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This Wellington villa renovation is a model for contemporary living

Behind its traditional frontage, this Wellington villa provides a model for contemporary living

Meet and greet

Catherine Baird (emergency department doctor), Duncan Baird (GP), Gemma 14, Eva, 8, and Greta, 4, plus Hector the deaf and blind rabbit.

This Wellington villa renovation is a model for contemporary living

From the street, the Baird family home in Island Bay, Wellington, is a graceful villa typical of many colonial homes in the capital. But step inside and you’ll find a modern abode complete with concrete floors, a light-filled atrium and a sound-absorbing ceiling.

Duncan and Catherine Baird (parents to Gemma, Eva and Greta) found the house online while living in the Hokianga in 2011. But at the time it was rundown and on its last legs. “It was a ‘worst house on the best street’ scenario,” says Duncan. After visiting the open home, he and Catherine came up with a plan for something contemporary that would work well for their growing family.

Respecting the home’s historical charm while bringing it into the 21st century was one of the aims of the renovation. With its beautiful south-facing frontage and north-facing rear, the house was ripe for an upgrade. Using the guidance of Wellington architects Atelierworkshop, the couple brought it back to life – with a modern twist.


The couple took possession in late 2011, but then decided to rent out the house and head to South Australia to save some money for the renovation. Before departing, the Bairds met with their old friend architect Cecile Bonnifait from Atelierworkshop to kick off the design process. They continued the dialogue by email while living in the Australian outback.

“When we returned to New Zealand in late 2012, we bashed out a few walls and did a bit of painting, then shivered through a few Wellington seasons while we completed the design phase. We moved into a house-sit for the major works,” Duncan says. Building started in 2014 and the family moved into their completed home in 2015.


The brief for Atelierworkshop was to retain the home’s existing footprint while maximising its outdoor areas. In response, the architects opted to excavate the basement and create a downstairs floor that was accessible from the street. “The obvious thing to do was create a good sun trap on the back northern wall and open it out onto the back lawn,” Duncan says. The north-facing part of the house was a dog’s breakfast of badly positioned rooms and sculleries – we knew that was where we would do most of our work to improve the aspect.”

The now upper level features the home’s entrance and a central hallway that services the main bedroom, bathroom and a guest bedroom/office. The hall opens onto a modern kitchen, dining and living area which is divided by a staircase down to the lower level. The downstairs lounge has no ceiling and the result is a light-filled, double-height atrium which links the lower living area with its upstairs equivalent.

A bathroom and two bedrooms can also be found downstairs with both bedrooms opening onto a terraced area and lawn complete with trampoline and vege garden. “Sliding doors in each bedroom open onto the terrace, which turns the area into one big space,” says William Giesen of Atelierworkshop.

The hub of the home is its open-plan living and kitchen area, a great zone for busy family life and entertaining friends. “The location of the stairway was a real masterstroke as it adds to the airy, spacious feel without co-opting that space,” says Duncan. “It’s also nice to retain the traditional central hall and front bedrooms for quiet and privacy.”


The arrangement of rooms worked out perfectly for the couple’s existing collection of garage-sale mid-century furniture. Departing from this theme – and yet sharing the simple lines of that design era – are the vibrant red plywood kitchen cupboards and dining room storage. “After wondering whether it might be too loud at the choosing stage, we love our bold burgundy kitchen plywood,” Duncan says. Storage was a big consideration from the outset. “We carried the kitchen cabinetry up to the three-metre stud and through into the dining room for all those occasional cooking and dining items, preserves and cookbooks.” Downstairs a wall of cupboards hides the laundry.

The details

The exterior of the rear addition to the house is in complete contrast to the home’s traditional facade – clad in vertical cedar, the walls are broken up by tall windows fitted with louvres for ventilation. “When building into a basement, getting light in is always a challenge, which is why we gave those big vertical spaces some large areas of glass,” says architect William. The downstairs is floored with concrete which creates an effective solar-energy sump that keeps the whole house warm well into the evening. “Concrete floors hold the day’s heat which then dissipates throughout the night,” explains William.

The end

The family are rapt with their home and glad they invested time, money and energy into building something they love. “It’s great living in such a warm, sunny, airy house that we’ve been involved with creating,” Duncan says. “It would be a rare professional renovation where the initial property price plus the renovation costs come in under the new valuation but it only takes a few years for that to get absorbed into the big picture. So you just have to roll with the ups and downs of a big renovation.”

The Bairds’ investment has produced a heritage home with a modern soul that shows you can love old houses while still enjoying the benefits of modern building methods. It also proves something we suspected: red is back on the menu.

Words by: Catherine Steel.. Photography by: Russell Kleyn.

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