On a Wellington Apartment by Emma and Geordie Shaw

Written for Here Magazine’s October 2020 issue.

Imagine you live in one of Aotearoa’s cities and that you, like seemingly everyone else in the country right now, are looking to buy a house. Maybe this is your first home, to be bought with a close-your-eyes-and-hope-for-the-best mortgage; or perhaps you just sold the house you’ve lived in for the past 15 years because it’s time for a change. Now imagine that over many months of checking your saved searches on the TradeMe Property app you notice that not only are prices increasing despite the country facing a global pandemic, you also conclude that there’s simply nothing nice to buy.

Bungled villas in far-away suburbs soar out of your price range. Villa-fied bungalows are snapped up by investors. All that’s left are those new-ish apartments in town that sometimes bring to mind that excellent German compound bausünde, meaning roughly a “sin of construction.”

What do you do?

Geordie and Emma Shaw show us one possibility: buy an inner-city apartment with ill-conceived renovations, live in it for a year (old pink carpet, green kitchen with terracotta tiles included), then work hard to make it your own. It’s inspiring and, for those continually disappointed by the homes for sale, a relief to see what’s possible.

Granted, the Shaws’ apartment building in central Wellington was never quite a bausünde, but their first look didn’t give much in the way of inspiration. “Tenants’ laundry hung on a drying rack by the windows, and there were false ceilings from previous renovations that made the space feel like a dark and compressed tube,” explains Emma. There was a second bedroom in the wrong place, forming a narrow hallway that became uncomfortably crowded with even a few friends over. Old pink carpet had passed its ‘90s best-before date. And, as they later discovered, someone had even helpfully built a false wall obscuring part of the north-east facing windows.

But the apartment did meet two requirements, enough to make it worth a second look—this time with a former colleague of Geordie’s at Architecture+, who helped them assess the space. First, they could walk or bike to everywhere they needed to be in Wellington, and so didn’t need to own a car (the apartment is near food mecca Moore Wilson’s). Second, there were a few interesting features that they knew they could work with.

Geordie went to the library and researched the building before they put an offer in. “It’s a 1920s former chocolate factory built by Fletcher Building that they also made ice cream in,” he explains: “It has an original lift with folding doors. We knew we could rescue the high ceilings. And interestingly, one of New Zealand’s great unsolved murder mysteries happened in the lobby.” Geordie gives an account of the murder of the chocolate factory manager in the mid-1940s, which leaves one unsure whether to laugh or cringe. The story is complete with an illicit love affair, a mystery box of matches found in the building’s lobby, and foreign sailors in long leather jackets. “I tried telling the real estate agent the story, but he didn’t want to hear it in case he had to make a disclosure,” Geordie jokes.

The Shaws lived in the apartment throughout the alterations. “Our decision making was always guided by our relatively small budget… An unexpected challenge was how difficult it is to prepare a meal without a kitchen, and how to stay clean and get ready to go to work when everything is covered in construction dust.”

The most significant change the architect-couple made was to shift the location of the kitchen, which, in their words, “unlocked the whole redesign.” Entering the apartment from the south, you step into a corridor that eventually opens up into the main living-dining area. The kitchen is on the right as you pass through the foyer with additional bench-top and cabinetry on the left; and small touches like a green-stained strandboard nook by the front door for hanging coats makes the space both practical and elegant.

A sliding door off the living area opens to one bedroom, while the other is accessed to the right of the entry corridor. Then there’s the bathroom—a windowless internal room, one of those that can often be unpleasant. Here, however, the Shaws have used unexpected sea-blue tiles, high-quality porcelain and a cut-out strandboard shelf to make the space vibrant and distinct.

This is one of those renovations that, as the Shaws say, “needed more than just a fresh coat of paint and a new benchtop.” Structural changes done, the architects then used a confident mix of muted and bold colours. Resene’s Karen Walker Blanched Pink and Quarter Powder Blue make for calm spaces in the dining area and bedrooms, while bold green, yellow and blue are used for highlights on the strandboard joinery.

The Shaws sold their apartment earlier this year and, with a year-old baby in tow, moved to Christchurch to be closer to family. They also started their own architectural practice, fulfilling a dream held since the two met in their first year of architecture school at Victoria. “We want to be designing or renovating homes for people who may feel intimidated by the expense and elitism often attributed to architects… Ultimately we want architects in Aotearoa to be considered essential rather than a luxury.”

For those of us looking to move home, to buy a home, or to renovate a home, this modest apartment in Wellington shows that being inspired enough to look past the piles of laundry in the real estate photos and ignoring the maze of GIB-board can lead to something transformative. This is good news: with property listings frequently at all-time lows nationwide, we can now give that local bausünde another look.