Two families under one roof

Rather than neighbours who become good friends, these good friends have become neighbours.

By Sarah Catherall
Photography by Anna Briggs

Featured in Capital #59

This is part of Capital’s 10 year birthday retrospective, where we look back at some of our favourite stories over the past decade. To read an update of this story, see issue #90 of Capital.

Subscribe to get the real thing here.

Two houses perched on a steep slice of land in Miramar are like siblings, sharing some characteristics while retaining distinct personalities.

Their designers and owners are friends who met at architecture school in the mid-2000s. The two couples –Tim Gittos and Caro Robertson, and Mat Lee and Charlotte Key ─ couldn’t afford to build homes on separate sites, so they decided to pool their money. Five years ago, they bought a 406-square-metre, scrubby, steep, cheap section, subdivided it and built their own separate small homes. “It was a lot of hassle but doing it this way made it possible for both of us,” says Tim.

Living in such close proximity works because the couples are friends. Their children ─ Finn Gittos, 4, and Sam Gittos, 6, and Olive Lee, 7, and Archie Lee, 5 ─ are also great friends. More like siblings than neighbours, they pop in and out of one another’s homes via a makeshift track “highway” they have built.

First, the couples subdivided the site, dividing it horizontally rather than vertically and running 65 steep concrete steps up one side. That way, each house enjoys morning and afternoon sun, and is affected by the same winds. “We wanted to prioritise the sun and the views,” says Tim.

The Gittos-Robertson clan designed the top house, while Mat began designing their house for the bottom site, a decision that came naturally. Recalls Caro: “We started designing our house for the top site and they were designing theirs for the bottom, because they were renting a place with heaps of steps so they preferred to be close to the road.”

While passers-by probably think the houses are very similar, their exteriors and interiors have their own characters. Both boast unpainted macrocarpa cladding, aluminium joinery, exposed concrete block and grey corrugated steel. They’re simple, and built to a budget.

Both houses are tall and narrow, three stories high, each with a kitchen on the northwest corner opening out to a deck. Caro laughs: “We hear the kids whistling to each other to come for meetings. I can lean over the deck and see where the kids are, and we get together for wines and kids’ dinners.”

Mat works for David Melling, of Melling Architects, while Tim previously designed for the firm’s predecessor, Melling and Morse. Their homes both reflect the house style of architecture, boasting ply throughout, and a relaxed, pared back aesthetic.

Tim and Caro both work from home ─ their business is Space Craft Architects ─ and specialise in building small budget dwellings. They designed an open-plan office on their mezzanine floor. The house entrance leads straight into the long open-plan kitchen and living room stretching across the middle floor, with a built-in window seat running along the expansive windows with sweeping views of Wellington. When guests come over, they pull out a trestle table and turn it into their dining table.

The couple decided to keep the exterior simple – the wire netting on the verandah is “cheap as chips”, says Caro ─ and play with their ideas inside. A stand-out feature is the macrocarpa wood throughout the house, and the built-in ply joinery in the kitchen and living room.

Tim sanded the macrocarpa floors and built the long kitchen bench and high bookshelves. They did much of the work themselves to save money, so the entire project cost the couple $550,000 including the site.

In the main living area, the architects played with the ceiling height, stretching it up two stories to give a sense of volume. From their deck, Mt Kaukau is framed in the distance. “Our house has that more northern thing with verandahs and doors opening out everywhere. We wanted a buffer zone around the house so that you can open a door even when it’s raining,” says Caro.

Down the hill, Mat and Charlotte’s home is laid out in a similar way, with the living area across the middle floor, bedrooms down below, and a mezzanine and second bedroom up the top.

However, Mat describes their home as “broken planning”. He played with alcove spaces and broke the area into different zones: the stairway sticks out into the middle of the house to create two sides and the dining room juts out of the kitchen and living area.

“Carving up the volumes into different spaces was important. It’s like a classic Wellington villa which is 100 square metres on a hillside and reconfigured,” says Mat, who is often trying to maximise volume in the small homes he designs in his day job.

The kitchen and living floors are ply, while the floors downstairs are polished concrete. Throughout, the walls are painted a crisp white. Charlotte, a jeweller and industrial designer, says, “We wanted lots of windows and white walls with pops of colour. But we also wanted it to be a family home and fun for the kids.”

Interestingly, the two couples chose some things that were similar without consulting each other. The pink door to Olive’s bedroom,for example, is a similar shade to the pink door leading to the Gittos-Robertson’s bathroom.

The lifestyle they now share reminds Caro of her childhood growing up in a cul de sac in Auckland’s Remuera, where she literally climbed her back fence to visit her friend. It was an experience she sought to replicate for her children. “I loved the idea of creating a shared backyard. I really value the sense of family that we have here,” she says.

Mat, by contrast, grew up on a remote farm on the Wairarapa coast, where he had to travel by car to visit his friends. “Having this proximity to other kids is just so cool for Olive and Archie. When you’ve got friends in other parts of the city, it can be an ordeal going off to see them for a drink, this makes our socialising so easy,” he says.

The houses have shared toys. The Gittos-Robertson house has a swing, while the Lee-Key house has a paddling pool. The bush between the two properties doubles as a hideaway space. Both houses have built-in bunks and bedrooms that resemble adventure playgrounds.

The parents share childcare, and school pickups and dropoffs. It was a joint decision to send the children to Worser Bay School. “We help each other out a lot. We hang out because its so easy and its so much more than we ever imagined,” says Charlotte.
On the day Capital visited, the sense of community in this small slice of suburban Miramar was amply evident. Earlier that day, Archie had an accident and had to go to the doctor, so Olive stayed back with Tim and Caro and their children.

When Archie and his parents returned safe and sound, Tim sat on the steps in the baking sun and said: “Let’s go to the beach.”

Charlotte smiled: “After today, I think I need a beer.”


Sign up to our newsletter