Eric Murray

How a layout reconfiguration has paid off with the end in sight for this renovation

Part two of our series following in the wake of an Olympic rowing legend as he transforms a grand old villa in Cambridge

Meet & greet

Eric Murray (sports coach and business development manager) and partner Thea Lyle (teacher).

The property

Four-bedroom 1912 villa in Cambridge.

There comes a time in any race or project when you need to dig deep into your reserves of stamina and focus on the finish line.

For double Olympic gold medal rower Eric Murray, the ground-up renovation of a 1912 villa in Cambridge has turned out to be a marathon rather than a sprint, but after nearly a year of working nights and weekends alongside his day job in business development and coaching, the end is in sight.

“It has been both bigger and harder than what I expected,” he says.

Although there have been none of the absolute horror stories he had been warned about by friends, he has made a few unsettling discoveries, like pulling down a wall and finding that the ceiling in one room was 15mm lower than in the other.

“Because it’s an old house nothing is straight and I often can’t get materials to match, so I’ve had to get creative in a lot of places,” he says. “I’m just working with what I’ve got as a canvas and making it work. It is what it is because of the age of the house.”

And although he has reused materials where possible and tried to be economical, the budget is under a bit of stress too. “I had contingencies, but I’m very close to the end of the contingencies.”

The 111-year-old villa was in near-original condition when he bought it a year ago, with a wonky floor, saggy ceilings, an afterthought of a bathroom and an outdoor toilet. So Eric and his partner Thea Lyle consulted with a local architect to come up with a plan for reconfiguring it to better suit modern life.

“Our options were dictated by the orientation of the house,” says Eric. “We took off all the wall linings and literally came in with chalk and drew everything on the ground to work out what the best layout would be. We’ve created a new space in what was effectively a shell, while keeping as much as we can of the old character.”

The dining room and kitchen were moved from the dark, south-facing side of the house to the lighter, brighter northern side and walls were knocked down to create one large open-plan living area that’s flooded with light from large double-hung windows to the north and full-height sliding doors opening to new decking on the east.

They also switched the main bedroom from the front of the house to the back to take advantage of the privacy and morning sun. The front of the villa faces west, making the wide return veranda the perfect spot to enjoy an evening drink while the sun sets.

They made the tough decision to sacrifice a bedroom to make room for a large family bathroom, separate ensuite and hallway cupboard laundry. “It had this tiny bathroom and the toilet had to come inside at some point,” says Eric. “So we decided the best way to change the configuration was to turn the south-facing bedroom into the main bathroom and ensuite. Because they back onto each other just about all the pipes are in one wall, which made the plumbing simpler.”

Planning the bathrooms was made much easier – and more fun – thanks to a visit to Tile Space to take advantage of their free Design Space digital rendering service. Eric and Thea had a good idea of the look they wanted, so they took their house plans along to their local Tile Space store, where the design consultant created a three-dimensional digital model of what the rooms would look like once built, so they could experiment with tiles in different colours, shapes, textures and layouts.

Rendered image of bathroom by Tile Space

The ensuite was one of the first rooms in the house to be finished, and its Artisan Moss Green tiled shower and Resene Gondwana walls look exactly as the simulation promised. “It might look good on a render on a computer, but the test is what it looks like when it’s in and you’re actually using it,” says Eric. “I’d give it 10 out of 10. The green artisanal tiles are beautiful – they’re a really cool aesthetic.”

Elsewhere in the house, the reconfigured walls were lined, the ceiling patched and a climate system installed.

Eric and Thea drew up plans for the kitchen, choosing a suite of Haier appliances partly because they’re designed to be water and energy efficient and driven by smart technologies. They also liked the slick black finish. After months of cooking on the barbecue and washing the dishes in a bucket in the shower, it was a big day when the cabinetry was installed and the brand new Haier induction cooktop, 14-function oven, steam dishwasher and quad-door fridge freezer could be slotted into the gaps. “Having smart, functional appliances makes such a momentous difference to your life,” says Eric. “You chuck a pot of cold water on the induction cooktop and within two minutes it’s boiling and you’re going, ‘You beauty’.”

He’s super happy with the look, too. “The black appliances look amazing. Everything in the kitchen has worked out exactly, from what we saw on paper to the end result.”

As the renovation progresses, Eric and Thea have been excited to see the wall colours bring the rooms to life. With such a vast range of colours available, the couple found Resene’s free colour expert service invaluable. They worked with Resene Colour Expert Christine Hodges to create an interior colour scheme designed to enhance the vintage character of the villa. “The colours are amazing,” says Eric. “We wanted something calming and elegant that works with the style of the property.”

“You can pick the colours yourself but it’s so much better to tap into an expert’s understanding of colour,” says Eric. “It turns out you’ve got to take into account the lighting, the flooring, the ceiling, the colours reflected from outside… is it a warmer or cooler colour, do you want a matte finish or a light sheen? It’s an art.”

Now 90 percent of the construction is complete, Eric and Thea are enjoying putting the finishing touches to the project. “We’re still waiting on a few bits and pieces but it’s starting to take on a really good form and it’s feeling fantastic,” says Eric. “When I bought into the concept I knew it would be a big job but now things are coming together. We’re nearly there and everything is looking amazing.

“The last thing will be polyurethaning the floor,” he says. “We’ll probably move out for a few days, then we’ll come back and we’ll be like, ‘You beauty’.”

NEXT MONTH: The reveal.

Special thanks to

Photography by: Babiche Martens.

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