THE HOUSE THAT BRITTEN BUILT
WORDS Joshua Brosnahan PHOTOS Sarah Rowlands, Jamie Armstrong
For a couple who have taken on one of this city’s most ambitious renovations, Isabelle and Tim Weston are a notably relaxed and inviting couple.
Isabelle, daughter of the famed mechanical engineer John Britten, and husband Tim currently live on site with their three-year-old daughter Adaline.
This current iteration of the Britten Stables is presented in a grand fashion without being regal or fussy. The mixture of repurposed fixtures and simple, modern simplicity still captures the ideology Isabelle’s father, John Britten, lived by.
Elements of the original renovations are surprisingly current. The family lounge space gestures to Morocco for inspiration. The built-in sofa hugging the fire stands the test of design, as it nears 30 years of age. Each room has a life, a personality. You’re connected with the structure but also able to see the individuality crafted into each space. New additions include angular modernism, with world class bathrooms, and flawless finishes. Pops of Resene colour further add to the various moods the house emits.
The house is full of life with a creative singularity not seen elsewhere in Canterbury. Each room stands alone with an identity and character all of its own. You can picture the Britten children growing up here, the guests hosted and parties held.
One such party stayed three years. Ten builders, four bricklayers, three plumbers and electricians on site meant the house was a flurry of activity. Even now at the business end of the renovations, the house is still a quiet hum of activity with workers and tradespeople. “Originally Dad bought the house in 1978 from a friend of a friend, who purchased it for another reason. It was a derelict factory at that point, and he spent six years converting it into a home,” says Isabelle.
Isabelle’s parents met towards the end of this original project. She says her parents were “natural, hippy types”. Both Isabelle and her brother Sam were born in the house.
Not everyone was convinced that the project was a solid investment of time and money.
There was a pushback on being located so close to the train. “It just wasn’t deemed a viable option for housing back then” Isabelle says. Current day infrastructure sees the train tracks running right through Fendalton.
A family wedding in October 2011 saw minor quake repairs completed in the nick of time.
The following February quake meant there was extensive damage and the structure was deemed too difficult to repair. After multiple assessments the house was destined to be demolished and the site was earmarked for development. But when the metaphorical push came to shove, the decision was made to work on the building to save it.
This extensive process brought out people who were familiar with the house.
“A lot of contractors we’ve encountered have mentioned they worked on the original build with Dad, so that was really nice. We worked with the original person who painted the Britten bikes, to paint our front doors.”
This also provided an opportunity for the Westons to work alongside Oakleys Plumbing Supplies for their various bathrooms – each with a different makeup, and each with absolutely stunning individual imprints.
The bespoke light fittings, door handles and other hand crafted accessories were brought in for the initial planning and consultation. This was a key part of the creative process, to ensure complementary modern fittings were chosen. All elements of the house, new and old, needed to work together in unison.
Buddy tapware in brushed brass worked in with the original robe hooks and the swan taps, all hand crafted by John himself.
Oakleys worked with a supplier on custom made basins for each of the bathrooms that ensured a perfect fit for every room. This really brought the original spaces up to a modern standard. A mix of tiles and colour complement each of the spaces for a peerless result.
Lisa Lemon from Oakleys Plumbing says that Isabelle and Tim were ‘the loveliest people to work with’ even among all the other factors at the house such as filming, and the heavy workload for all involved.
“It was just a privilege to work with Isabelle and Tim on such an iconic project.”
Tim mentions they weren’t looking to replicate what Britten had originally done.
“We were looking to preserve it and to add on our own taste and bring it into a modern age. Not just in terms of how it looks, but how it functions. Adding solar, good wifi, LED lighting. The aim was to future proof.
“There was a line we had to figure out, and tread gently. Especially in terms of what we chose to really fight for and what we chose to let go of. We would have loved to have kept a Marseille tile roof but the practicality of the roof we’ve put on allows us to include solar panels. It ends up in keeping with the original stables.”
“I don’t think the house would have looked as it does now if it was still Dad’s house,” saysIsabelle. “He had more ideas, and the space was forever changing, improving. In a way that’s how he worked with the bikes. There’s not 10 of the same Britten bike out there – it was an evolution.”
While Isabelle and family have stayed in Christchurch, as well as mum Kirsteen, two of the Britten siblings have migrated north. Sister Jess has taken on an equally ambitious project to renovate a masonic lodge in Auckland, and brother Sam has recently bought a historic bungalow.
Friends and family love the new space, and the couple have had an overwhelmingly positive response. The newest venture of a Bed and Breakfast on site means the space will be enjoyed by more, and there’s future plans for the occasional charity tour.
Isabelle adds, “the process now is to work through the aftermath. We didn’t want to pass on anything until we knew for certain it wasn’t to be used – things like beautiful woodwork and heritage pieces. We’ve kept some of the glass Marseille tiles, so we can take them to a recycler for somebody else. It’s a nod to Dad. That’s how he did everything. Everything in the house was recycled from somewhere, so it’s nice to put it back out into the world.
“He had that unique ability because he sat between engineer and artist. He could craft so much with his hands. It’s a big honour to undertake this challenge. There’re so many people who know about the bike.
“This house is equally, if not more of a feat than the Britten motorcycle, and I think it’s nice for this to be shared. He completed this whole other chapter, and it’s a piece of Christchurch’s history.”
The vision for Britten Stables is to see it eventually turn into a heritage building, such as Mona Vale or Riccarton House.
“It’s too lovely not to share with the world.”