House of the week: Lyttleton rebuild called for creative compromises

Floor to ceiling glass in Melanie Betts and Dave Nicholl's rebuilt Lyttelton house means Melanie doesn't have to go out ...
JANE USSHER

Floor to ceiling glass in Melanie Betts and Dave Nicholl's rebuilt Lyttelton house means Melanie doesn't have to go out onto the deck to take in the action-packed port panorama, but the morning sun is always enticing for the family and their dog Layla.

Compromise has negative connotations. It implies sacrifice, relinquishing dreams, begrudgingly settling for the middle ground. So it came as a surprise, not least to owners Melanie Betts and Dave Nicholl, when a post-quake Lyttelton rebuild, riddled with compromises, resulted in a house that has made everyone happy.

From the street, the house seems typical of the quaint villas dotted around the hillsides of the Canterbury port town. In reality, the metal fretwork of its verandah, visible just above the fence, is all that remains of the original. The rest of it went to the dump. 

"In the September 2010 quake, the concrete pad separated from the house and the ground fell away, but the house was sort of okay," says Melanie.

Dalman Architecture was lined up to do the repairs when the more devastating quake struck the following February. "We stayed in the house for about six weeks, all five of us in one bedroom, before we were told it had to be completely bowled."

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The laminated oak breakfast bar was Dave's idea, with storage underneath, the unit serves as dining table, homework ...
JANE USSHER

The laminated oak breakfast bar was Dave's idea, with storage underneath, the unit serves as dining table, homework zone, dumping ground for groceries or just a commanding position for an imperious feline.

Melanie and Dave moved out with their three children, Lili, then aged seven, and four-year-old twins Adam and Alex, while Dalman readjusted its brief from repair to rebuild. 

It took three years to construct another small house where their previous one had been, during which time they moved around rental properties. "At least it was a good way to pare down our belongings," says Melanie, an English-born GP.  

The months rolled by as they manoeuvred through EQC and insurance obstacles as well as heritage constraints. "There were many restrictions," says Dalman architect John McGrail. "It had to be exactly the same floor area for insurance purposes, but there were also restraints because it's in a heritage precinct." 

The kitchen is simple and functional with oak-look laminate cupboards, a timber breakfast bar and ceramic tiled floor.
JANE USSHER

The kitchen is simple and functional with oak-look laminate cupboards, a timber breakfast bar and ceramic tiled floor.

After much deliberation, Melanie and Dave chose living space over sleeping space. "The whole thing was essentially a compromise. We had to build on the same footprint with the same roofline and the only way to get more living space was to make our four already-small bedrooms smaller," says Melanie.

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The architects added light and space by including a deck and putting a loft in the roof cavity. "It's space that was there in the old house but full of cobwebs and dust," says John. 

Previously the only half-decent view had been from the kitchen sink. Now large windows take in panoramic harbour views and the living room opens on to a deck that doubles as a herb garden. "When you live in a port it can be busy and noisy, but there's always something going on," says Melanie. "You never tire of the view."

More of Melanie's ceramics collection.
JANE USSHER

More of Melanie's ceramics collection.

Much of the interior is clad with plywood, another concession. "I wanted wooden floors but Dave was keen on underfloor heating and wooden floors make it inefficient," says Melanie, who decided that if she couldn't have wood on the floor she would put it on the walls.

They both like the simplicity and natural look of the varnished plywood – and Melanie concedes the underfloor heating and concrete-tiled floor has been great. "We spent ages choosing our log burner for its efficiency and low emission, but it's really only used for ambience." 

Externally, cedar weatherboards have been used on the front and back, while long-run corrugated steel clads the sides of the house. "It fits with the character of Lyttelton buildings of that vintage, especially commercial ones, as well as being cost-effective," says John. (In other words, a compromise, says Melanie.)  

A collection of earthenware jugs sits on the satin finish stainless steel benchtop.
JANE USSHER

A collection of earthenware jugs sits on the satin finish stainless steel benchtop.

The small lawn below the house is dominated by a large trampoline and a little-used kennel belonging to their recently acquired pound-rescue pooch.

While the family debated whether she would be an inside or outside dog, Layla, who wasn't about to accept any compromises after her stint on death row, moved into Adam's bedroom.  

Like the rest of the household, Layla had travelled a long and rocky road – and she could see instantly that this house was made for living in. 

A plywood staircase with an American oak handrail leads to the loft.
JANE USSHER

A plywood staircase with an American oak handrail leads to the loft.

MELANIE'S HARD-WON REBUILD LESSONS

We wish we'd known: How replacement insurance works. If you upgrade you pay for it, but if you downgrade you don't save anything. We chose basic fixtures in the bathroom thinking we could put the money we saved into other things, but you can't.

To help the kids cope with the upheaval: We tried to keep them excited (and not involved in the stresses) about the new house and gave them choices about their rooms.

A glass balustrade between living room and loft adds a sense of spaciousness to both areas.
JANE USSHER

A glass balustrade between living room and loft adds a sense of spaciousness to both areas.

It was disappointing: That we couldn't save the old floorboards. We couldn't, for health and safety reasons, so they got chucked out. 

Q&A

Best thing about the renovation: There's so much more light and the house now makes the most of the views. 

A high window above the living room adds light and provides the loft above with a sea view.
JANE USSHER

A high window above the living room adds light and provides the loft above with a sea view.

Bravest thing we did around the house: Putting in masses of plywood and making our bedrooms tiny. On the positive side, the children don't stay in their rooms – and they can just squeeze in a mattress for sleepovers.

Biggest renovation regret: Head-height hazards such as the kitchen cupboards.

This house is eco-friendly because: The concrete floor is a fantastic heat sink.

Melanie sits beside the Pyroclassic log burner, which has interchangeable colour panels.
JANE USSHER

Melanie sits beside the Pyroclassic log burner, which has interchangeable colour panels.

Best seat in the house: The sofa in the loft is hard to beat for its view of the harbour and sky through the high window.

Most-loved garden plant: Lavender. It's easy and effective.

Melanie Betts

The downstairs play area between the girls' bedrooms.
JANE USSHER

The downstairs play area between the girls' bedrooms.

Alex's bedroom with Resene 'Flower Power' walls and a kitset bunk with pull-out workstation underneath.
JANE USSHER

Alex's bedroom with Resene 'Flower Power' walls and a kitset bunk with pull-out workstation underneath.

Adam's room features skull fabric from Bolt of Cloth, a dog-themed duvet and a Resene 'Zoop De Loop' blue feature wall.
JANE USSHER

Adam's room features skull fabric from Bolt of Cloth, a dog-themed duvet and a Resene 'Zoop De Loop' blue feature wall.

A skylight sheds natural light in the loft, which is surrounded on three sides by plywood cupboards, maximising roof ...
JANE USSHER

A skylight sheds natural light in the loft, which is surrounded on three sides by plywood cupboards, maximising roof space and perfect for games of hide-and-seek.

From the street, the house still has the look of a traditional villa despite its modern makeover and internal garage (a ...
JANE USSHER

From the street, the house still has the look of a traditional villa despite its modern makeover and internal garage (a carry-over from a previous alteration).

The deck loses the sun in the afternoon, but the family eats outside on warm days.
JANE USSHER

The deck loses the sun in the afternoon, but the family eats outside on warm days.

 - NZ House & Garden

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