Be­hind the scenes of a Grand De­signs heart­breaker – the mas­sive re­build of Brit­ten Sta­bles.

A home­owner turns her late fa­ther’s dream into both a home and a legacy


Three births, sev­eral wed­dings and two tragic losses help bind Is­abelle We­ston to the 120-year-old Christchurch build­ing that was her child­hood home. Is­abelle’s fa­mous fa­ther, renowned mo­tor­cy­cle and engi­neer­ing ge­nius John Brit­ten, spent six years in the 1970s ren­o­vat­ing and reimag­in­ing the dilapidated fac­tory as a house. Decades later, Is­abelle and her hus­band Tim We­ston be­gan the her­culean task of sav­ing the quake-rav­aged build­ing where she and both her sib­lings were born.

An un­cle, an aunt and her brother were mar­ried in­side its triple brick walls and Is­abelle was aged eight when her fa­ther died of can­cer, at home, along­side his fam­ily.

Lit­tle wonder nei­ther she nor her mother Kirsteen Brit­ten could bear to see the place torn down.

Kirsteen lived in the house un­til it was deemed un­in­hab­it­able and ir­repara­ble af­ter the Fe­bru­ary 2011 quake. Then it sat empty, a bro­ken shell on 1600sqm of cen­tral city land. Af­ter toy­ing with de­vel­op­ment, Kirsteen de­cided to seek a buyer who would save the house that had be­gun life as sta­bles for the neigh­bour­ing his­toric homestead Mona Vale. It was a dis­used fac­tory by the time John Brit­ten saw its po­ten­tial and set to work. >

“He was a visionary,” Is­abelle says, ex­plain­ing his method of hir­ing a trades­man for a day to show him how to tile or plumb or wire then spend­ing weeks com­plet­ing the job him­self.

“He just had a brain that knew how things could work. He had a very strong vi­sion and he was some­body that fin­ished things. Me? I’m vis­ual but wouldn’t say I was visionary at all. I’m just a sucker for hard work. If I de­cide to do some­thing, I try to stick to my word and do it.”

Is­abelle had a new baby and was run­ning her own prop­erty man­age­ment com­pany in 2015 when she and Tim de­cided they could per­haps buy and fix the prop­erty. Bet­ter them than strangers who might not re­spect the fam­ily legacy, she rea­soned.

The cou­ple spent al­most eight months thor­oughly in­ves­ti­gat­ing their op­tions. They com­mis­sioned re­ports from ar­chi­tects and struc­tural en­gi­neers, drew up a bud­get and added 20 per cent for con­tin­gen­cies. They could al­most af­ford to tackle it if they sold their home and Tim’s fi­nan­cial plan­ning busi­ness, in­vested their sav­ings, took on a fright­en­ingly large mort­gage, cre­ated ac­com­mo­da­tion op­tions and Is­abelle kept work­ing while Tim man­aged the project. Then they built a garage and one-bed­room stu­dio on site and moved in with two-year-old Ada­line. >

“We’ve put ev­ery­thing on the line. And if I’d known what it was ac­tu­ally go­ing to cost, we would never have done it,” says Is­abelle. “There was a stage, in the mid­dle of the project, where we thought we would have to stop, we weren’t go­ing to be able to do it.”

The cou­ple had al­ways planned to in­su­late and re­plumb, and add so­lar pan­els, four ex­tra en suite bath­rooms and ex­tra glass to ad­mit light. But, thanks to John Brit­ten’s pen­chant for us­ing re­cy­cled ma­te­ri­als, they also un­earthed sev­eral pock­ets of as­bestos that were costly and time-con­sum­ing to re­move. The leak­ing roof was in much worse con­di­tion than any of their paid ex­perts had pre­dicted. At one point, the front of the house started to fall over; as the roof was lifted off, the walls started to lean and fall. Vast amounts of struc­tural steel were needed.

Four months in, the con­tin­gency fund had van­ished. The roof, which four builders were sup­posed to fin­ish in a fort­night, wound up tak­ing 10 builders three months.

“We re­alised how much fur­ther over our heads we were.” >

The We­stons called the pro­duc­ers of tele­vi­sion pro­gramme Grand De­signs, rea­son­ing the me­dia ex­po­sure would help with their plans to run a bed and break­fast busi­ness.

How­ever, stresses con­tin­ued to mount. On top of their tele­vi­sion dead­line and fi­nan­cial pressure, jug­gling the needs of trades­peo­ple and a tod­dler, Is­abelle was preg­nant.

Then, this July, tragedy struck. Se­ri­ous com­pli­ca­tions meant Is­abelle and Tim lost their son Hugo, at 20 weeks.

“To leave the hospi­tal with­out our baby broke both our hearts,” says Is­abelle.

As they re­turned to their apart­ment on the dusty and scaf­fold­ing-cov­ered build­ing site – Tim forced him­self back to work the next morn­ing – friends and fam­ily swooped in to help fin­ish the project and of­fer sup­port. Even their plumber ar­rived with a meal his wife had cooked. >

In Au­gust, the We­stons moved into their new home and be­gan mak­ing much hap­pier mem­o­ries. That same month, they hosted a friend’s wed­ding. In Septem­ber, the in­door pool was crammed with in­flat­able toys to cel­e­brate Ada­line’s third birthday.

“And I feel like hope­fully we’ve saved some­thing that Christchurch would’ve lost. I feel like we’ve lost so much of our his­tory, so many beau­ti­ful build­ings were torn down. One day I imag­ine this place won’t be­long to us, it will be­long to the city.”

RIGHT (from top) The hand-blown hang­ing lights in one of the guest suites are from Brit­ten bike fan Ryan Roberts, who co-owns Sok­tas in Queens­land; he con­tacted Is­abelle and asked if he could send them as a gift: “Even the pack­ag­ing was beau­ti­ful,” Is­abelle says. Winck­el­mans French tiles have been used in the stu­dio bath­room, the space where the We­stons lived while ren­o­vat­ing the main house; each bath­room fea­tures tiles of a dif­fer­ent pat­tern and colour.

THIS PAGE (from top) John Brit­ten’s for­mer work­shop, where the first pro­to­type bikes were built, is now a large, multi-use liv­ing space that is cur­rently be­ing used as a bed­room. This end of the for­mer work­shop in­cludes an orig­i­nal stable door that Tim stripped and re­hung to act as a pri­vacy screen; the beaten brass cof­fee table is from Free­dom.OP­PO­SITE (clock­wise from top) The garage and stu­dio fea­ture re­cy­cled brick that Tim tracked down to en­sure they matched the main house; these ones came from an old flour mill. The stu­dio kitchen table and chairs came from Auck­land­based Me and My Trend. This guest room bath­room on the main floor was orig­i­nally a cloak­room and then a diesel boiler room; the We­stons re­placed the boiler with so­lar heat­ing.

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