Climb the many stairs to the house on the hill

By Sarah Catherall
Photographed by Adrian Vercoe

Featured in Capital #86
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Their family house is many steps up from the roadside and enjoys glorious seaside views. The Thurston family tells Sarah Catherall what they love about their about their renovated home.

When Richard Thurston visited his parents in Seatoun he often looked up at a modernist house on the hill with a signature porthole window. He assumed the 70s house had been designed by Ian Athfield on the basis of its style.

Thurston, a Wellington artist and Weta art director, and his wife, Cushla, an architect and associate director at Solari Architects, often dreamed of moving to Seatoun. Richard had grown up there, and his parents and sister still live there. Richard and Cushla thought it would be a lovely place to raise their daughters, Nina and Amadee. On their wish list: a house with a sea view, which was close enough to walk to the beach to swim.

But with Wellington’s house prices surging, they expected their ideal to be out of reach – until the very house Richard had admired from below popped up online for sale. There were several reasons why it was within their price range. It needed considerable renovation and maintenance work, which was to the Thurstons’ advantage. And with about 70 steps up to the house, access was a barrier to many potential buyers, but they didn’t mind the walk. They bought the house about two years ago, and moved in last July.

“We love everything about being here. It’s like being on holiday at the beach,’’ Richard says.

They discovered the house had been designed by Dave Launder, a seminal figure in Wellington architecture in the 1970s and 1980s. He also designed the house next door, further up the hill, and his own family home in Karaka Bay, also with a porthole window.

Richard began an extensive renovation, keeping the bones of the house.

Fortunately they love mid-century objects and furniture, so their existing pieces fit seamlessly into the environment. The living room is where they spend the most time. Their mid-century couch runs along one wall and they bought a round dining table from a vintage store for the other end of the room.

Their mainly New Zealand art collection is displayed throughout the house. The living area represents a wonderful use of space. When they bought the house, the stunning 180-degree view across Wellington harbour to Eastbourne was broken up by french doors. In one corner, a freestanding woodburner took up too much space. “The deck was also shaky, and it wasn’t nice being out there. With all the verticals you couldn’t see the view, and we just wanted to tidy that up,’’ Cushla says. “But for all that, the house still had a lovely, beachy view.’’

Richard ripped the fireplace out and lined the ceiling with cedar, which gives the space a honey glow and makes it feel warm and inviting. He built a new deck. He also renovated the kitchen, which came with original cabinetry. A huge pantry blocked the view. He installed kitchen cabinets from Bunnings, and replaced the kitchen floor.

Some structural work was needed. The house proved to have “a lot of rotten beams,’’ says Cushla. In the laundry, two-thirds of a 300ml beam was rotten.

Nina’s room has the signature porthole window, which was redone and made to open. And Richard added space by building a mezzanine floor, so she can have friends to stay in her room.

Amadee stands in the living room and looks out through binoculars at the panoramic view below. Her bedroom is the largest one, with a low vertical window giving a view of the street below. Richard and Cushla’s bedroom is on the lowest level. Eventually the plan is to build a deck off it, linked with the other outdoor spaces.

From the main deck, Richard can spy the primary school he attended as a child. In her former job Cushla helped redesign the school in its new life as Te Kura Kaupapa Maori O Nga Mokopuna, Seatoun. At Solari Architects, she now specialises in medium density housing for Kainga Ora and private developers.

Living on Seatoun’s hillside inspires Richard to create art. Many of the photographs in his most recent exhibition are images of the sea and Orongorongo ranges in the distance. Orongorongo shows the peaks in the distance, while Warm Glow features the fog rolling in. “The view is always changing and I never get sick of it.’’ Richard loves watching the sun come up and the ships coming in across the Cook Strait. “I get up early for the magic hour.’’

They’ve kept their Brooklyn home, where Cushla designed a studio for Richard at the back of their house, using timber from her father’s own mill. They run it as an Airbnb.

Dave Launder is still a practising architect, living on the Kāpiti Coast. They invited him over, curious to know what he thought of their iteration of the house he designed more than four decades ago. “He said he always really loved the house, and he was impressed with what we have done to it,’’ Cushla says.


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