Plan for a successful Renovation

Ponsonby and the surrounding suburbs are defined in many ways by the character homes and heritage buildings that line their streets.

Villas, bungalows and pockets of state houses have been adapted, altered and, in some cases, lovingly restored to accommodate the changing lifestyles and tastes of the waves of people making these increasingly popular inner city locales their home.

Over the last decade or so, the amount of time and money people invest in these renovation projects has dramatically increased with the best examples often being the results of an excellent match between home owner and architect. We spoke to local architect Malcolm Walker about the art and science of a good renovation project and what really defines an architectural winner. Malcolm is the director of an award winning local architecture practice and is the current convenor of the New Zealand Institute of Architecture Awards.

For those looking to renovate in Ponsonby or the surrounding areas, Malcolm acknowledges that money is the main factor. “Property is now ridiculously expensive, as are building costs. Regulation is more onerous and demanding than ever so we are all being asked to do more with less,” explains Malcolm. While all projects have limitations and restrictions, Malcolm believes it is difficult to spend less than $300,000 on a renovation project these days, with most projects requiring significant amounts of fixing before anything can really be done.

Malcom doesn’t overly romanticise the villa, explaining that what he likes about them is that they’re simple and big. “Take a veranda off a villa and they’re plain ugly, the truth is revealed,” says Malcolm. “But what you do have is something that is great to work to, it’s big and roomy. Difficult to live in now, so I tend to arrive in a villa and look at the volume and simplicity of it and see what the site has to offer,” explains Malcolm.

What becomes obvious when listening to Malcolm is the importance of the unseen detail of architectural design. The thoughtfulness the architect has to the original building, what a site has to offer and how the people who will live in it will use it. This is less about how stunning the colour palette and fixtures look in photos or vastly increasing the size of living areas, but more about how effectively usable, functional and beautiful spaces are created.

“Space and area are different – planning and spaces are important to me. With careful planning, great and useful spaces can be achieved within surprisingly small areas. On the other hand, large areas, unless they are planned well, can be useless, expensive and uncomfortable,” explains Malcolm.

Character and heritage are important and finding a balance between the demands of modern living and the need to preserve character can be challenging. “Character is a subjective thing. I’ve just spent a few days at a friend’s 400-year-old house in Oxford, England, crawling up the stairs to the bedrooms. He thought it was character, I thought it was ludicrous.

"That said, it is important to understand what is special about a place and to nurture, harness and utilise it. Character goes way beyond appearance. History, materials, location and place all come into play. Some things work, some don’t. Take, for instance, Queens Hall in Paget Street. That’s character for you. Utterly out of context with the local style but so important to the street; yet another building of similar bulk there could be awful. Knowledge, understanding and care are important. It’s not a surface thing. Functionality and character are two different things, but the trick is to get both.”

Currently, Malcolm is in the midst of convening the New Zealand Institute of Architecture (NZIA) awards which is currently down to a short list of 45 buildings from across the country. The awards are designed to improve the quality of New Zealand’s built environment, fostering a stronger design culture through excellence in architecture. The awards give the public an insight into what can be achieved when architecture works as it should by assessing all entrants in a thorough and detailed way, something that distinguishes the NZIA awards from other interior or building competitions.

“What I have noticed is the huge gap in what is considered successful for winners of interior and building awards compared with architecture awards. The former often seem to concentrate more on fashion, size and audacity,” explains Malcolm. “Design is more than symmetry, greige and novelty – where as the architectural assessment is (as it should be) more focused on how the building works, feels and deals with the purpose it is meant for. It’s a big picture thing. Photos do not tell the story. It is critical to visit the building to properly assess it.”

It is no surprise then that Malcolm’s tips for getting it right when it comes to renovating are anchored firmly in the art and science of the design process and building a strong and lasting relationship with an architect from the outset.

“Address what the site’s got, the sun in the backyard, simplicity and flow – this is the way to start,” explains Malcolm, who believes people often think they know what they want, but when they do it themselves they don’t get what they think they are going to get. Most of the renovation projects Malcolm and his team design are for people to live in and not on-sell their renovated homes. “They are designed to live in, not just look good. Pinterest is our enemy,” says Malcolm.

“While it’s good to see what other people are doing, the pictures don’t tell the whole story and, if you go into some of these good buildings, you see that there is a lot more to them than the picture shows.” The trap, explains Malcolm, is ending up with a beautiful bathroom, for instance, that is out of context and not consistent with the flow of the rest of the house. What is important is that the design is done with real people in mind. “If you are doing an alteration, do it for yourself, even if you think you might sell it, it will suit someone else.” Malcolm says the classic example is when people renovate and insist a bathroom includes a bath, not because they like baths but because some imaginary person in the future might like baths. Malcolm is emphatic, “How you live will always suit someone else,” he says.

As Malcolm explains, the success of most residential renovations and buildings comes down to the architect and the builder. “Most residential jobs should not need a project manager – (budgeting, scheduling, co-ordinating sub-trades) a good builder will do that. The architect does contract managing – ensuring the work is being done properly, changes or clarifications are co-ordinated (and appropriate), also certifying payments and liaising between client, contractors and local authorities. This is important. Some clients are wary of this, but at the end of the job they understand how valuable the architect’s role is in achieving a good, consistent and managed job.”

Malcolm’s best tips for renovating are:

• Live in it.
• Plan it – walk through and get a sense of the flow.
• Be a good client – listen, be clear about how you will live, and recognise it is more than looks that will make your project successful.

Malcolm is certainly knowledgeable about what makes a successful architectural project. As a judge and convenor of the awards, Malcolm knows how to identify exemplary projects. “We are looking for the special ones, the ones that are outstanding and uplift the human spirit,” says Malcolm. The four person jury for the NZIA awards looks at the whole project, most especially the plans as these reveal so much more than just well-curated photos. “As an architectural assessment we are looking at the big picture and asking, why did you do it? How did you do it? How successful is what you’ve intended to do and was that the original intention?” explains Malcolm.

One local architectural firm with projects on the NZIA Awards shortlist is Jack McKinney Architects. Jack McKinney has been shortlisted for the alteration project Small Tall, and the housing project The Diagrid House. At the time of writing, Malcolm was yet to view either of the shortlisted projects but all will be revealed when the winners are announced on 9 September at the awards’ dinner.


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