California to Auckland
When you’re a professional contemporary dancer who has an interest in the emerging field of urban design, living in California is as close to heaven as you’re likely to get. Joanna Smith has very fond memories of her time in San Francisco in the 80s to early 90s so when she was impelled to return to New Zealand, she looked for somewhere creative and close to Auckland city to hang her hat. “I was renting in Grey Lynn for a while, but it was too expensive to buy there – so I had to move further out.” In 1993, she purchased a former state house in Westmere. Built in the depression, it was crafted from native timber and had a clay-tile roof from the brickworks in nearby New Lynn. In those days, this sought-after suburb felt like the boondocks. “You couldn’t walk to the shops and bars on Ponsonby Road. It felt so remote,” Joanna recalls. Still, they were happy times. Her two children grew up here in this compact, solid home right in the middle of a roomy piece of ground.
A Family Affair
Through the years, Joanna, who was au fait with small-space living having spent time in studio flats in London, investigated the options to add an accessory unit to the dwelling that she could one day decamp to. No go. It wasn’t allowed. Then finally, in 2016/2017, the rulebook turned in her favour. Auckland Council began to allow more density within the mixed housing suburban zone and a work colleague suggested approaching Box™ for advice on what she could do. At the time, Box™ was running ‘sprint’ sessions – a half-day workshop to explore the feasibility of developing a site. Within no time, the team demonstrated there was a better option than just remodelling and adding a garage studio. “Around that time, my daughter, Sophie, and her partner, Adam, were looking to settle down and start a family,” she says. “I started to wonder if I could downsize and use my equity to help them get into the market.” They put their heads together and came up with a plan for multi-generational co-existence.
When Box™ was commissioned for the job, the appeal was their design-to-build product. “They managed the process end to end which meant we had certainty about costs and time all the way through – particularly valuable for a multi-household client,” says Joanna. One of the first aspects Box™ tackled was the stormwater connection approval process, a necessity because, effectively, Joanna was sub-dividing her land into three sections. The pre-construction process took a year but, in the meantime, the design could be finetuned. Setting aside a third of the land for future development (what Joanna calls her ‘retirement plan’), two separate two-level dwellings were planned. Their exterior palettes, although different, talk to each other with the use of dark-stained board-and-batten cladding combined with vertical cedar weatherboard to break up the forms. “I didn’t want the look to be too stark and modern,” says Joanna. They added some battened eyebrows above the windows for shade and painted the front doors red in homage to the colour of the state house door. Streetside on the long, rectangular section, is Joanna’s pied à terre planned so the top floor can operate as its own self-contained unit. “I wanted an upstairs studio to take advantage of the view to the water and the Waitakeres,” explains Joanna. “And I didn’t mind having no garden.” Hooked on the idea of living smaller, without the clutter of lots of ‘stuff’, she was instrumental in the design of this 65 square-metre space. The kitchen is minimal with all the pots and pans in one drawer, a tiny pantry that incorporates the smallest microwave she could find and just a two-burner hob. The dining zone is augmented by a built-in bench seat which can double as somewhere to sleep, and the living room is connected by floor-to-ceiling sliding doors to a north-west facing deck ideal for cocktails on summer evenings. “With the latest round of plan changes, I want to build a pergola so it gives me more shade.” There’s also a separate bedroom and a bathroom plus an extra room above the stairwell that acts as a closet and can be used for storage or as an office. “I thought I might have a laptop in there but when the pandemic came along, and we all had to work from home so much, I sacrificed a portion of the bench seat in the dining area and installed a desk instead,” says Joanna. Pale, cork floors throughout give the spaces a relaxed, casual feel and a 1950s dining table and display cabinet are in keeping with the Scandi-modern mood. Downstairs, the house, finished in winter 2019, has already accommodated several guests. It’s a layout that strikes a balance between companionship and privacy. There’s a bathroom they can use and a kitchenette should they wake early and not want to disturb their host. Two single garages separate the dwellings and Sophie and Adam are now well ensconced in their first home next door, along with Joanna’s two young grandchildren. The kitchen may be bigger here, with an L-shaped bench to accommodate two keen cooks, but the materials – plywood cabinetry and stainless tops – are the same. A staircase to the bedroom level features rimu rescued from the joists of the original state house that has been fashioned into stair treads along with a cedar-batten balustrade that is a warm, sculptural counterpoint to the bulletproof concrete floors.
The garden is somewhat occupied by a climbing frame but, within the small footprint, there’s also a lawn, tropical plantings, a service court and a vegetable patch, as well as a deck, tucked in behind a wall, that makes it private from next door (although from her balcony Joanna can still wave to the grandchildren if they’re playing swingball). A huge trampoline that the children insisted on has been relegated to the overgrown patch of land where sometime in the future a third house will stand.The Fine Print & The Reality Naturally, living right next door to your daughter and son-in-law has its upsides but the generations were careful to lay out a rock-solid financial and social agreement when they signed up to the deal. “We spent a lot of time with lawyers setting up trusts and stipulating who owes what,” explains Joanna. At first the family imagined they would live as careful neighbours, not wanting to intrude on each other’s space and time. But when the lockdown happened and they were all in the same ‘bubble’, it changed things. They relied on each other and drew a lot closer, especially when baby number two arrived. They shared chores, cars, landscaping and planting, and meals. Now, two to three times a week, Joanna will pop over for an early dinner and to help with the grandchildren while their parents have some time out. The secret is to give and take (but never for granted). “I feel pleased that I was able to contribute, along with Adam’s parents, to getting a young family into their own home,” says Joanna. “This is not just a business deal; we have all benefitted. We are a kāinga – our own little village.”