Home Tours

Seasoned renovators share their top tips, and their latest transformation

Saving a crumbling Palmerston North villa was a labour of love for this pair of professional renovators who had a clear vision for their heritage home. See their renovating and budget tips below

Meet and Greet:

Blair and Rebecca McDonald (co-owners of Blair McDonald Building), Ryder, Indy, and Tilly, plus cat Mimi and Flemish giant rabbits Poppy and Daisy.

The McDonald family’s house dream started with a simple walk around the neighbourhood – and the courage to be a little bit cheeky. Professional renovators Rebecca (Becs) and Blair McDonald spied a run-down, old villa on a tree-lined street near their home in Palmerston North, and an idea was born.

“Batt Street is one of those roads that just makes you feel good,” says Becs. “Each time we passed down it, I saw, partly hidden from view, a long-forgotten and overgrown garden and a dark and rotting 1900s villa.”

With several home renovations under their belt, it was easy for the couple to see what the villa could become. Becs imagined how it would look with fresh white weatherboards and envisaged games of cricket in the backyard. “The house was just waiting for someone to come and unleash all that potential,” she says.

According to the adage: if you are married to a plumber, you always have leaky pipes. The McDonalds are proof that the same applies when you own and manage a building company: you’re always in the midst of renovations. After remodelling and selling several houses, the couple thought it was time they found a home of their own. So Becs bit the bullet and decided it was time to be bold.

Living and dining: Teaming white walls with natural dark timber floors has created a serene and effortless modern aesthetic that also remains true to the classic villa look.

“I phoned a friend one day when I was parked on Batt Street,” remembers Becs. “I told her I was going to just go and make life happen for us and knock on the door. Needless to say, the long-term tenant who opened it wasn’t pleased to see me, nor was she willing to offer up any information on the owners.”

But Becs was not to be put off and, after a little detective work at the local council, she had the owner’s contact details. Six months later, the couple had sold their existing house, bought the villa and, in their most ambitious project to date, commenced its full renovation.

“We quickly realised that we had bitten off far more than we could chew by tackling the huge renovation and moving in with our two-year-old son and four-month-old baby girl,” laughs Becs. “Then Tilly came along part way through the renovation, just to add to the workload!”

The scale of the renovation was mammoth. The long-term rental had years’ worth of rubbish and defunct appliances littering its grounds and the entire home needed an urgent overhaul. “The dated and falling-apart kitchen was in the middle of the living area and it had a bar leaner the height of my chin,” remembers Becs. “I know we both wondered what we had done.”

Getting stuck in

Creating a timeline for the project was a good way for the McDonalds to clear their heads once the initial clean-up was completed. The couple engaged architect Bruce Barry to draw up plans for a renovation within the house’s existing footprint so that the property’s subdivision potential wasn’t squandered. The brief was to update and modernise the home, connect the indoor and outdoor areas and retain the villa’s historic charm.

“We have done just about every renovation you can think of in this home,” says Becs. “Every inch of space has been modernised and improved. We have re-roofed, added skylights, replaced traditional details with new replicas and repainted the whole thing inside and out.”

A stickler for details, Becs sourced secondhand floorboards to maintain the home’s original look, and the couple made sure that newer features such as a double garage were built to complement the heritage home.

“For us, one of the most important elements of the renovation was to stay true to the traditional style of the villa,” she says. “I love villas with all their old-world charm, so I found the design choices were easy. Choices such as the freestanding bath, the bevel-edged subway tiles, the picture-frame cabinetry in the kitchen and bathrooms, and the traditional tapware and hardware all contribute in a small way to retaining the original feel of a villa.

“Even the woodburner was chosen to fit into our design theme. It really is those little details, all coming together, that matter the most.” The overall effect is a charming, fuss-free family home that has been restored with its past in mind, while looking to its future.

Although they had limited themselves to working within the villa’s existing footprint, the McDonalds were still able to make some improvements to the floor plan, which has helped the home function better and given it a more modern feel. One such change was siting the new kitchen at the rear of the home and connecting it to the outdoors via a bi-fold window which opens onto a bar leaner outside. The room is a firm favourite with Becs.

“I just love the whole kitchen,” she says. “For our family, I think that connection to the space outside, and practically making the most of it, is so important. We love how our kitchen works for us in this regard.”

When creating a cohesive home for a family of five, a master bedroom located in a quiet area away from the hubbub is usually at the top of any savvy renovator’s wish list. The McDonalds did this by extending up into the roof cavity, where they created a peaceful sanctuary with an ensuite and walk-in wardrobe.

Becs says the guest room can handle dark walls because of its high ceiling.

The original plan was to keep the revived villa as their long-term family home, but juggling a busy building company means nothing stays still for long in the McDonald household. With the home now sold, it is onward and upwards to the next project for this family, although Becs still ponders on what might have been.

“If we had found this home later in life, maybe we could have kept it longer and retained the huge section,” says Becs. “I would have loved to extend the deck and add a blue-tiled plunge pool – I had it all worked out!

“A lot of our energy went into transforming this house, and that is a whole lot of time and love that we won’t get back. But with no regrets, we are off on new and just-as-exciting renovating adventures. Watch this space.”

Once a dilapidated rental, this home has been given a new lease of life with an added garage, restored cottage garden and the introduction of that prized modern amenity indoor-outdoor flow.

Rebecca’s renovation advice:

If you can, live in the unrenovated space for a while and get a feel for it. Often, what you think a space might need can change dramatically once you’ve lived in it.

Renovations can take over your life. Permit yourself to have time off or, even better, time away.

Spend some money where you can see and appreciate it. A few fancy extras can make a huge difference, and add a ton of value, such as a fancy sink mixer in an otherwise standard-spec kitchen can lift the whole space. So go ahead and buy that designer pendant!

Don’t underestimate the finishing touch of landscaping (and employing a great landscape designer). It’s the icing on the renovation cake.

Have fun. You might think you can’t wait for it all to be over and that you’ll never, ever put yourself through that again. But renos are a bit like babies. You miss them when they’re gone and, before you know it, you’re pining to do it all over again!

The renovation budget:

Becs: Being in the trade and also having done a great deal of the work ourselves and in our own time, it is really hard to give a realistic reno cost and, if I am perfectly honest, I stopped keeping track a long time ago. I do know that we spent about $180,000 on materials alone. That’s not including all those hours we worked, or the blood, sweat and tears involved.

One thing I can tell you with certainty is that the old saying “a villa renovation takes twice as long and costs twice as much as you think” is true, even though we have years of experience under our belts!

Tips for a white interior:

The 90/10 rule 
If you love lots of white, a ratio of 90 per cent white to 10 per cent colour will prevent your space from looking too fridge-like.

Cool it down
Soothe the vibrant red tones in native timber floors with a cool white on the walls. Go for a grey- or green-based shade of white.

Warm it up
Does your room face south or absorb lots of reflected green light from the garden? Whites with a yellow base will stop it from feeling chilly.


Words by: Tina Stephen. Photography by: The Virtue.

See more of the renovators’ villa below



Landscaping Kathy Bills, kathybills.co.nz.

Architect Bruce Barry, brucebarryarchitects.co.nz

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