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Breathing Space

Words Sharon Stephenson | Photographs Paul McCredie | NZ House & Garden, 2021

Having a designer in the family certainly helped when tackling this once shabby villa.

Jasmine espalier & layered hedges in a formal villa garden

The original front door portico of Sarah and Dean Burke's Wellington villa was reconfigured to provide a greater sense of arrival, with an uninterrupted view to the rear garden; the paving designs are echoed in the diamond espalier pattern on the fence which features Chinese star jasmine plants.

There’s a saying that an architect’s home is never done, and that’s certainly the case for Dean Burke.


“Architects are a bit like mechanics who are always fiddling with their cars, except we’re constantly tweaking our homes,” says Dean, a registered architect currently working in project/change management.


He’s referring to the Wellington house he bought with wife Sarah, a director in a business psychology firm, in 2011 which gave him ample opportunity to flex his design muscles.

Formal garden, villa garden in the city featuring hydrangeas

The couple have planted inside the front gate with a Japanese maple and hydrangeas to not only provide privacy from the street but also to create a sun-drenched sanctuary (Sic. note from the garden designer - this is a shaded garden, planted with shade loving plants like Hydrangea "Bridal Bouquet".

“It was in a pretty sad state when we first saw it,” says Sarah of the 270sqm house. “It had been divided into two flats in the 1950s and many of the original elements had been ripped out. When we saw it, there were fluoro walls and the upstairs flat was filled with beer cans. I think most prospective buyers thought it was too big and there was too much work involved.”

Front entrance villa garden featuring white roses in a formal garden

Sarah's favourite plants are these glorious Iceberg roses which are under planted with Chatham Island forget-me-nots and buxus hedging, so as not to restrict the view from the front gate to the rear garden.

But Sarah and Dean aren’t most people so on the day Sarah gave birth to their second child – they have two daughters, Lucy, 10, and nine-year-old Ellie – they signed the contract to buy this house.

Family garden featuring black victorian fireplace & kartel bubble sofa

The outdoor fireplace with its Victorian-style fire surround, antlers, hearth and furniture, reflects the couple's interior style.

The couple had previously renovated a villa in Karori but soon tired of the high-maintenance garden and wanted more space for their growing family. Plus, Dean relished the opportunity to turn the unloved 1898-built house into a comfortable family home.

“We love historic homes so were very careful to keep the original floorboards and restore things like the crown mouldings and scotia to align with the original design,” says Dean. “But we also wanted to bring in modern elements such as an open-plan kitchen and living space.”

Artificial lawn, formal vegetable garden, paved lawn edging, beautiful climbing frames for beans

The tall hedges provide a buffer from the wind and create a micro climate which makes it a favourite spot year-round for the family. Sarah wanted room to grow vegetables such as beans and tomatoes as well as Italian herbs. Ellie, left, and Lucy love the artificial lawn where they spend as much time as they can. The Burkes have recently added a trampoline to the space.

black & white victorian fireplace

The couple chose white walls to compliment the original matai floors and to provide a blank canvas for their extensive art collection; the original fire surrounds have been kept while contemporary Aloe Bud lights by Jeremy Cole work well alongside traditional elements; the character timber side tables are Trademe finds.

It’s on the lower level that most of the renovation action took place with Dean spending a year of weekends doing the demolition work himself. They are yet to work on the bedrooms and bathrooms.

“We lived with Dean’s parents for two years while the house was renovated which wasn’t easy with two small children, two cats and Dean away working on the house each weekend,” recalls Sarah. “We couldn’t have done it without family support.”

stylish living room in a victorian villa
modern sleek kitchen in a villa renovation
white marble benchtop in a villa renovation

ABOVE: Bifold doors to the garden frame the outdoor fireplace; Sarah loves colour so added pink and yellow cushions from local store Small Acorns to the BoConcept sofa; the side table is also from Small Acorns and the coffee table is from Apartmento. LEFT: Bover Slend lights by Christophe Mathieu from ECC hang over the kitchen bench and help to emphasise the high ceiling, while Jonathan Adler vases are displaued on the rangehood's stainless stell shelf; cat Milo looks for his diner. RIGHT: A generous skilight brings more light into the formerly dark space where the kitchen now sits; marble was chosen for the nemch to tie with the villa's classic look.

Dean’s design included turning the ground floor former sleeping quarters into living spaces, reworking the two bedrooms and compact sun[1]room into an open-plan space. That now houses the generous kitchen which features a 3.3m-long marble island. Having seen an Auckland kitchen where the rangehood extended out to shelving, Dean was keen to replicate the look and that’s now adorned with Jonathan Adler vases.

contemporary modern furniture green carpet polished wooden floors
paintings, antiques and beautiful house ornaments
rimu staircase restored in a villa renovation, carpet runner
leaf sculpture by Jeff Thompson

TOP LEFT: A tutor of Dean's at the University of Auckland Architecture was celebrated New Zealand artist Pat Hanly and one of his works has pride of place in the family room. TOP RIGHT: A console table from local store Cranfields sites in the hallway beneath a watercolour that depicts the house, painted by Wellington artist Dianne Taylor. ABOVE LEFT: The couple were keen to keep the original rimu staircase so have restored it. ABOVE RIGHT: Dean and Sarah took advantage of the extra ceiling height on the stair landing to showcase a corrugated leaf sculpture by Jeff Thompson; Dean reinstated the landing window to introduce light from the south.

Dean also turned dead space at the end of the kitchen into a bookshelf for Sarah’s many cookbooks, and designed the kitchen’s kickboards to double as pull-out drawers to store large items such as platters.

It helped that Dean had previously worked for an interior design company so had plenty of product knowledge and good contacts in the industry.

He also picked up several bargains on Trade Me, including many of the fireplace surrounds and the Victorian front door which came from an Auckland house. It’s now part of a rebuilt entrance which replaced a former lean-to version that was demolished.

black victorian outdoor fireplace, refurbished iron urns

During the renovation the couple uncovered several artefacts, such as a large square of old wallpaper discovered behind the oven. Sarah had it framed and it now hangs in the hallway. A box of items found under the house included a policeman’s truncheon from the 1913 wharf strike [how do they know?] which is now displayed at the end of the hallway, next to a professionally mounted Royal Engineers sword.

Pleached trees for privacy in a formal city garden

Ornamental pears are trained on a three tier frame inside the front fence, in a technique known as pleaching which involves twisting tree branches along the frame to keep them tall, narrow and flat; succulent rosettes and double layered hedging complete the tranquil picture.

Although the couple got the smaller garden they were seeking, it too was sorely in need of attention. Enter landscape designer Rachael Matthews from Hedge Garden Design & Nursery. Sarah had seen Rachael’s previous work and knew she could give them the formal green and white garden with different zones and layers that they were after.

“We had to remove an old walnut tree, as well as a rickety fence and rip up the concrete paths,” says Rachael, “but that allowed me to create zones for entertaining, for veges, flowers and to chill out.” It also let Rachael to layer hedges, white roses and hydrangeas, and espalier star jasmine and ornamental pears across two fences.


To disguise the neighbour’s yellow garage wall and provide a focal point for outdoor entertaining, the couple installed a fireplace and pizza oven. One of Dean’s lockdown projects was creating the impressive surround and mouldings for the fireplace that mirror those found inside. Ditto the fire grills [grates?] which he had a local craftsman copy from the interior grills.

They also commissioned the stainless steel grates that encircle the trees which are inscribed with their names – a tribute to the family’s hard work and a sure sign that they plan to stay and enjoy their stylish home.

Q & A with Sarah & Dean Burke


RENOVATION HIGH POINT: We love seeing people’s reactions when they walk through the front door for the first time. It’s wonderful to see their enthusiasm and enjoyment of our hard work.  (Dean)


ANY THING YOU’D DO DIFFERENTLY: I would have loved a bigger garage, but that’s central Wellington for you! (Dean ) If space permitted, a prep area/ scullery off the kitchen. (Sarah )


B E S T L E S S O N L E A R N E D : The art of a well-placed skylight can transform a space, making it more spacious and lighter. (Dean )


WHAT DO YOU LOVE ABOUT LIVING IN THORNDON: It’s convenient and central, but we still feel removed from the city. Katherine Mansfield Memorial Park is across the road, which feels like an extension to our house. I also love the street’s history as one of Wellington’s foundation streets. (Dean ) There are great walking tracks on our doorstep, Thorndon’s proximity to everything, and it has a lovely village feel. (Sarah )


BEST PL ACE FOR COFFEE NEAR HOME: Mojo for coffee on the go or La Cloche for a treat. (Dean ) Goods, which also has lovely pastries. (Sarah

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