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Splash Palace

Writing by Claire McCall

Photography by Helen Bankers and Darren Clayworth

The Northcote home of a rower-turned-designer bathes in Resene colours that reflect the surrounding harbour.

The power of colour to dial up the magic is not lost on former world champion rower Tonia Williams. The time she and her rowing partner-cum-joiner lay on the floor in the entrance hall of this Northcote house, celebratory beers in hand, beneath the ceiling they’d just created, counts as one of her favourite moments. Red, blue and green LEDs installed behind dropped polycarbonate sheeting transported her back to the disco years.

Above: Tonia Williams’ seaside home has splashes of colour including the back wall of the living room which is in half strength Resene Onepoto. The back ceiling and wall by the stairs are Resene Colorwood Whitewash. The skirting and the rimu stair balustrades are protected with Resene Danska Teak Oil.

Colour is also a decorative, whimsical way to evoke history: half strength Resene Onepoto in the living room reminds her of those free-spirited days on the water.

Not that whimsy is all she is made of. A former elite athlete, Tonia’s focus is high-performance – an attribute she wanted from her home. Building from energy-efficient structural insulated panels (SIPs) and using another proven performer, Resene Colorwood Whitewash, to finish them was always part of the plan. “When I returned to New Zealand at the end of 2000 from competing in England, it was the height of the leaky-building crisis. I started looking at different ways of building houses.”

The views from this property on top of a North Shore ridge sweep over the Waitemata Harbour to the city on one side and across to a grassy reserve on the other. Tonia, a graduate architect, who prefers to call herself a ‘designer/maker’, couldn’t wait to get hands-on, crafting a forever home for her two teenage daughters Ondine and Sienna and husband Stephen.

Above: The North Shore house is near Onepoto Domain so Tonia gravitated towards half strength Resene Onepoto for the living room. The ceiling is Resene Colorwood Whitewash.

While the design of the multi-level dwelling was complex, accounting for the steep site and height-to-boundary restrictions as well as connecting the spaces to two horizons, the material choice was easy. SIPs are light, strong and stable, and provide a warm, dry environment. Tonia also rescued timbers from an existing cottage on the site to repurpose.

The owner of a design-and-build company called Vitruvion, she saw the project as a teaching opportunity. “This isn’t an ‘instant pot noodle’ house,” she says. “You don’t just add water and everything is finished.” As a mum, she was keen for the girls to experience the process and get involved in the DIY nitty-gritty. So, once the build team had delivered the envelope – a bold, contemporary dwelling that stretched over multiple levels – the family became ‘weekend warriors’, making the interiors their own.

Here is a woman not afraid to be playful with finishes and colour. A fan of passive solar design, Tonia specified insulated concrete flooring for the stepped-up, stepped-down living areas but, in the kitchen zone, she wanted to mimic colourful terrazzo. So, Stephen went on the hunt for blue glass, collecting 1300 bottles from the wheelie bins of Portofino restaurant in the Viaduct. Then she and the girls donned safety goggles and ‘played squash’, driving a compactor over them to crush the material before sifting out the finer bits by hand. Blue chips now feature in the pool, the flooring and in a handmade pendant light in the living room – three acrylic tubes are filled with blue glass surrounding LED strips.

Above Left: The walls near the kitchen are finished in Resene Colorwood Whitewash which was also applied to the ceiling panel. One advantage of SIPs is it’s possible to pre-paint panels before construction – meaning you can paint the ceiling or walls prior to the build.

Above Middle: The back wall is brownwood plywood which Tonia sanded before finishing with Resene Colorwood Jarrah. She then cut diagonal grooves into the wall and applied Resene Aquaclear. The ceiling, door and wall beneath the stairs are finished with Resene Colorwood Whitewash and coated with Resene Aquaclear.

Above Right: The balustrades and hit-and-miss wall boarding are made from upcycled rimu timber from an old cottage on the property. The balustrades have been oiled with Resene Danska Teak Oil and the wall has been protected with Resene Aquaclear.

The kitchen and stairs are an insertion in the space, a box wrapped in rimu repurposed from the cottage floorboards, de-nailed and sanded several times (thanks Stephen!) to be as smooth as silk before finishing in Resene Aquaclear. Pine ply doors on the upper cabinets have been given three coats of Resene Colorwood Whitewash and a clear coat of Resene Aquaclear to protect the surface. But having just one tone in the kitchen was anathema to Tonia’s aesthetic adventurousness: lower cupboards in beech ply are dark-stained with Resene Colorwood Jarrah and finished in Resene Aquaclear – a robust look that combines beautifully with the embossed stainless steel bench.

Tonia calls the timber-topped island here ‘command central’ and she is the undisputed master of this ship. It’s a home that sprawls across seven different levels, and she’s designed it so there’s a gap in the cabinetry where she can have ‘eyes on’ the action in the living room; an aperture in another wall similarly gives visual access to the dining room. A wooden pendant light over the table where the family gather to eat is another hand-crafted fitting. Like all the lighting in this home, it’s low voltage. “That allowed me to imagine my own fittings because any joiner can make a low-voltage light.” The walls, reflecting the backdrop of bush, are painted in serene greens: Resene Happy Hour and Resene Fresh. “It might be because of our English background, but we like a separate dining room.”

Above: The SIPs panel wall has what Tonia calls a ‘chocolate biscuit effect’. She stained the wall using Resene Colorwood Jarrah before sanding the oriented strand board (OSB) texture and giving the wood a coat of Resene Aquaclear tinted with Resene Colorwood Enhance Jarrah. The ceiling is Resene Colorwood Whitewash protected with Resene Aquaclear.

In the living room, Tonia painted a feature wall blue in the same tonal range; she likes the way the green-blue combination echoes the landscape – from the green of the domain on the north side of the home to the ocean opposite. “I chose Resene Onepoto, which is the name of the domain nearby. It was a bit bright, so I diluted it with 50 per cent white, and it’s now half strength Resene Onepoto.”

The girls, of course, got to choose colours for their own rooms and seem to have been influenced by the environment too. Sienna went for aqua-blue Resene Riptide and her elder sister Resene Portage, a serene violet-blue. They’re not quite as experimental as their mum – as the upstairs master suite, a showcase of Tonia’s inventiveness, attests. Taking top billing must be the delicious-looking “chocolate biscuit” SIPs wall in the master bedroom. “We have used dark brown Resene Colorwood directly onto unprepared SIPs. It was a very memorable product – the stain smelled like chocolate! We then sanded the top off and sealed with Resene Aquaclear,” says Tonia.

The family’s DIY approach probably accounts for the fact it has taken four years to get to this stage. In that time, the family has made a home and some vivid memories. “The DIY spirit isn’t dead in New Zealand, so if we want to make housing more attainable, we need to find creative solutions,” says Tonia.

Above Left: Tonia and Stephen did much of the work on their home themselves including hit-and-miss wall boarding. The wall, protected in Resene Aquaclear, adds to the home's strong architectural lines. The wall on the left is Resene Colorwood Whitewash protected in Resene Aquaclear.

Middle: The bright and light-filled dining room is painted in zesty green Resene Fresh with a feature wall in Resene Happy Hour

Right: Tonia and Stephen's spaceage kitchen is illuminated with LEDs beneath the island and a lightbox in the ceiling. The cabinetry is in Resene Colorwood Whitewash and Resene Aquaclear. The side wall is Resene Fresh

What are SIPs (Structural Insulated Panels)?

  • SIPs can be used to build walls, floors and ceilings. The panels can be stained or painted directly onto the surface and their textural surface adds a layer of interest.

  • Tonia likens SIPs to an ‘ice-cream wafer’, consisting of an insulated foam core between layers of oriented strand board (OSB). They create a tight fit, which is great for energy efficiency.

  • SIPs are a structural product that acts like an RSJ and can support spans in multiple directions.

  • Although they can be expensive to purchase, because the panels are effectively a three-in-one product of structure, insulation and finish, building can be faster than normal if built by SIPs specialist builders.


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