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.