Home Tours

This Wellington villa balances heritage with modern elements

Time-tested elements are harmoniously matched with light-handed hints of modernity in this renovation of a Wellington villa

Home Profile

Meet & greet: Sarah Kilner (photographer and real estate agent), Rupert Kemeys (football coach and investor), daughter Ruby, 10 months, and English bulldog Bob.

The property: A renovated three-bedroom, double-storey 1907 villa in Petone.

It’s a rare renovation story that doesn’t include a little drama: epic delays, unexpected discoveries and relationships (professional or personal) under strain.

Even within the genre of renovation chronicles, Sarah and Rupert’s story stands out, though you’d never know it to see them now, smiling and happy in their seaside home in Wellington’s Petone, a picture of contentment with their gorgeous baby girl Ruby. There’s no sign of the stressful year just gone, bar the heart motifs throughout the home.

A home with heart

Within salt spray distance of the ocean, on a street full of adorable period homes, this dollhouse-style double-storey villa was an easy sell, and Rupert and Sarah – who both work in real estate and know a special property when they see it – viewed and offered on it immediately. “We brought our friend, who’s a builder, and we looked at it once at 8 pm, then bought it that night,” says Sarah.

So far, so straightforward. But where things got complicated was after the renovation process started. Covid caused the usual catalogue of delays, and the house threw up its own surprises. “The builders tore out all the Gib and we found out there’d been a massive fire in the place – all the structural wood and beams were black from fire.” This was also when they learned of the home’s less than gentile past, as a gang HQ in the ’60s and ’70s. “Our front lawn was where they had all the motorbikes and cars.”

Sarah relays all of this with a ‘such is life’ shrug, as if none of it mattered a whit compared to the true challenge of this time. As the reno began, Sarah became pregnant. She suffered “the worst pregnancy ever”, made infinitely worse upon learning that their baby had a congenital heart defect.

While the renovation continued, its importance paled in comparison to these personal events, particularly after Ruby was born and the young family found themselves in and out of hospital.

“We pretty much had to put all our trust in our tradies as we had to go and stay in hospitals for months and had two long trips up to Starship Hospital in Auckland,” Sarah recalls.

The idea of leaving everything in the hands of others would be terrifying, but here, Sarah and Rupert had a home advantage. Years in real estate had helped them build up a network of trade connections who they trusted implicitly. “Glen from Fundamental Construction took charge and was the best project manager ever. He solved all my problems,” says Sarah.

Change for the better

Also key to the successful build was a good architect, who helped them decide how to make the most of the house, which was in good condition but falling well short of its potential. “It wasn’t terrible at all. It had a ’90s kitchen and a weird layout. It was not very ‘villa’ and not modern. It was kind of lost,” says Sarah, adding they initially thought they’d put in a new kitchen, slap on some paint and call it a day. “But our architect had other ideas.”

That architect was Shaun Anderson of And. Architecture, whose personal friendship with the couple gave him license to pitch some off-brief ideas, and Sarah and Rupert were willingly caught up in his vision. “We opened the plans and were like, ‘Oh my gosh, it’s amazing. Let’s do it.’”

The jewel in Shaun’s plan was a statement staircase. Previously the stairs were in the front entrance – not an uncommon layout, but one that meant you were greeted by a claustrophobic closeness rather than the light and bright entry the home now enjoys. He moved the staircase to the back of the house, where it stands framed by enormous panes of glass, an airy architectural work of art in stylish white and blonde timber.

While Sarah was determined to preserve the home’s dollhouse-style exterior as much as possible, those amazing glass sliding doors were a vast improvement, capturing a flood of afternoon sunlight – previously only a trickle through small windows on both floors.

Upstairs was reconfigured to give Sarah and Rupert the main item on their wish list: a five-star hotel-style main bedroom suite, with a walk-through wardrobe and generous ensuite complete with freestanding bath. “People usually do the family bathroom really big, and then the ensuite really small, but we did it the other way around,” says Sarah, who was inspired by a pre-baby European holiday.

Age care

Though contemporary details have been added to the home, aligning it with the way a modern family lives, Sarah says they tried to be always respectful of the home’s era and the details that speak of its history – especially Rupert. “Rupert is really particular about paying homage to the era that the house was built in,” she says.

“He’s really particular about the behind-the-scenes things that you don’t really think about.” This meant sourcing new skirting boards to match existing ones, researching an era-appropriate width of weatherboard for the panelling on the kitchen island, and painstakingly restoring and, where necessary, reproducing the original windows.

Some things couldn’t be saved, like the leadlight panels on the front door, which Sarah redesigned and now look as though they might have always been there. Likewise, in the ensuite. “I was a ‘hard no’ to frosted glass and I wanted a feature,” says Sarah, who used the same design for a custom leadlight window.

Consistently classic

When it came to curating a consistent look, designer Anna Spicer of Spice Design was Sarah’s right-hand gal, interpreting her style, fighting in her corner when necessary to get things done, and locking down the finer details of fittings and furnishings. “Door handles, hinges – she took care of all the boring stuff I would never have thought of. I’d show her pictures of things and have no idea where to look, but she’d just know where everything was and how to navigate it all,” says Sarah.

While Anna brought it all to life, Sarah did have a definite vision for her to work towards. “My style is very ‘one box’,” says Sarah. “Looking through photos on my phone, I screenshot things three or four years ago that are in the house now.”

Materials such as the square tiles and oak joinery were on her wish list long before they found this house, while ‘classic contemporary’ has been her go-to style forever.

So much so they didn’t need to buy much furniture for this home, as their existing furnishings (also chosen with help from Anna for their previous house) slotted in seamlessly.

What Anna and Sarah created is a timeless look for a historic home, with subtle contemporary elements, all connected by consistent colours and shapes. “I wanted to link everything together, like the curved-edge bench under the TV, the curved edges on our mirrors and floating shelves. It’s the same with colour: gunmetal (the taps and hardware), white and oak are used throughout the home,” says Sarah.

Words by: Shelley Tustin. Photography by Anna Briggs

Read this nextTake a tour of this candy-coloured home

See more of this Wellington villa renovation below

Create the home of your dreams with Shop Your Home and Garden