Nick Rowe turns a former state house in Riverhead into a mini modernist compound centred around a serene courtyard.

State of Play

State of Play

Mid-century architecture has enjoyed a well-deserved resurgence in recent years: in particular, the works of New Zealand architects exploring influences as widely varied as local vernacular, Japanese design and Scandinavian modernism. While delightful, the focus is sometimes misleading: many houses of the time tended to a more English cottage ideal and nowhere was that better seen than in the classic New Zealand state house, all small windows and hipped roofs, boxy rooms and hallways. 

It was for an excellently well-preserved example of the latter that Joni and Scott Ellery asked Nick Rowe of Nick Rowe Architecture to design an extension in Riverhead, in the booming northwest of Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland. In recent years, the area has become synonymous with tract housing and new developments, as the city’s hinterland explodes to the west and north, fed by new motorways and work-from-home options. As a result, paddocks and orchards have increasingly given way to cul-de-sacs.

But turn off the main highway, onto a street opposite the rugby club, and you find yourself back in a kind of mid-century small-town ideal. Big sections, established trees, and boxy state houses in the middle of each plot. The family moved here from a new house they’d built nearby, and the attraction is obvious. 

That said, they wanted to graft something new onto the old girl, but it was in solid, original condition and they sought to alter the original house as little as possible. “I don’t think we would have embarked on the project if it had been a very rundown house,” says Joni. The family wanted to focus their attention on the new parts of the house, and they also wanted to stay in the house while renovating. And, they wanted to keep its original details. 

In devising an extension for the house, Nick sought inspiration in the airy pavilions of West Coast modernism rather than cottage-style state houses, while leaving the original home almost entirely untouched. His design conceived a suite of new timber buildings around a sunny courtyard with a pool, pulled away from the existing house – leaving original openings and even the original weatherboards in place. 

From the street, all you can see is a long, low carport (housing a very cute 1960s Munro caravan), a big sheltering roof sitting on round steel pilotis, and a bagged brick wall curving gently upwards at one side to meet the house. “We didn’t want to give much away,” says Rowe. “We wanted it to be interesting, but we didn’t want to show our hand. And then it slowly unravels as you come through.”

 The brick wall shields the courtyard from the street, and anchors the more lightweight timber boxes: it runs through the back of the carport and then slides along the back of the house, forming a new entry – on one side, original weatherboards; on the other, brick. In between, there’s a skylit space flooded with light that forms a new entry. It’s a pause, a moment that drags you in, sitting between the old and the new living spaces and courtyard. You can’t quite see the new spaces around the corner, and you’re conscious of the old house beside you, but neither is quite in view. It’s delightful. 

Once inside, you arrive in the kitchen, original living areas to the left in the old house and a new sunken living room to the right, with the main bedroom beyond looking out over the pool. The new pavilion is a link between the original house and the courtyard – step up one way and you’re into the old house; step down the other way and you’re into the courtyard.

No items found.

Tucked behind the carport is a pool house with its own bathroom, as well as a couple of storage rooms: Joni is originally from Scotland, and the couple have friends all over the world – plus it provides a retreat from teenagers within view of the main house. The U-shaped layout of the buildings was also a practical move. The section next door was in the process of being subdivided into three, and the house in the other direction is equally large, so the two wings provide passive buffers and privacy on both sides.

The extension is noticeably different, but it all works in concert – there’s bagged brick and timber cladding, plus bronze aluminium joinery and wide roofs with big overhangs. It feels less like an intrusive new element, and more like something that might have been there for decades. “It’s taking cues from the original house,” says Rowe by way of explanation. “It’s mid-century, but it’s a different sort of architecture – it’s a bit exploded.” The brick walls also perform a valuable job on this south-facing site, bouncing northern light back into the living spaces.

In keeping with the brief, Nick left the original house almost untouched – including a long open-plan living room that looks north over the rugby fields. Originally the kitchen, living and dining room, this is now a living room and dining area, and gets frequent use – particularly in summer. The laundry is in the same place, only now it’s a walk-through room with cabinetry lining both sides. The original three bedrooms became children’s bedrooms and the bathroom is as it was. The front door was turned into a window, and the front hall became a service hall to bedrooms.

Outside in the courtyard, landscape designer Claire Walker conceived the hard landscaping, decks and a planting scheme – including a silk tree which will eventually shade much of the outdoor living space. The family, as planned, lived on site through the build, with Joni on hand to project manage with Ze Build – they finished up just in time for Tāmaki’s second Covid lockdown in August 2021, and Joni spent much of lockdown planting out the courtyard. “I’m super proud of our home and it took many people to get it to where it is,” she says.

More than anything, the extended house fits on the site beautifully, thanks to some grand old trees – a beautiful magnolia, and a couple of established tītoki on the back boundary – though Joni mourns the loss of a large lime tree, which made way for the pool. “It was an amazing site out the back of an immaculate little state house, with established planting all around it,” says Rowe. “To have all that there was just gold.”

No items found.

1. Entry
2. Bedroom
3. Bathroom
4. Laundry
5. Living
6. Dining
7. Deck
8. Kitchen
9. Patio
10. Pool
11. Pool House
12. Carport

Related Stories: