long leather coats. “I tried telling the real estate agent the story, but he joked that he didn’t want to hear it in case he had to make a disclosure,” says Geordie.

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Due to their modest budget, the Shaws lived in the apartment throughout the alterations. “An unexpected challenge was how difficult it is to prepare a meal without a kitchen, and how to stay clean and get ready for work when everything is covered in construction dust,” says Emma.

The most significant change the couple made was to relocate the kitchen, which they say unlocked the whole design. Entering the apartment from the south, you step into a corridor that eventually opens up into the main living-dining area. The kitchen is on the right as you pass through the foyer, with an additional benchtop and cabinetry on the left. Small touches such as a green-stained Strandboard coat nook by the front door makes the space both practical and elegant.

A sliding door off the living area opens to a bedroom, while the other is accessed to the right of the entry corridor. The bathroom is an internal room, which the Shaws have lined with square blue tiles, high-quality porcelain and a cut-out Strandboard shelf, which make the space vibrant and distinct.

Structural changes done, the architects used a confident mix of muted and bold colours. Resene Karen Walker Blanched Pink and Quarter Powder Blue make for calm spaces in the dining area and bedrooms, while bold green, yellow and blue are used for highlights on the Strandboard joinery. 

The Shaws sold their apartment earlier this year and, with a baby in tow, moved to Christchurch to be closer to family. They also started Shaw & Shaw, their own architectural practice, fulfilling a dream they’d held since meeting in their first year of architecture school at Victoria. “We want to design or renovate homes for people who may feel intimidated by the expense and elitism often attributed to architects,” says Geordie. “Ultimately, we want architects in Aotearoa to be considered essential rather than a luxury.”

For those of us looking to buy or renovate a home, this modest apartment in Wellington shows that, with the ability to look beyond the piles of laundry in real-estate photos and ignoring the maze of plasterboard, the results can be transformative. This is good news: with property listings frequently at all-time lows nationwide, we can now give that local bausünde another look.

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1. Entrance
2. Kitchen
3. Dining
4. Living
5. Bedroom
6. Bathroom
7. Storage above

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