Herriot Melhuish O’Neill Architects - Wellington, Christchurch, Auckland, Tauranga

When Duval met Don. Rebuilding after the earthquake


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Following a move from Wellington to Christchurch, HMOA director Duval O’Neill and his wife Bridget fell in love with a little house on a hill designed in the 1950s by local architect, Don Cowey. Who could have foreseen the tragic events that were to come, but the little house has evolved to pay tribute to its original architect, and represent a new era for the city. We spoke to Duval about designing his new home following the 2011 Christchurch earthquake.

Duval, you were delighted to discover your modernist house was designed by Don Cowey, what else drew you to it?

Despite the obvious deterioration, and a series of alterations that the house had been subjected to, there was something about this house and the site that just felt right. Having moved from living on the hills in Wellington, we also liked the elevation and views. Discovering the house had been designed by Don was a bonus, and led us to becoming friends with him and his wife Jocelyn.

What happened during the Christchurch earthquake?

The house faired reasonably well in the February earthquake, a true testament to Don, however it was deemed uneconomic to repair.

Sadly, the earthquake was to claim Don's life.  When the earthquake struck, Don was in the back garden of his recently completed Redcliffs home, picking raspberries for his beloved wife Jocelyn.

Tell us more about the house…

Don had designed the original house around 1953 when he was only 25. He and a friend also built it, as you did back then. Don was proud of his design and explained to us the way he wanted to unveil the views as you walked through the house. He positioned it to preserve those views. He also created a private rear garden that was accessed by a small stone bridge that his father built.

As the years passed, both house and garden evolved to suit the changing needs of the various occupants.

What was your design process like?

I don’t know how many alteration concepts we created, dating back to when we first bought the house in 2005. Some were dream-schemes and there was always the ongoing struggle as an architect to formulate a final solution. The earthquakes added a further dimension to this, and of course another level of constraint was working with the insurer.

Once we had the decision to rebuild, the design strategy was largely an initiative in maintaining the essence of the original Don Cowey design, while taking the opportunity to adapt it to more modern living, whatever that has come to mean. We didn’t want a big house, despite having a pretty constant flow of family visiting us. Excluding the enclosure of the carport as a garage, we added just 36 metres over two levels.

Is it more challenging designing your own home?

Absolutely. When working with clients, developing design solutions within strict deadlines is assured. This is not necessarily the case for your own home. It's really challenging but also a very valuable experience to be both architect and client.

It must have been a pretty stressful time…

Not an easy time but many people were going through the same process or were worse off. At least with the decision to re-build, we were on our way. Some of our clients weren’t quite at that stage, which was always a good reminder of just how lucky we were.

Bridget was the calming influence for me, she focused on the positive and the opportunities, especially with the interiors where she was able to express herself and make this our home.

So how are you finding your new home?

Living in a new house feels like coming home to a hotel every night, it's worlds apart in terms of technology and comfort. However, I still feel like we are embraced by the spirit of Don's original house.

In many ways this project was an alteration, the restriction being the original house, the opportunity being the unique solutions that arose from working within those restraints. I think Don would have approved, he was after all a modernist architect, a very generous man, he would have embraced it.

Read more about Bridget and Duval's new home here and see it on the Christchurch Modern site.

1950s colour north west elevation
The Mt Pleasant House Don Cowey designed for his parents
Don Cowey
Don Cowey
North-west elevation, 1950s
North-west elevation, 1950s
East elevation
East elevation
north west pre demo
The house just before demolition
O'Neill house, 2018
O'Neill house, 2018. Photos: Russell Kleyn
O'Neill house, 2018
O'Neill house, 2018. Photos: Russell Kleyn
Bridget and Duval's new kitchen
Bridget and Duval's new kitchen