An updated colour scheme led to so much more in this sumptuous heritage villa refurb by Pac Studio in Tāmaki Makaurau.

Strength of Character

Strength of Character

As anyone lucky – or perhaps foolish – enough to own a 1900s villa knows, it’s often not just the 120 years of infrequent and haphazard maintenance that brings owners to their knees when renovating. More often, it’s the fact that the homes weren’t very well built in the first place. So, however much you might like to add your own touches to a house, when you open them up, there are inevitably expensive, time-consuming surprises to be found – and often, they’re more involved than building something new.

Many of the homes Sarosh Mulla and his colleagues at Pac Studio work on fit this bill. Along with new houses (including Waimataruru, the winner of our Best House Aotearoa 2022), the practice has built something of a reputation for what might be called mullet projects – business at the front, party at the back. Usually, these involve repairing and restoring old houses, before pushing out the back to create new living spaces, and through a range of jobs, they’ve demonstrated a unique ability to be both playful and respectful. “We love working on old wooden houses,” says Mulla. “They’re easily adapted, carbon-capturing, vernacular heritage and built from our own taonga – rimu and kauri. Even the wonkiest feel special.”

When it came to working on a scheme for this house in an established Tāmaki Makaurau suburb, though, there was much less need for remediation. The original building was in beautifully solid condition, with tall, airy ceilings and many original details – not to mention heart-kauri construction and ceramic piles, rather than timber. The kitchen dated to the 1920s and was still in working order. “The house was just spectacular,” says Mulla, who started his career with Jeremy Salmond at Salmond Reed, and clearly relished a return to a heritage project. “We were solving problems that were nice to solve, so we gave ourselves licence to solve them in a way that was really enjoyable – but mainly we just tried not to mess with the other parts of the house.”

The original place was built in 1906 by a wealthy department-store owner, a wedding present for his daughter on a corner of his large landholding. The main family pile is next door and features a grand semi-circular driveway and a wide double verandah. Perhaps for that reason, this house has an unusually low-key feel with something of a demure face to the street. Not here the wedding-cake stairs leading to a grand front door. Instead, there’s a pretty little porch that would have opened onto a drive that led to the tennis court. And, rather than the classic long, straight hallway that starts with public rooms and moves to private, the place has a U-shaped corridor through the middle of the house, which creates a much more domestic kind of progression. “If you think about the main house and the daughter’s house, this would have felt like a much softer entrance,” says Mulla.

The current owner bought it 43 years ago with his late wife. They were just its fourth custodians, taking over from a Mrs Jelicich, who owned a number of boarding houses around Central Auckland. “When we came to see it,” says the owner, “there was a hand basin and a stove in every room, and a lock on every door. But the bones were there, and you could see all the garbage would come out really easily.” They moved in the day before their eldest son was born, and set about bringing back its original character, raising their family and filling the house with contemporary art, books and a mixture of classic modernist and antique pieces, including an 1800s waka huia, a carved box for treasures, that has come to encapsulate the idea of the whole place.

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In the original layout – as was conventional for the time – the kitchen occupied a dark south-eastern corner, while a bathroom sat on a north-western corner at the end of the hall. A series of lovely rooms run down the east-west axis on the northern side behind a deep verandah, including a beautiful maroon drawing room and two rooms they combined to create a delightful panelled living-dining space. In doing so, they discovered original 18-inch kauri boards that they carefully repurposed on one wall. Beyond that, they made very few structural changes. And why would you? It was beautifully solid and worked well for a growing family. “You can imagine the quality of the place if that’s what was being hidden,” says Mulla.

Somewhat uniquely, they also filled it with colour. That was the genesis of the approach to Pac: seeking advice for a new scheme after seeing two yellows and a green in a French railway station that seemed to feel right. They’ve done that, using washed-out, intermediate shades from Dulux. But in a spectacular example of enthusiastic scope creep, Pac – Mulla, partner Aaron Paterson and principal Liz Tjahjana – were asked to come up with a strategy to improve the flow of the place. Their plan gently extended the house to the north, adding space for a new kitchen that would connect with the dining space, and continue the generous verandah around to meet it. The kitchen became the focus of the design: on the outside, it simply extends the line of the hipped roof, but on the inside, it has its own distinct language.

In this room, they picked up and evolved the original details of the house, taking the idea of the battened ceilings and adding pink half-rounded vaults above them. Kitchen cabinetry is built from solid kauri with brass touches that will wear over time, and there’s an extravagant five-metre-long pill-shaped island that has become the focus of the rejuvenated house. Where there had been a kitchen, there’s now a bathroom with traditional features – black and white tiles, Perrin & Rowe fittings. Solid, weighty and hard-wearing, the interventions are intended to age and improve. “We didn’t want to be overawed by the original,” says Mulla. “The detailing in the kitchen and the island is friendly, but it’s not a copy. The idea was to get colour and texture in, but to do it with even more of a flourish.”

The construction process was meticulous. Builder James Hosking and his team carefully took the affected rooms apart, preserving and repurposing as much of the original fabric as possible, along with bits and pieces the owner had collected over the years. “We actually revealed more treasures than nasties,” says Mulla, describing how they found perfectly preserved eight-inch clear kauri boards lining the back of a hot-water cupboard, and carefully moved windows and door sets from one side of the house to another.

The scope creep continues as the project moves on to stage two: the construction of a “belvedere” – a cupola which will extend up through the roof above a new library, with stairs, a lift and a spectacular view of the harbour. A fitting flourish for a house of treasures – and a colourful one, no doubt.

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1. Entrance

2. Bedroom

3. Living

4. Dining

5. Kitchen

6. Bathroom

7. Laundry

8. Verandah

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