You can’t have missed the so-called “villa wars” of Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland, in which advocates of densification in the city’s early suburbs face off against heritage proponents who’d prefer to keep the status quo — in particular, Auckland Council’s Character Overlay, which prevents demolition and unsympathetic renovation of anything built before 1940. The overlay applies to large swathes of the central city, an amalgamation of several previous schemes that have been developed since the 1990s.
While no one in their right mind has any beef with greater choice – and affordability – of housing, it does seem a shame to undo a couple of decades worth of heritage protection. Indeed, many cities around the world have successfully balanced concerns of heritage and density. For now, the Character Overlay holds (at least until the government decides whether the city can exempt character suburbs from its Medium Density Residential Standards) and the owners of villas in certain areas are compelled to seek resource consent to renovate, and to prove how any updates relate to the original house. The rules have led to a variety of approaches, from oddly traditional to brutally modern – though few architects have managed to weave together the strands of old and new as deftly as architect Megan Edwards.
Such was the case of this home in Epsom, for which Edwards has designed a long, modern extension. One of four on a quiet street, the bay villa had been owned by the same family for decades before the current owners bought it – though the longstanding tenure had done the place few favours. The original house had many issues common to villas: it was pretty from the street, but the back garden was dominated by a double garage; its driveway ran down the northern boundary. Inside, the long entrance hallway sort of dissembled into a series of badly planned rooms, and the main living area and kitchen were located to the south. The backyard, reached via a 1980s lean-to and conservatory addition, fell away from the house. “It was a bit grim,” says Edwards of the villa. “It wasn’t a totally daggy one, but it did have some aluminium joinery in the lean-to. Essentially, they lived in one little room out the back and were a bit cold and shivery, really.”
The couple, who’ve owned the house for a decade or so, have no intention of ever moving. They wanted a house that would grow with them as their kids approached teenhood. They wanted more space, but they also wanted discreet areas that allowed them breathing room from each other – the more so since they often have extended family to stay. “They were keen on lots of little spots as you journeyed through the house,” says Edwards. “They wanted it to feel quite warm, and not one big space.”
The architect responded with what she calls an “unusual” series of rooms and volumes, which stretch along the southern boundary, opening to the north. Bedrooms, bathrooms and a new study are contained in the original villa. The daggy lean-to and its attendant conservatory have been replaced with a flat-roofed kitchen, a north-facing courtyard, a single garage, and a two-storey volume at the eastern end. The extension includes a variety of spaces and ceiling heights to grab views and light from the north, west and east. Beyond that, there’s a generous lawn and swimming pool. “With the height-to-boundary rules, a simple form just seemed to work,” says Edwards, “and then it opens up so you get views of the mountain.”
The consenting process was somewhat protracted. An application went in to Auckland Council as the new Unitary Plan came into being, creating confusion around which rules applied in character zones. Added to this, an eager heritage planner insisted the extension should be in the language of the original house, with boxy windows in the middle of walls, which would have somewhat defeated Edwards’ heroic efforts to get more light into the house. Eventually, after commissioning a heritage assessment from Salmond Reed Architects, common sense prevailed.
The clients are mild mannered, but clearly have nerves of steel and bucketloads of patience. After the consenting difficulties, they stayed in the house while two different builders worked on it through Covid lockdowns, switching rooms as work moved through the home. “It was a bit painful at one stage,” says one, “because we were basically all in one room.”
Now, you walk down that long, wide hallway from the original front door and through a sensitively restored villa, complete with green carpet, wallpaper and pops of colour in the bedrooms – it’s pretty, even feminine. A few steps down, you come into the airy kitchen, with a big window seat looking over the courtyard and a built-in table extending off the island for casual eating. Through a sliding oak door and internal window is a double-height dining area. At the very end of the extension is a mezzanine with a small office and a sitting area. A new sunken living space is located below. Each member of the family has places to go, and visitors are happily absorbed into the fray. “Living in it, we use it in ways we didn’t think we would – this is just so heavily used,” says one of the clients, sitting in the window seat next to a soft toy that has been tucked up for the day by their daughter.
The couple, both lawyers, regularly work from home in what have become known as “hybrid” workspaces: in all, I count three, including the timber-panelled office upstairs which overlooks the garden. I also count three places to sit, and three to eat. “It’s an interesting series of spaces, I don’t think I’ve seen anything quite like it,” says Edwards. “There’s quite a lot going on but even though you’ve got the different spaces and floor levels, you can see right through to the garden.”
Key to the extension is the double-height dining area. It gives views and light, airflow and a release in the middle of the space. “It’s a bit of an indulgence to have a double-height space but that made it interesting,” says Edwards. “It would have got a bit turgid in the afternoon otherwise.” High in the western wall, a window drops afternoon light into the room. On the other side, there’s a view up to Maungawhau Mt Eden. There are surprising places to sit, just as they asked – the most lovely being that window seat in the kitchen, the light spilling in through the tall window, and dappling across the brick wall of the garage.
To these new spaces, Edwards added layers of subtle detail that make the house tactile. There is wood panelling and a full-height cedar screen that also acts as a balustrade. A curved handrail leads upstairs. The kitchen features oak cabinetry and a striking natural stone island. When you go from the kitchen to the dining room, the floor changes from oak to concrete; down in the snug, the concrete beneath the dining level is ground back and exposed, topped with brass trim. At every turn, there’s a touch, a move, a bit of detail, and this is what marries the old with the new. You move from the painted detail of the villa to the timbery detail of the extension. “I think a lot about the interiors of buildings,” says Edwards, “and this is definitely a house you experience from the inside out.”