Architect Matt Robinson played the long game – two phases over 25 years – renovating the Tāmaki Makaurau home he shares with his wife Penny Thomson and their three children. Robinson, a director at Herriot Melhuish O’Neill Architects, and Thomson first moved into the former state house in the inner-west suburb of Westmere in 1996. “It had two bedrooms, with 11 doors off the hallway,” Thomson remembers of the original home. It was Robinson’s first year at architecture school, and the couple could see the potential of good orientation, mataī floors and rimu walls. “It was so solid and well-built, a classic state house with tight spaces,” he says.
After three years at the University of Auckland’s School of Architecture, Robinson enrolled to do his masters at the University of California, Berkeley in San Francisco. Just as they were leaving for the airport in 2000, Robinson planted the nīkau that still stands in the middle of their back lawn. “I knew it wouldn’t survive in a pot while we were away,” he recalls with a smile. Studying in Berkeley enriched Robinson’s understanding of residential architecture. “I became more aware of the social side of domestic architecture, and the importance of community and engaging with the streetscape,” he says. His time at Berkeley also gave him the opportunity to study landscape architecture. “That’s where I discovered the work of the late Mexican-born architect Luis Barragán,” he remembers. “To Barragán, a dwelling is neither a garden nor a house, it is a space. A trip to Mexico City allowed me to see Barragàn’s houses.”
Robinson and Thomson returned to New Zealand and in 2005, their oldest daughter was born, followed by twins, who are now 11. The 80-square-metre house on a 450-square-metre section became even more of a tight fit. Robinson designed a rear extension, which was built by Graham Hardy in 2016. The architect says it was never the plan to disguise the original state house – they wanted to keep its historical integrity. “This was an entirely new addition that connected to the old house through a link to the original kitchen,” he explains. “As an architect working on my own home, I had of course done a hundred different schemes, but I was always focussed on taking advantage of the north-west position and the all-day sun, capturing the late evening sun from the west.” Barragán’s influence comes through in the synergy of living areas and landscape. “The house extension creates a seamless transition between indoor and outdoor spaces without losing a sense of intimacy, privacy, or boundary – giving a sense of being safe and secure, but connected to the external environment.”
The addition allowed the couple to make big changes on a relatively low budget because it didn’t include the kitchen or bathroom. His design doubled the size of the original footprint, adding a dining and living room as well as a mezzanine. The dining table is at the heart of the cedar-clad, concrete-floored extension, which has a soaring 6.5-metre stud height. “The dining room, and the importance of family dinners around the table, was central in my design. It’s the centre point in the house for connecting with family and friends,” Robinson says. The family gathers around the table to share a meal every night and also enjoys the dining area’s connection to the garden. “In Auckland’s variable weather, it’s great to be able to open all the doors in the dining room. It becomes an internal and external space.” As for the tree Robinson hastily planted years earlier? “It was a happy accident that the nīkau is centred with the dining room now,” he says. The tree is uplit, and when it rains at night, it’s mesmerising to watch from the dining table as rivulets of water run down the trunk.
The extension’s mezzanine was intended as a guest room and office. Today, it’s a bedroom for the couple’s 18-year-old daughter. “It was important to design interchangeable spaces, where rooms could be used for different functions. On hot nights, sleeping with the door and skylight open in the mezzanine allows for a cross-breeze that feels like sleeping in a tent,” Robinson says.
The second phase of the renovation, completed in 2022, focussed on the original dwelling. “We had always envisaged redesigning the original state house,” Robinson says. “By the time construction began, the original kitchen and bathroom were well overdue to be replaced. And while we loved the proportions and intimacy of the state house, it was a challenge to increase it from two bedrooms to three. The existing house footprint was very tight and would never quite give us the space we needed.” He overcame that obstacle by extending out under the soffits with horizontal cedar battens, retaining the original state-house proportions.
From the entrance, there’s a clear sightline through both major renovation stages along a central axis and through a sliver of glazing to planting in the backyard. The new kitchen was the key element in knitting together old and new, linking the dining room from the 2016 addition to the original home. “The kitchen island feels more like a piece of furniture,” says Robinson, “and it’s another connecting device to help engage with both spaces.” Creating the connection between the new kitchen and the dining room was challenging, says the architect. “I was working with the variable height of the existing state house and the extension. The IMO kitchen on steel frames allowed for the kitchen island to continue to the edge of the link and float above the timber floor, rather than as a solid mass.”
The original, long, thin living room is now the main bedroom. A window above the bed allows connection with the sun and breezes. Built-in wardrobes and an ensuite are all clad with birch ply. A soft duck-egg-blue palette also links the spaces, with wall tiles in the bathroom and billowy Hemptech curtains in the bedroom. The family’s love of colour is also evident in the bold green front door and the family bathroom, which sports a red &Tradition pendant lamp from Design Denmark.
Robinson points to the internal doors in the refreshed old home – which now number fewer than 11. His design raised the original doors to full height to accentuate the high ceiling, creating a continuous connection, and making spaces feel generous. “I got the inspiration for taking the doors to full height at Berkeley,” he says. “But we kept the original brass door handles so we’re always touching the old house. Keeping the integrity and the proportions of the state house was key.”