The devil is in the detail

The devil is in the detail

A home architecturally designed in the 60s, and recently renovated and extended by Blair Cunningham Construction, showcases the timeless appeal of fine design.

In 2006 Julia and Andy March purchased a home designed by renowned architect Don Donnithorne in 1965. Resplendent in its original style, the exquisite detail and architectural features of the structure appealed as much as the generous site located between the Wairarapa Stream and Idris Road. Ten years later, when the couple and their three children moved out for earthquake repairs, it was an optimum time to extend and modernise the home. Blair Cunningham had been recommended by friends and family as a great builder, but it was his immediate passion for the architectural detail and design features of the home that made him their ideal choice for taking on the renovation project.

A hand-drawn architectural rendering of the original home hangs on the dining room wall. In renovating, Julia and Andy wanted to retain the integrity of the original architecture. Special features included bespoke internal doors inset with glass panels, coved and cathedral ceilings with detailed angles and mitres, glass insets in internal walls and steep pitched rooflines. “Don Donnithorne was ahead of his time. We loved and wanted to pay homage to that design. We simply wanted to update and modernise the home and make it more suited to our family,” Julia says. They engaged Don's son Martin, Director of Don Donnithorne Architects, to draw up the plans for extending the home.

In 2016, the Blair Cunningham construction team took over the site. Over a period of 15 months Blair and the March's worked collaboratively to ensure the final result retained the exquisite detail and unique style of the original design.

The entire structure was pared back to framing and the steel window joinery was replaced with aluminium. The ground floor has been extended to accommodate a laundry and guest toilet. On the upper level, additional space was created by lifting and extending the roof cavity over a new double garage. An inground pool occupies the site of the former garage. The upstairs extension includes two generous bedrooms, a bathroom and toilet, oodles of storage space and a sun-drenched lounge in a flanged area of the thoroughfare that leads to the new bedrooms.

Elements of the architectural detailing are obvious on arrival. A covered pathway connects the front gate to the entry porch where the impressive front door is faced with a wooden herringbone veneer. Beyond, the generous entry foyer is flanked by the kitchen and dining room on one side and an expansive lounge on the other. Bronze tiles line the floor and one wall is lined with slatted kahikatea. Exposed beams support the pitched ceilings and in the kitchen, dining and laundry area, wide profile American oak lines the floor.


All the woodwork has been oiled for a natural finish. The entire front of the home is glazed and stacking sliders open out to the deck, a superbly landscaped garden and the river beyond.

Together, Andy and Julia chose interior finishes including light fittings and wallpapers imported directly from Europe and the United Kingdom. Many decisions regarding design features evolved during the project and were made collectively by Andy, Blair and Julia. “We had plans but we discussed lots of design and building concepts and options as they came up. You tend to get better results if you can make some decisions on the go,” Blair says.

Julia cites the wooden slats lining the entry foyer wall, a concealed door leading to the kitchen and stair balustrading as examples of finishing detail decisions that were made during the building phase. “Blair suggested we replace the solid walls lining the top of the stairway with open wooden slats, and he came up with the idea of a wood-lined foyer wall with a concealed door. We love those features.”

The exterior of the home is a combination of cedar and plaster. Bag-washed plaster over new bricks on the base level replaces the original red bricks. The use of bag-wash on brick was robustly debated. “I wasn't a fan of the red bricks; Blair wanted them retained. Andy came up with the idea of using a light plaster wash that showed the detail of the bricks. That was an acceptable compromise for all of us,” Julia says.


A file full of cuttings and images influenced the choice of features and finishes throughout the home. At Brymac Tiles Julia had a one-on-one meeting with general manager James Thomson to find tiles to match and replicate the images she presented. In the children’s bathroom, sky blue tiles create bold stripes between white porcelain tiles. James admits that Julia and Andy had quite differing tastes initially, but he was able to tease out their preferences and find options to suit the architectural style of the home and the personal preferences of the owners.

Some internal walls have been removed and replaced to define spaces. In the main living room an ethanol fireplace, imported from Germany by Naked Flame, Auckland, has been installed where a wall once divided the room. Behind a bookshelf in the corner of the room, a small bar has been created in a gap between lounges. The tiny room is lined with Versace wallpaper. A chandelier, an original fitting, hangs from the irregular coved ceiling lights and a bespoke benchtop has been machined by Blair from timber framing salvaged from the garage. The recycled timber desktops in the children's rooms were also handmade by Blair as was the powder room vanity, crafted from timber with a copper strip insert.

Kahikatea lines the extended soffits and glazed cut-outs ensure the overhead structure does not block the sunlight on the deck below. “In everything we did, we tried to be sympathetic to the shape, style and integrity of the architecture,” Blair says.

Intricate angles and coved ceilings were a feature of the original home and the additions replicate this detail. Hallway ceilings are angled, rooflines are contoured and natural wooden beams butt up to steeply pitched painted surfaces. Dan Hanifin from Elite Interior Plastering brought a high level of skill to the project and the finish of the interior walls and ceilings is testimony to the expertise of Dan and his team. He concedes the job was ‘technically challenging’ but within the capability of his adept tradespeople.

On the upper level, the master suite and one bedroom occupy the cavity under the original steeply pitched roof. The rooms feature cathedral ceilings and from the master bedroom, a small deck overlooks the garden. At either end of the structure, a wall of windows follows the lines of the architecture. The extension repeats a similarly pitched roofline and new windows match the quirky shapes used elsewhere.

Action Scaffolding was responsible for providing a platform to facilitate the renovation works. The project required careful and considered planning to ensure the scaffolding was suitable for the complex work schedule. Owner operator Mark Backhouse was a builder before he took over Action Scaffolding so he brings a unique perspective to his project management. “I have a deep understanding of what builders need. This was a challenge with the amount of alterations required,” Mark says. “We had to ensure everything was well planned so as to save money.”

Julia, Andy and their children Annabelle, Oliver and Samantha have been back in residence for almost a year and love the renovated environment. “It all feels so familiar, but new and different in many ways,” Julia says. “Everything that appealed to us in 2006 still appeals; it’s just better now that we have enhanced and extended the inside and out.” It is the litmus test of enduring architecture when a home designed more than 50 years ago can still impress its owners on a daily basis.

Words ady shannon Photography Mick Stephenson

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