Written by John Williams
Photography by George McNabb
Back in 1968, Ron Sang, one of New Zealand’s foremost modernist architects, was asked by a work colleague to remodel his house at 9 Heath Avenue, Northcote. Built a decade earlier, in 1958, his brief was to create a modern family home, which he did, and it remained with the same family until it was reluctantly sold in 2015.
Sitting at the dining table of the house today, thumbing through Sang’s original plans and his wonderfully illustrated drawings, you’d be forgiven for getting a sense of déjà vu. From the outside, the original form and intent of the house remains intact. You can absolutely trace the elegant lines of the twin, low-pitched double roofline, with their signature deep-set eaves – still looking as sharp and contemporary today as they were when they were scribed 50 years ago. Also on show is the wall of glass that feeds the morning light into the living areas. The only visible addition to the architect’s original sketch of the house is an above-ground, concrete swimming pool that seamlessly melds with the modern lines of this remodelled home.
Inside, the essence of Sang’s vision for the home remains, with two distinct zones – one for living, the other for sleeping – arranged as a pair of intersecting ‘boxes’. The sleeping ‘box’, containing the master bedroom-ensuite, three double bedrooms and family bathroom, butts into to a living ‘box’, forming and an L-shaped space that contains the kitchen, dining and lounge areas. Directly below both is a huge rumpus space that has direct access onto its own private, all-weather deck, protected from the home’s primary deck above.
Looking at this home today, with all its modern home comforts and latest integrated building technologies, it’s easy to forget that, in essence, it’s a design that harks back over 50 years. That’s certainly credit to its original architect, but also to the thoughtful remodel carried out by renowned Auckland architectural firm RTA Studio, and in particular its Principal, Richard Naish, who personally oversaw the meticulous work carried out in modernising, yet at the same time keeping the architectural integrity of this wonderful home intact.
The retention of the original character of the house was at the top of the list, when current owners Chris and Monique bought the house with a plan to remodel it back in 2015. After all, that’s what attracted them to the house in the first place, says Chris.
However, as many homeowners discover, when layers of time were peeled back Chris and Monique realised that the existing structure was in worse shape that they first thought, meaning that virtually a complete re-build was on the cards.
“We tried to replace and retain as much as possible."
"And where something couldn’t be saved, we tried to replace it with something that was as close to the original as possible. For example,” he says pointing to the ribbed detail on the internal wall in the lounge, “we took a section of this original wall to a local timber merchant so they could accurately copy and re-create the profile for us.”
In the end, not a lot was saved, laments Chris. “All the floor is original, and everything below has been kept, but once we started pulling off the gib, we discovered the framing wasn’t all that good. We managed to salvaged the beams,” he says pointing to the ribcage of original timber ceiling beams that sets off the signature style and the shape of the whole interior.
“We wanted to keep to Ron Sang’s original vision as much as possible,” says Monique. “After we bought the house, we rang him up and asked him to come around, to give us some ideas of how we could renovate it. He came around with his son, who he was in the middle of handing over his business to. He reminisced a lot and commented about how well the house had held up over the years.”
Fresh pair of eyes
As it turned out, Chris and Monique didn’t go with Ron for the remodel, instead choosing the skills of the aforementioned Richard Naish, from multi award-winning RTA Studio, who came recommended by Chris’ brother. “He got it straight away. We were lucky, I think he must have liked the house,” smiles Chris. “The idea for the house was already here; it was in the plans and drawings by Ron. We just needed someone to give us a modern interpretation of the original design.”
“Richard prepared everything – the concepts, plans, working drawings – then we took over and project managed the build. He then came back three or four times throughout the project to make sure everything was on track,” adds Monique.
The core of the new floor plan is pretty much the same as the old one – the kitchen and lounge are in the same place, as are most of the bedrooms, and the rumpus room below has hardly changed at all. One of the big changes RTA made was to move what would have originally been the master bedroom from the back of the house, next to the kitchen, into the bedroom ‘box’, then opening up the vacant space and transforming it into the ‘morning’ living area, with sweeping views out over the harbour.
The master has been moved back into the bedroom ‘block’ and a bathroom and walk-in wardrobe added. To accommodate the additional three bedrooms and family bathroom, this part of the house has been extended several metres over the double garage to form a double carport below.
One of the defining design features retained by RTA’s design are the two, low-slung peaked roofs; their deep overhanging eaves shading the home from the harsh heat of the summer sun, yet welcoming the low winter rays deep into the home, thus save on winter fuel bills. Interestingly, Chris mentions that the only heat source for the entire house is a freestanding wood-burner that sits at the centre of the lounge area. It also has a wetback that heats a series of radiators in the bedrooms and rumpus room. “The house is insulated and doubled-glazed throughout,” he says. “It’s a very warm house, and that one fire pretty much does everything.”
Heath Avenue is on Northcote’s dress circle, a quiet, no-through street perched high on the rim of the crater that forms the shape of the Onepoto Domain below, with its walks, bike tracks, flying fox, playing fields, and picturesque a lake. Enjoying stunning views out over Shoal Bay to Bayswater Marina and beyond to Rangitoto, this home also has clear views of Auckland’s ever-growing skyline with the Sky Tower framed by the elegant limbs of a pair of Pohutukawa trees. As locations go, it doesn’t get much better.
Transport into the city is very easy, even if you do have to travel during peak times; the on-ramp is virtually at the end of the road, says Chris. “You’re right on the bridge as soon as you hit the motorway, so the traffic is fairly free running even during rush hour. Monique adds that she does all her grocery shopping at New World Vic Park – that’s how close it is. “We also regularly pop over to Ponsonby to all the restaurants, which are less than five minute’s drive away.”
But there’s not need to go across the bridge. Locally, along Northcote Point, there’s the iconic Bridgeway Cinema, surrounded by handful of bars and restaurants, and not forgetting the beautiful old Northcote Tavern. And it’s literally a five-minute drive to Takapuna Beach, which is a real plus for Chris and Monique, and their young daughter, Chloe. “On the way to the beach, there’s now the new food and drink hub at Smales Farm, with loads of cafes and food outlets, including Ripe,” says Monique.
Perfect for a family
Monique says that they would love to see a young family come to live here, saying it is a perfect house for a young family. And she’s right, it’s an ideal family house for children of any age, whether it’s real young ones, or teenagers – cue the rumpus room downstairs. Or even a multigenerational family – there are so many options.
“I agree, it is a great family house, but I can really imagine anyone living here happily and comfortably,” adds Chris. “One of Richard’s [Naish] comments when he first walked in was that he wanted to keep the living areas open, where everyone could still be in touch with each other, so you could have parents at one end and the kids around the corner at the other and still feel connected, but separated.”
The reason they are selling this wonderful house is Chris’ work is no longer based in Auckland, so they’re moving, says Monique with a touch of sadness in her voice. “We came into this house thinking it was going to be our forever-after house, that’s why we put so much into it. And that’s why it’s going to be so hard to leave.”