Rising from the ashes

The rebuilt Breaker Bay house once again fits into its coastal environment.
1 of 4MAARTEN HOLL/Fairfax NZ
The rebuilt Breaker Bay house once again fits into its coastal environment.
Leah Lewis has a new sink were the old copper one used to be.
2 of 4MAARTEN HOLL/Fairfax NZ
Leah Lewis has a new sink were the old copper one used to be.
The new house boasts both space and views.
3 of 4MAARTEN HOLL/Fairfax NZ
The new house boasts both space and views.
The original home was razed three years ago after the chimney caught fire.
The original home was razed three years ago after the chimney caught fire.

More than 15 years ago, Wellington architect Tim Nees designed a home for his family on Breaker Bay's rugged coastline.

He conceived that the "Ranger Point house", as it was known, would both fit into its coastal environment and resist its damaging force. Awarded the 1999 National Award for Architecture, the house was built of recycled boards from the derelict bungalow that had stood on the site before, the peeling paint and exposed rusty nails and beams added to the building's charm. In the harsh elements, the house was allowed to age over time.

Three years ago, the building was razed after the chimney caught fire. Owner Leah Lewis and her daughter had bought the house off Nees in 2006.

They lost their home and everything inside it.

The local Breaker Bay community rallied around, providing them with furniture, clothing and other donations.

Nees was devastated too. "It was such an important piece of architecture and it had won that national award which was very flattering at the time. I was phoned by a friend who lived in Seatoun, who hadn't wanted me to see it on the TV news that night."

Lewis began the arduous process of negotiating with her insurance company to rebuild the home.

Lewis went to both Nees and the Wellington City Council, but neither had kept all the plans. She was keen for a fresh start, and hoped that she could build a completely different home. But her insurer had a different idea. There were additional compliance costs - either she could design exactly the same 230-square-metre house on the same site, or she would end up with a smaller, 160sqm home.

"I thought it would be fun to build something new and different. Who wouldn't want that? But after about 10 months of going back and forth, I said, 'Let's build the house the way it was'," she says. "I knew the house so well after living here for two years. But it was two years before we started building."

Says architect Max Herriot, of HMA: "The only solution was to reinstate what was there. That was the only way of getting the same size house. Because we had to replicate what was there, we're not saying we designed it."

When Nees built his house in 1995, double glazing wasn't compulsory. New building codes meant the house had to be upgraded. Today, all the windows in Lewis' home are double glazed, and the improved insulation is a plus.

The result, three years on, is a home that is almost a replica of the Ranger Point house, with a few tweaks. Says Herriot: "It's a new and improved version of the old place."

But there are aspects of the Ranger Point house that Lewis misses. She loved the peeling, ageing exterior. The former kitchen had a copper sink - today, a new sink sits in the same place.

On the plus side, Lewis has been able to add her own design flair. She took the opportunity to change the upstairs layout slightly, adding another bedroom, while the downstairs bathroom expanded in size to make way for a smaller laundry. The downstairs entrance wall has been painted pink. The upstairs bathroom is tiled in attractive Chinese brown tiles - in the old house, they were black and white. Lewis also got rid of the upstairs bedroom balcony which she hadn't used much before the house fire.

"It was often too windy to go outside. The house is better because it's newer for a start. But it's not as quirky as it was before."

Nees is happy the same house has been recreated on the site. "I had some misgivings to begin with and I wasn't personally ready to be involved. Now that it's finished, I think Max and the builders have done a good job."

Lewis was delighted when her same-but-different home also won a gong - builders Planit Construction won a Master Builders Award earlier this year. It's a fitting end to this story. "I just love it here. After renting a small place while this one was being built, I just love the space and the views," she says.

The Dominion Post