A renovated three-bedroom, two-storey villa from 1907 in Petone.
It’s a rare story of renewal that doesn’t include a bit of drama: epic delays, unexpected discoveries, and relationships (professional or personal) under strain. Even within the genre of renewal chronicles, Sarah and Rupert’s story stands out, though you’d never know it from seeing them now, smiling and happy at their seaside home in Wellington’s Petone, a picture of satisfaction with their beautiful baby Ruby. There are no signs that the stressful year has passed, except for the heart motives throughout the house.
A Home with Heart
A short distance from the ocean, on a street lined with adorable period homes, this two-story dollhouse-style villa was easy to sell, and Rupert and Sarah, who work in real estate and know a special property when they see it, saw it, and offered it right away. “We brought our friend, who is a builder, and looked at him once at 8 p.m., then bought him that night,” Sarah says.
So far, so simple. But where things got complicated was after the renovation process began. Covid caused the usual catalog of delays, and the house threw out its own surprises. “The builders ripped out the whole Gib and found that there had been a massive fire at the site – all the structural timber and beams were black from the fire.” This was also when they learned about the house’s less-than-gentle past as a gang headquarters in the ’60s and ’70s. “Our front yard was where they had all the bikes and cars.”
Sarah conveys all of this with a shrug of “that’s life,” as if none of that matters one iota compared to the real challenge of this time. When reindeer started, Sarah became pregnant. She suffered “the worst pregnancy ever,” made infinitely worse by learning that her baby had a congenital heart defect. While the renovation continued, its importance paled in comparison to these personal events, particularly after Ruby was born and the young family found themselves in and out of the hospital. “We practically had to put all our trust in our traditions, as we had to go and stay in hospitals for months and had two long trips to Starship Hospital in Auckland,” Sarah recalls.
The thought of leaving everything in the hands of others would be terrifying, but here, Sarah and Rupert had a home advantage. Years in real estate had helped them build a network of business connections they implicitly trusted. “Glen of Fundamental Construction took over and was the greatest project manager of all time. He solved all my problems,” Sarah says.
Change for the better
Key to successful construction was a good architect, who helped them decide how to make the most of the house, which was in good condition but well below its potential. “It wasn’t terrible at all. It had a kitchen from the 90s and a strange design. It was not very ‘villa’ and not modern. I was a little lost,” Sarah says, adding that initially they thought they would put in a new kitchen, give it some paint and finish it. “But our architect had other ideas.”
That architect was Shaun Anderson of And. Architecture, whose personal friendship with the couple gave him license to pitch some brief ideas, and Sarah and Rupert were willingly caught up in his vision. “We opened the plans and said, ‘Oh my God, it’s amazing. Let’s do it.'”
The jewel in Shaun’s plan was a ladder of declaration. Previously, stairs were at the main entrance, it was not an uncommon design, but it meant it was greeted by a claustrophobic closeness rather than the bright and bright entrance the house now enjoys. He moved the staircase to the back of the house, where it is framed by huge glass panels, an airy architectural artwork in elegant white and blonde wood.
While Sarah was determined to preserve the dollhouse-style exterior as much as possible, those incredible sliding glass doors were a huge improvement, capturing an avalanche of sunlight in the afternoon, previously only seeping through small windows on both floors.
The upstairs was reconfigured to give Sarah and Rupert the main item on their bucket list: a five-star hotel-style master bedroom, with a walk-in closet and a generous bathroom complete with separate bathroom. “People usually do the family bathroom very big, and then the bathroom very small, but we did it the other way around,” says Sarah, who was inspired by a European vacation before baby.
Although contemporary details have been added to the house, aligning it with the way a modern family lives, Sarah says they tried to always be respectful of the time of the house and the details that speak to its history, especially Rupert. “Rupert is really particular in paying homage to the era in which the house was built,” he says. “It’s really particular about the behind-the-scenes stuff you don’t really think about.” This meant obtaining new baseboards to match existing ones, researching a time-appropriate climate board width for panels on the kitchen island and, where necessary, thoroughly restoring and, where necessary, reproducing the original windows.
Some things couldn’t be saved, like the lead light panels on the front door, which Sarah redesigned and now look like they would always have been there. Likewise, in the bathroom. “I was a ‘no hard’ to frosted glass and wanted a feature,” says Sarah, who used the same design for a custom lead light window.
When it came to curing a consistent look, designer Anna Spicer of Spice Design was Sarah’s right-hand man, interpreting her style, wrestling in her corner when needed to get things done, and closing in the finer details of accessories and furniture. “Door handles, hinges: she took care of all the boring things she would never have thought of. I would show her pictures of things and I had no idea where to look, but she knew where everything was and how to navigate everything,” Sarah says.
While Anna brought it all to life, Sarah had a definite vision for her. “My style is very ‘one box,'” Sarah says. “Looking at the pictures on my phone, I take screenshots of things from three or four years ago that are in the house now.” Materials like square tiles and oak carpentry were on their bucket list long before they found this home, while “contemporary classic” has been their favorite style forever. So much so that they didn’t need to buy a lot of furniture for this house, as their existing furniture (also chosen with Anna’s help for their previous house) fit perfectly.
What Anna and Sarah created is a timeless look for a historic home, with subtle contemporary elements, all connected by consistent colors and shapes. “I wanted to tie everything together, like the curved edge bench under the TV, the curved edges on our mirrors and floating shelves. It’s the same with color: metal (faucets and blacksmithing), white and oak are used throughout the house,” says Sarah.