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Renovating this Christchurch villa has been a 20-year labour of love

There was no buying and flicking on for these first-home buyers who instead chose to lavish some longterm love on an old Christchurch villa

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Meet and Greet

Gail Harris, graphic designer at Platform Design, Cory Harris, personal trainer at Peak Training, Tilly, 11, and Lola, 7, plus treasured cat Holly.

Renovating this Christchurch villa has been a 20-year labour of love

When love kicks in, there’s no turning back. In 1998 Gail and Cory Harris were young and dating when they spotted their dream cottage for sale in the leafy Christchurch suburb of Beckenham. At that time they didn’t know that the tree-lined avenue was renowned for its superb, faithfully restored villas but, stepping inside at that first open home, Gail knew she’d found her ideal home.


“I came through and I just fell for it, quite quickly, quite heavily. I was so keen to get it that I knocked over all the Open Home signs on the path as we left, just in case someone else came along and wanted it as much as I did,” Gail laughs. She also bought her first ever lottery ticket that night in the hope it would enable her and Cory to get on the property ladder. She did not win the lottery, but somehow the pair managed to buy the home of her dreams.


The previous owner was a builder-developer who had subdivided the property for a townhouse development at the rear. “He had literally dipped the house in cream paint, inside and out. I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it,” Gail recalls. “Before we took possession, we’d take sandwiches and sit in our car over the road and talk about all the things we were going to do.” A mass of architecturally inappropriate changes had been made to the home over many years by various owners, and the garden was unkempt.

But Gail and Cory could see beyond the faults. “I have always loved villas and I saw the potential straight away. I never noticed the children’s swim school next door, the kindergarten opposite and the primary school over the rear boundary of the original site. At the time, we didn’t have children,” says Gail. These were all neighbourhood bonuses that would become obvious later.


Righting some wrongs

Gail says the house, built around 1910, had been “butchered” by various owners making ad hoc alterations – an art deco fireplace had been installed in a bedroom, a section of the hallway had been divided off to create a tiny bedroom and doorways had been punched into walls to create a warren of odd little spaces. So when the couple moved in they spent the first few years undoing earlier renovations. Making the decision to peel dark wooden panelling off the walls was difficult but Gail and Cory were right to trust their instincts. “As soon as it came away, we realised it wasn’t original. Removing the panels really lightened the interior,” says Gail.

She and Cory brought in builders for the major construction work but took on all the redecorating, with the help of Gail’s dad, a highly capable jack-of-all-trades.


Cory didn’t initially share Gail’s love of character villas, preferring a more contemporary style of home. This disparity in taste has influenced many of the interior design decisions as Gail has strived to retain the integrity and features of the old home while providing the amenities and benefits of a modern dwelling. “I’ve always tried to show Cory that it’s possible to have the best of both worlds with a modern interior and the special style and features of the original,” she says.

She has gone to great lengths to reinstate wooden scrolls and ceiling roses, match replacement doors and replicate skirting and architraves; she has even added an archway to the hall. The original bathroom has been converted to an ensuite and a small annexe in the hallway has been made into a walk-in robe for the master bedroom. Heat pumps warm the high-ceilinged rooms.


Small packages 

Gail loves small things and treasures possessions that are almost childlike in their simplicity. She has always favoured homes that look like a child’s drawing: a square box, pointy roof, a door, a window and a chimney to one side. And that is exactly what she has got. “We just added the picket fence and two children,” Gail laughs. “This place appeals for its size and sense of simplicity.”

A planned one-year adventure in the UK stalled renovations for slightly longer than expected. Gail and Cory rented out their home and set off on their OE in 2002. When they returned six years later with baby Tilly and half a container full of possessions, it was inevitable they would move back into their treasured first home and carry on where they’d left off.

“I have always thought of this as our forever home,” says Gail. “Some people thought we were overcapitalising with all the work we have done, but I don’t agree. If you’re doing improvements because you love the place, then you are doing it for yourself not for resale, and that makes it okay.”


Their time in the UK, where double glazing and central heating are the norm, influenced their decision to replace all the wooden-framed windows with double glazing. “The house had 16 very draughty windows and six sash windows were completely painted shut. We made the decision to invest in some quality joinery,” says Gail. However, she admits they were a little reluctant to replace the front bay window at first, but after seeing what all the other new windows looked like in situ, they decided to go ahead.


A clever extension

In 2008 Gail and Cory added an extension to the rear of the home to accommodate the requirements of a growing family. The kitchen and adjoining living area were proving too small. They briefly considered adding a loft conversion but cost estimates made that option uneconomical. They engaged an architect to ensure the planned addition did not detract from the villa’s original style. The extension’s roof and windows follow the same lines as the original structure, making it difficult to distinguish the old from the new. French doors from the new living space open out to a sheltered deck area which is a sun trap all year round.


Prior to extending the back of the home, floor coverings differentiated each zone: lino in the kitchen gave way to carpet in the living area. Now, wooden-look vinyl planking throughout has transformed the space. A freestanding island bench added last year has replaced a trestle table balanced on baked bean cans which served as a stand-in while Gail deliberated over whether to make the installation permanent. “I just wanted to be sure that we wouldn’t regret putting in an island and breaking up the space. It’s great.”


Feel the serenity 

The industrious couple, who describe themselves as “active relaxers”, have recently painted the exterior of the home. Gail’s love of grey and white is evident here, with soft grey for the walls and white on the roof and trim. Inside, a soft palette has been used in all the rooms. “I really love calm spaces,” says Gail. “Our bedroom is a sanctuary with soft, mossy green wallpaper on one wall, teamed with grey accessories and white throughout.


Gail designed the formal gardens and maintains the clipped hedges and lush lawn. On moving in, she removed all the old roses in the front garden and was very close to cutting down the ugly tree in the middle of the lawn. Her mother urged her to give it a year and it’s advice she has been forever grateful for. The flowering cherry perked up and is now a stunning feature, covered with a mass of candy-floss pink blossom each year. “It’s my favourite tree in the whole garden. It’s a real focal point, so I designed the rest of the garden around it.”


Still going strong

Cory and Gail have met three other families who once lived in the villa, among them a milliner, an artist, a tomato grower and a piano teacher. “When I’m outside gardening, people passing often tell me they had years of piano lessons in that front room. They remember sitting in the bay window seat as a child, patiently waiting for their turn.”

When they first bought the house Gail and Cory met a woman whose grandfather had built it. “We wrote to each other and she sent me photos of the house. I love hearing the history. It gives the house such personality and it gives me butterflies. You just can’t build that feeling from new,” says Gail. “I want to do the house justice and look after it, so that it can stand for another 100 years and whoever lives here in the future can love it as much as we do.”

“Until recently I ran my own small homeware and gift store called SHELF. I sold it last year to return to graphic design, this time working from home. My favourite place.”


Gail’s top style tips

  • Mix modern pieces and furnishings with old treasures, special finds, artworks and photographs.
  • Buy with your heart. If you purchase things you really love, you won’t ever regret it.
  • I prefer a clean, minimal interior style and a muted palette. I’m not a fan of too much colour.
  • Mix up textures for an interesting effect. I like the combination of chunky knits, wood and soft fabrics like linen, wool and felt.
  • Involve children in decor decisions for their rooms. I let my girls choose and we are all really happy with the outcome. Their recently renovated rooms have a sophisticated style with pink and copper tones and pastel colours.

Keep renovations simple in areas like kitchens and bathrooms. You can always change accessories, handles or even tiles. Our kitchen is nine years old now and still looks great.


  • The house had been subjected over the years to clumsy alterations that had cannibalised part of the hallway and created a warren of cramped spaces.
  • The living and kitchen area was too small.
  • The house was painted entirely in cream inside and out.


  • These earlier renovations were undone and much of the original layout restored. Period features such as original-style doors, architrave and skirting were reinstated.
  • An extension was added at the rear to create a bigger living space which flows onto a generous deck.
  • The house has been decorated in a soft palette of Resene Karen Walker ‘Milk White’, grey and muted colours, and the exterior looks smart in grey with a white trim.



Words by: Ady Shannon. Photography: Kate Claridge.

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