Houses by Parsonson Architects come to be kinds of landmarks as you make your way around Te Whanganui-a-Tara Wellington. There’s one in most suburbs, taking you by surprise and demanding attention on steep and winding streets: a soaring folly of an angular roofline in Kelburn, a zinc and copper clad biomorphic structure in Roseneath, a self-contained European village in Mount Victoria, and complex, interlocking shapes making their way up hillsides in Seatoun and Northland.
This project is not one of those, which makes it just as interesting in its own way – it’s a return to that most ubiquitous of architectural projects, the simple modernisation-alteration of a tired 100-year-old house. This is the kind of project that architects often start out with and then give up as practices and client budgets grow, the kind where there isn’t even a single, succinct brief to the architect, but rather an agglomeration of problems – the usual things: painting, insulating, heating, a new kitchen, a new bathroom, opening up obscured harbour views.
Anna and Ollie, the owners of this house up a steep street in Wadestown, planned to tackle a discrete renovation first. “We only asked for ideas for redoing the kitchen,” Anna jokes, fully aware of the tradition of architectural mission creep. The couple were living in San Francisco with their young children when home called. They bought this house and moved in days before Covid lockdowns started. Over the following weeks, they got to know their closest neighbour across the fence (socially distanced, of course), who happened to be Craig Burt, director at Parsonson Architects, with kids a similar age to theirs.
“I fully recommend all architects move in and live next to their clients,” Craig jokes. “It’s great when you can see how they live over a longer period. We’d trade ideas in the mornings as we would be going down the paths to the street, or when our kids would be playing together.”
The result speaks to this proximity, where there’s no one grand gesture but instead a close understanding of what Anna and Ollie were hoping for. Ollie says it was really about family life and the children. “We just wanted to have the best environment for these ones as they grow up,” he says, as one of the kids leaps from a nearby couch.
The result is simple and effective. After the climb up the path from the street, you can choose from a few ways to enter the house, but the obvious choice is to come in off the top courtyard and straight into the kitchen-dining area. Ahead of you is the kitchen with new walk-in pantry; to the immediate right is a kind of sunroom with new, larger windows that open up to the harbour. Further in and to the right is the living room. A long corridor leads to the laundry, bathroom and bedrooms. Downstairs is the front door proper.
Spatially, a critical decision was to open the living room up to the kitchen. Anna and Ollie debated with Craig whether or not to remove the wall that divided these spaces, at first thinking they’d prefer to keep the more traditional separation they had each grown up with. But they agree the eventual decision to get rid of it was key to the whole project. The space is airy, open and warm, and there’s an easy flow between functions, which could not be said of the house pre-alteration.
A previous renovation had removed all of the features that marked the house’s age. By adding contemporary elements that recall vernacular bungalows, Craig brought back a sense of the house’s history while avoiding the pitfalls of pastiche or fakery. There’s the timber shelving in the kitchen and bathroom, on which Anna and Ollie display their Heath Ceramics brought back from San Francisco. There’s the cut-out architrave that leads down the corridor, a shape mirrored in kitchen drawer handles. Central heating vents above the bookshelves also evoke timber detailing you might find in a period house.
Mataī flooring is oiled, giving it a rich hue and softness underfoot. Anna found the playful pendant lights that now hang above the dining table, and suggested plastering the kitchen extractor. She was also gifted the vintage bench top used as the kitchen island, which serendipitously mirrors the verticals of the bookshelf.
“It’s nice to work on a different scale of project,” Craig says. “Houses like this are what it’s all about, a family and children and their daily life. It was never going to be about a flashy alteration, that’s just not who they are or how they live. It needed to be more natural and about craft.” All these things, the spatial and the decorative, come together to make the house seem an extension of its owners and their children. “We feel this place is just so us,” Anna agrees. Many of the changes are small, but they add up to a result that feels true to Anna and Ollie’s lifestyle.
The lesson from this simple and successful renovation is easy, then: next time you’re planning to renovate, research where the good architects live, and buy the house next door.