A sympathetic renovation in Napier smartened up a compact home without erasing its quirks

Words by Fiona Fraser, photography by Florence Charvin

As Rachael Horton walks across her floor she warns it “may make you seasick”. She points out the ornate front door set with beautiful leadlight, which is never knocked on and in fact gazes straight into the back garden. There’s a powder room tucked under the stairs and on the top floor there’s a narrow little loo under the eaves complete with its own lobby. A lobby for a lavatory. None of it makes much sense, Rachael concedes, but she loves her home, sitting proudly and slightly haphazardly on Napier’s Bluff Hill.

 A villa was not what she’d had in mind when, in 2016, the Willington émigré arrived for a change of pace and a challenging new work role. Low maintenance appealed. Practicality. Something sturdy and within her set budget.

A single parent, she also wanted a property close to her office and to school for Christian 10, and Elsa, eight. “Location is important when you want easy access, so you can leave work at short notice and pick up a sick child or go and watch the cross country.”

“I came to view the house and could see it wasn’t very well built, so I thought it wasn’t for me. I’d renovated an old villa years before in Wellington and there was a voice in my head saying, “No Rachael – do not buy a villa again.”

But, like so many things in life, that plan was scuppered. “I just loved the location – the character of the Hill. There are dinky little homes like this one rubbing shoulders with massive mansions. There are laneways and alleyways and there’s nowhere to park and really tight, winding streets and views for Africa. It felt like home to me.”

The house dates back to the 1880s, a bygone era when building codes were non-existent and the street was just a dirt track, used by the local grocer to deliver weekly provisions to the original lean-to kitchen. The aforementioned front door would at one time have been the main entrance off a (much wider) road below the garden. “It’s very much a house that’s backwards.”

Rachael felt some fo the “backwards” needed to be managed. So she steeled herself (and prepared her bank manager) for a renovation. “The hardest part for me was pushing ‘go’ on this,” she says with candour.

“It’s a huge financial investment. You really have to trust yourself and your decision-making abilities. There were a number of moments where I questioned whether I was making an emotional or a practical decision.”

Christian and Elsa also had questions about the project. “They didn’t really understand what a renovation was,” Rachael says. “And when the house was completely stripped down, and it was just open framing and we were camping out at friends’ houses, they were quite upset. They couldn’t really see how it would all get put back together.”

Rachael knew how. Working economically, and within the original 160sqm footprint of the house, she had a couple of priorities – create a warm, family-friendly kitchen, and develop a second living space.

The hardest decisions to make were always the big ticket items. “Like the flooring, which I agonised over. It was a big sped so it was very worrying for me. Dael and Vic from Bibby & Brady were so helpful in guiding these big decisions and helping me get the colours right.”

Rachael also chose to install a mains water filter. “Napier’s water supply is chlorinated and it’s really nice to be able to drink filtered water from the tap.”

Bibby & Brady helped choose the soft dusty pink in Rachael’s room and the stormy blue in Christian’s, but Elsa didn’t quite get the bright orange walls and green carpet she’d been dreaming of. “Elsa has a quirky personality and she’s a bit of a tomboy so pink was never going to do it for her.” In the end, she selected yellow for her little room at the top of the stairs.

The family moved back into the house earlier this year. “We were scared to touch anything at first,” says Rachael. “the kids were walking around in awe.

“It took about a month to relax and really live in the house, without feeling we were in a showroom. Now, we are completely at home here but at the same time, the kids know how special the place is and that I won’t afford to do it again. So I keep saying, “Guys, this is it, and we need to look after it.”


WHAT I’D CHANGE: I’d love more decking and I can’t wait for the kids to outgrow the trampoline – it’s just an eyesore. One day I’ll use the space for a fire pit where they can hang out with their mates.

FAVOURITE FAMILY TREASURE: I have a scene my mother painted hanging over the fireplace. She was a hobby artist and passed away two years ago – this was probably one of her best works.

BIGGEST TEST IN THE GARDEN: I did a whole lot of planting and just a few weeks later water restrictions kicked in. It was a painful summer trying to keep my plants alive!

WHAT I MOST ENJOY ABOUT HAWKE’S BAY: We love Clearview Winery in summer – we park the car at Clive and then bike along the iWay cycleway to have lunch.

AND ITS BEST-KEPT SECRET: Autumn in Hawke’s Bay – it’s my favourite season for the colours and the warmth, the light and the sunrises.