Years of letter writing to own this Dunedin villa culminated in a labour of love renovation
Meet & greet
Claire Robinson (registered valuer/risk manager), Cameron McLellan (solutions analyst), Lyla, two, and Moss the retrodoodle.
A circa 1905 renovated three-bedroom weatherboard villa in Dunedin.
For four years, while living in the leafy suburb of Dunedin’s North East Valley, Claire Robinson wrote letters to the owner of the house down the road. She’d fallen in love with the villa, which although in need of some tender love and care, basked in all-day sun and enjoyed a sizeable section within walking distance to town and good schools.
But Claire’s door knocks and letters went unanswered, and life carried on. Until, as luck would have it, within a week of moving back from Perth to the scarfie city, the family of the villa’s previous owner reached out to see if she was still interested in the property. They’d found her letters while clearing out the vacant house — a serendipitous move as Claire had just settled in with her mum at the top of the steep street.
“I had no idea what condition the house was in as it wasn’t visible from the street and behind a tall holly hedge,” Claire admits. Neglected since the death of its owner, the house was far from habitable, particularly with a roof that had been leaking for years, but the very next day, Claire submitted an offer with an intention to restore the villa back to its original glory. “The builder had told me to demolish, but that was never the plan.”
A year of renovations began, a project that Claire could “get her teeth into” as she acclimatised back to life in Aotearoa. This wasn’t her first renovation, with one house under her belt when she was only 20 years old, but it was her first on her own, with villas being more finicky than most. The walls were stripped back to their sarking, or in some cases removed altogether along with rotten floorboards. The sub-floors were lifted to repile and raise the house a metre off the ground, creating 15 skips of rubbish.
When Claire returned to her day job, two builder friends, Keith Russell and Logan Turner, commenced work on the property. The pair would leave her a list of jobs to complete each night to save costs wherever possible, including insulating walls, fitting building paper, puttying windows and sanding and painting the exterior. “Most of the time I used YouTube and just gave it a go. Friends and family all pitched in to help when they could, which was so helpful and nice company,” Claire says.
Towards the end of the renovation, Claire was admitted to hospital and her mum’s partner, Pete, stepped in to assist with the internal painting “which I was extremely grateful for – and he did an excellent job”. It was during this time that Claire also met her partner, Cameron. “On one of our first dates, Cam helped paint the hallway and skirting boards,” she says.
An ensuite was added to a bedroom, and the dining area was extended to link the existing lounge and kitchen to form an open-plan space. The living area opens out to a north-facing deck, which soaks up the sun and floods the villa with warmth. When the overgrown holly hedge, which had originally prevented Claire from keeping an eye on her dream property, needed clearing of the overgrown section, a fundraiser was held by the Green Island Rugby Club to assist with the removal.
The pressed tin ceiling in the lounge was in surprisingly good condition, one of only two original ceilings that could be saved due to water damage. The feature has become a favourite of the family, with a ceiling chandelier that was specially selected from Mr Ralph to complement the white of the tin. The filigree on the veranda was also still intact, adding to the charm of the exterior. Outside, the house was painted in Karen Walker Half Foggy Grey with Karen Walker Blanched Pink on the front door to maintain a contemporary classic feel from the get-go.
“The skirting boards, cornices, bedroom and hallway ceilings were all run to match the original profiles and floors replaced with kauri to match the original profile,” Claire says. The original timber flooring was riddled with borer, although Claire admits that the kauri floors are soft and are easily scratched.
Eye for interiors
Despite her vision for the renovation being laser-focused, Claire struggled with the decor and decorating side of things. “A weakness I recognised early on was that I didn’t enjoy the interior design aspect and found this extremely stressful with so many decisions required.” A friend introduced Claire to interior designer Nikita Hau who was given a clean slate to choose colours, furnishings, and fittings for the home. “Nikita was excellent and understood I was on a tight budget. A lot of the costs were unknown and not able to be budgeted, so she balanced saving and splurging. I tried to spend more of the budget on areas such as the kitchen, bathrooms and floor coverings, and less on items that were easily replaceable,” she says. Claire’s only request was that the walls incorporated earthy, timeless colours, rather than being all-white, which led to each room being a slightly different shade.
Where possible, Claire likes to support local and smaller suppliers. “I love natural materials that are timeless and of a simple design,” she says. Her home ethos is that everything must be functional and practical, a mentality that is echoed in the durable, high-quality interiors throughout the villa, from the luxurious bathrooms to the cosy bedrooms.
The completed home, with its charming blue kitchen and large bifold windows, works well for the young family. Claire and Cam have been happily living here for the past three years, although they admit they’ll need to either build a garage or create storage in the ceiling in the coming years. The pair also have another project out in the beach suburb of Brighton, which will involve a learning curve of how to subdivide a section. But for now, they’re content to enjoy the sun from the many window seats of the villa, perfect for a book or a glass of wine over the sweeping Ōtepoti hills. “We are very fortunate to live in a sunny, warm house where beautiful character features were able to be restored,” Claire says.
What are your top tips for interior lovers?
1 Engage an interior designer at the start of the planning/design process, along with the draughtsman or architect.
2 Select as many items and make as many decisions as possible at the start of the renovation to avoid delays.
3 Be open to finding or researching alternate building materials that have the same desired outcome or look you’re after, but fit more within your budget.
4 Obtain a valuation on an ‘as if complete’ basis to avoid overcapitalisation.
Words by: Caroline Moratti. Photography by: Rachel Wybrow.