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How this Wellington couple turned their ugly duckling bungalow into a swan

A Wellington couple transformed their little bungalow into a bright new home – but not without plenty of hard graft

When Ryan and Hannah Frost first clapped eyes on the 1925 Island Bay bungalow they now call home, it wasn’t exactly love at first sight.

“It was unbearably ugly,” remembers Ryan. “And it smelled really bad.”

The previous owner had lived there for 40 years and struggled to maintain it. There was old brown carpet, a tiny yellow bathroom, and the yellow and blue kitchen had a disintegrating concrete benchtop. The home’s old-fashioned layout meant the formally segregated living spaces got little of the sunlight and warmth that otherwise streamed into two of the bedrooms and the neon green laundry. With no insulation, the house was frigid.

“It sounds like a cliche, but we could see its potential,” says Hannah. “It had beautiful matai floors and high-stud ceilings – a few of the rooms even had rose details.”

They also liked the attractive weatherboards, the fact it was single storey and on a flat section with nice neighbours. The house is just five minutes from the
beach, shops and library, and there’s a bus stop right outside. “We knew we could work with it,” she says.

Kitchen before:

Kitchen after:

The grand plan

And work they did. The couple had done minor renovations on their first home in Tawa and decided they wanted to tackle something more significant, embarking on a year-long search to find the ideal do-up. Determined to save money by undertaking much of the renovation themselves, Ryan and Hannah didn’t muck around, ripping up the carpets the day after they settled in January last year.

“Everyone tells you to live in a house for a couple of months first, but we got into it quickly,” says Hannah. The idea was to reijig the floor plan to make the most of the sun. Two of the sunny bedrooms would be converted into an open-plan living, kitchen and dining space that would open on to the west-facing garden. “The sun is so important, particularly in Wellington,” says Hannah. “You’ve got to soak up as much as you can get.”

They also planned to incorporate the original formal living space into the main bedroom, push the living room wall back, install bi-fold doors, and build a new bathroom and deck.

It was an ambitious plan, but after consulting with their builders and hearing their encouragement, they knew it was the right move, even if it would require removing three walls, two of which were load-bearing and would need beams to replace them, and completely relining the remaining walls, plus replumbing and rewiring.

To help ease the expense, they made the decision to split the renovation into two stages. First, they’d tackle the bedrooms themselves. Much of the structural work would take place in phase two with help from a draughtsperson and tradies, during which time they’d move out.

Dining/living before:

Dining/living after:

“That was critical in the end when Covid hit, because we were able to spend lockdown getting started,” Ryan explains. “Then, once the tradies were back up and running, we were ready to go on to the second stage.”

All of which sounds like an exhausting rendition of The Block NZ. “It felt like it too,” says Hannah.

Heads down, bottoms up

While most of us were busy stocking up on food supplies pre-lockdown, Hannah and Ryan were doing the same at the hardware store.

“I totally missed the phase of making sourdough bread,” laughs Hannah of their lockdown experience. During that time they staggered the renovation around doing their full-time jobs, including the nightshifts Hannah did as part of her work as a policy officer for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and Ryan’s job as a high-school PE teacher. “That was problematic because I’d come home at 7am ready to sleep and Ryan would be on the tools.”

The couple were nonetheless grateful they could use the extra time they’d otherwise spend commuting to make solid progress. Out of lockdown, the slog continued, with most weekends – and nearly half of their weeknights – spent insulating, gibbing, finishing, skirting and painting.

“I even built a wardrobe,” says Ryan. “We did as much as we could ourselves, other than the structural changes, to keep costs down.”

Bathroom before:

Bathroom after:

The labour continued outdoors, with Ryan spending an entire school holiday period jackhammering and wheelbarrowing concrete from the backyard to a skip at the front and
recladding the asbestos-ridden garden shed. They’ve since planted lawn and trees and painted the fences black, creating an ambient extension to their living space, adorned by festoon lights and a firepit.

Finally reaching the finish line in March this year means they can now reflect on the satisfying days, and the miserable ones, particularly during winter last year when they’d come home from work to a house without electricity and have to gib the ceiling, a job they’re still recovering from.

“We sped through the renovation at the cost of being absolutely exhausted at the end of the year,” says Hannah. “We should have taken more time and looked after ourselves more.” Ryan agrees. “We wouldn’t do as much of it ourselves again.”

Finishing touches

Fresh, bright and fuss-free was the philosophy behind Hannah and Ryan’s decision to paint the house white while preserving its colonial character. “I’m really glad we kept the beautiful ceiling in what is now the main bedroom,” says Hannah.

Bedroom before:

Bedroom after:

They’ve still incorporated colour, painting the front door pink and embracing bright furniture pieces, and they like that if the whim takes them, they can transform the colours in the bedrooms and bathroom by swapping out linen, towels and accessories. They’ve also brought warmth into the kitchen by incorporating wooden cabinetry with black benchtops.

“I probably would’ve liked a slightly bougier stone,” says Ryan, “but I like that we didn’t play it too safe. The matte black finish really makes a difference.”

Now that the house is complete they get to throw dinner parties with some of the friends and family who pitched in tirelessly to help them renovate, as well as luxuriate in a sense of pure relief – and gratefulness – that it’s all over. Says Hannah, “We feel really lucky to live in Island Bay in what we think is a beautifully renovated house that we own. We’re under no illusions that not everyone gets to do that.”

Words by: Carrie Bell. Photography by: Anna Briggs.

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