House of the week: Onehunga cottage may be small but they make it work
If there was ever someone who would fit perfectly into this 1860s "doll's house", it's petite Amanda Norwood. And if there was anyone who wouldn't fit, it would be her husband Andrew. He's six foot four.
In fact, Andrew's first words upon entering the house in Onehunga, Auckland were, "I can't live in it, it's too tiny," as he repeatedly bumped his head ascending the stairs. But the charm of the dainty little home soon swayed him, the deal sweetened by the promise of an outdoor shed that would become his man cave.
Amanda, a fan of the homely, rustic look and a self-described collector – "although Andrew would probably call me a hoarder" – says their small home forces her to live more minimally. And although a big challenge is lack of storage, that's made up for by the fact that it takes so little time to clean.
"Living in a small home actually forces you to problem-solve and come up with your own ideas. We've had to make the nursery upstairs an office too, and Andrew built the desk himself because the space was tricky."
Now, one-year-old son Oscar has just learned to walk. "It's opened up a whole new can of worms," says Amanda, "but that's the beauty of a small house, you always know where everyone is."
Size was something Amanda and Andrew were happy to forfeit in their search for a character home. It's the history, Amanda says, that really draws her to these types of homes.
"I can't imagine myself living somewhere completely modern. You can't recreate the wear and tear of the floors that old homes have. The thing that breaks my heart is seeing a lovely old home being taken down, or moved off its existing site."
Living in a character home was such a non-negotiable that when they had no luck with homes that were on the market, they dropped letters at homes they were drawn to – and it got results. They moved in three years ago, a week after they got married.
The house was one of the area's original Fencible cottages. The Fencibles were retired soldiers from Britain and Ireland who, in exchange for their work as a defence force for our early settlers, were provided with a cottage and an acre of land. The harbour master's cottage is next door and the house he built for his daughter is just up the road. Amanda says the privacy and sense of community down their historic lane is a gift, "plus the fruit-sharing is amazing".
History and character weren't the only criteria for Andrew and Amanda; they were looking for a place that needed some love. While they were careful to keep the character of the home, they ripped out the carpet, changed the curtains and lighting and painted everywhere, to make it their own.
"All superficial things, but little changes that make a big difference," Amanda says.
"It's amazing what a coat of paint can do. When we first moved in, there was a different floral wallpaper on every wall and all the cabinetry was a dark timber. Painting all the interiors and tiles white opened out the space completely."
The stairs were originally covered in blue carpet, so that was one of the first things to go. While much of the staircase was coated in what Amanda describes as chaotically applied brown paint, they discovered beautiful exposed timber down the centre. Not wanting to strip the character, they painted over the brown and left the middle as is.
The house is a constantly evolving project. Amanda works as a stylist at CC Interiors, a furniture and antiques business started by her mother, and its retail store, Leopold Hall. She's constantly moving things around and bringing new finds home from work. Andrew, operations manager in the family business, is a complete handyman, says Amanda. "I'll mention offhandedly that I think we should put some shelves up, and the next weekend he'll be in there with his tools making some."
They have plans to double the size of their tiny cottage, but it's something that Amanda is in two minds about. "I keep thinking, 'Ah, we need more space,' but part of me loves it just the way it is and I don't want to change it."
There is one thing that reassures her about the extension plans: "If we're the ones to do it, then we'll do it sympathetically. We'll turn it into a functional family home that will stand the test of time so it will still be here in another 100 years. I see it as preserving it."
Not to mention, more space means more places to put her various finds. So next time they're on a road trip and Amanda spies an antiques shop or a junk store and squeals for Andrew to pull over, the excuse that "we've nowhere to put it" won't stick.
The next thing I want to change is: The kitchen. We have given it a quick-fix makeover by painting everything, but I am hanging out for open-plan living and a new benchtop.
Proudest DIY achievement: Andrew is so handy. He even made bespoke children's safety gates for the stairs. We didn't want plastic ones, so he made some beautiful timber ones that suited the character of the home. They look like they have always been there, which is exactly what we were after.
My best moment in the garden: When Oscar discovered tomatoes in the garden for the first time. He picked it up and just started eating it. It's incredible to be able to grow your own food and teach children where it comes from.
The one thing you must see when you visit is: Cornwall Park. I say it so often but it really is the biggest gift Auckland was given. To grow up with what is essentially a farm in the middle of the city is so special. Oscar loves the sheep and cows.
- NZ House & Garden