Google was their friend when a ca­pa­ble cou­ple built their own home in Gibb­ston Val­ley.

A Cen­tral Otago cou­ple de­cided to buy land just seven weeks af­ter meet­ing... and now they adore the place they built to­gether


Shel­ley and Neil Chilton’s story reads like a ro­mance novel. They met seven years ago. Just seven weeks into their long dis­tance re­la­tion­ship (Neil was based in Ar­row­town, Shel­ley in In­ver­cargill) they de­cided to buy a prop­erty to­gether.

“Ev­ery­one was like ‘whoa, slow down,’ but we knew what we wanted. We were just wait­ing for them to catch up,” says Shel­ley.

They bought a 1.4ha slice of Cen­tral Otago’s Gibb­ston Val­ley, which had been sub­di­vided mostly into 8ha lots. Shel­ley and Neil bought one of the two smaller plots, their size lim­ited be­cause the his­toric stone fences sur­round­ing it were un­able to be di­vided.

An am­bi­tious new build fol­lowed, with Shel­ley and Neil de­ter­mined to do most of the work them­selves. At this point in a clas­sic ro­mance novel, con­flict would en­sue, but the Chilton’s by­passed that chap­ter.

“I have the ideas and he makes it work,” says Shel­ley. “So we’re the per­fect match.” >

“Shel­ley is in­stinc­tive, she never sleeps on a de­ci­sion,” says Neil. “There were never any dra­mas, there was never a day that was a drudge.”

Their plans in­cluded a main house with one bed­room, just for them, and a guest house for fam­ily, which they tack­led first – to test their build­ing skills be­fore they em­barked on their own home. They guest house has a coastal look, so they named it The Boathouse, even though there’s no sea or boat in sight.

When fam­ily and friends didn’t use it as much as an­tic­i­pated, the cou­ple put The Boathouse on Airbnb. It’s been so pop­u­lar that friends now have to get in early if they want to visit.

Shel­ley owns a fash­ion store and Neil’s a mu­si­cian, so they had the flex­i­bil­ity to put in long days on site. Shel­ley was happy to swap her dresses and heels for gum­boots and over­alls and pick up a paint roller. Neil got to grips with gib­bing, plas­ter­ing and con­cret­ing. Google was their not-so-se­cret weapon dur­ing the build, along with YouTube clips on how to gib and plas­ter.

“We’re the sort of peo­ple who like to do things on our own,” Shel­ley says.

Af­ter a long day on site, they didn’t col­lapse with ex­haus­tion in front of the TV. “We’d fin­ish the day, grab a bot­tle of wine and take it down to the house, put some mu­sic on, light some can­dles and just en­joy our achieve­ments,” says Shel­ley.

One of Neil’s most gru­elling jobs was re­fin­ish­ing 3000m of sal­vaged kauri af­ter the Christchurch earth­quake. He hand­sanded the lot to use as flooring for the en­tire house. >

A ro­mance story isn’t com­plete with­out a wed­ding, and so half­way through the build Neil and Shel­ley got mar­ried. “The house was just a shell, so the day af­ter the wed­ding we put a bar­be­cue in­side and ev­ery­one came for a party. It was so much fun,” says Shel­ley.

Al­though the house was fin­ished in 2014, there are more im­prove­ments planned. Plans to put in an out­door bath are in the works, as well as a pond for a new flock of Pek­ing ducks, af­ter their last brood was killed by a fer­ret.

Vis­i­tors to the house can’t be­lieve it’s new. That’s ex­actly the re­ac­tion Shel­ley hoped for. “I love a house with soul, and things that aren’t too pol­ished.” Light fit­tings came from France, Am­s­ter­dam and the In­ver­cargill tip shop. “It’s not all about get­ting the best and most ex­pen­sive, it’s about get­ting the look.”

Now that the build is over, Shel­ley and Neil are happy to in­dulge in a sleep-in. They par­tic­u­larly love their bed­room, which takes up the en­tire top floor. “We’re in our fifties, why not treat our­selves?” says Shel­ley. There’s noth­ing like ly­ing back on their pil­lows and look­ing at the moun­tains, and only rolling out of bed when they want to.

When they do, it’s straight to work. “We love to get out­side, there’s al­ways plenty to do around the prop­erty,” says Neil.

Sur­rounded by pad­docks, hills, vine­yards and vast skies, their lo­ca­tion looks as though it’s been plucked from the pages of a novel. And they know it: “We pinch our­selves ev­ery day, and most of the peo­ple who live around here feel the same. We all walk around with smiles on our faces.”

THIS PAGE (clock­wise from top left) Shel­ley loves to col­lect old French pots; the fire­place was a $40 find that they stripped back and painted, the gas fire it­self came sec­ond-hand from the Lyt­tel­ton po­lice sta­tion. Dud­ley and Airedale Freda sit in the door lead­ing to the en­trance; the in­door win­dow was sal­vaged af­ter the Christchurch earth­quake. Shel­ley and Neil’s elec­tri­cian breathed a sigh of relief when he was given the kitchen lights to hang and wire – they’re the only new light fit­tings in the house.OP­PO­SITE Shel­ley picked up the French win­dow shut­ters from Den of An­tiq­uity in Queen­stown and Neil cut them down to make them fit; the chan­de­lier was found on Trade Me – it’s from Am­s­ter­dam and the pre­vi­ous owner had it for 50 years.

THIS PAGE Shel­ley spied a bro­ken chan­de­lier on the floor in a closed­down store; she tracked down the owner who gave it to her along with three oth­ers; she then used all four bro­ken chan­de­liers to make one for their bed­room – it took the elec­tri­cian all day to wire and set it up. OP­PO­SITE (clock­wise from top left) Shel­ley and Neil Chilton in their bed­room, it’s 64sqm and, along with a walk-in wardrobe and en suite bath­room, takes up the en­tire top floor. The lights hang­ing in their bath­room were col­lected from the In­ver­cargill tip shop; they had the van­ity cus­tom made to fit the “old piece of mar­ble” and ce­ramic bowls Shel­ley found. The laun­dry is just off the kitchen and fea­tures more tip shop lights. The stair­well posts had been sit­ting in Shel­ley’s garage for 29 years; Shel­ley and Neil had to google how to build a stair­case: “We also had our builder friends who we would call up to ask ad­vice and bor­row their tools. If we were re­ally stuck they would come over and help us out.”

THIS PAGE One of the his­toric stone walls bor­ders the veg­etable gar­den; when the Chiltons first bought the land, they put a small kitchen in the green­house be­side the vege gar­den and parked a Kombi van out­side to use when they vis­ited. OP­PO­SITE (clock­wise from top left) A small ve­ran­dah lead­ing off Shel­ley and Neil’s bed­room sits above the en­trance to the house; they love to fling their bed­room doors open and look at the moun­tains. Shel­ley likes to let the gar­den “ram­ble and seed” on its own. They chose stone paths for a nat­u­ral look. The Boathouse can be glimpsed just be­hind the main house; the Chiltons built the large stone walls them­selves with rock from the prop­erty.

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