The Frontline of restoring villas

Words by  Bruce Gatward-Cook
Roger Richardson Roger Richardson

Restoring villas is a lot like restoring old cars — it’s not for the faint hearted as once you start you never know what you’re going to find!

“Every villa has its challenges — for a start nothing is level or straight like in a new build,” says Wade Smith, who has been restoring icon villas around Taranaki for more than 20 years.

His business, Frontline Builders, also does new builds, property renovations and commercial projects.

“The conversations we have with owners are important right from the start. That discussion and inspecting the property will let us know what sort of budget the owners are working to and allow us to gauge how far they want to go. Our restoration experience then enables us to provide our clients with an estimate for the project. It also establishes good lines of communication so we can have ongoing conversations about what is being discovered.”

With a love of the old native timbers and the craftmanship that went into Victorian buildings, Wade also appreciates that owners want to live in a home that is warm, dry and quiet — and has modern conveniences while still retaining the period look.

“Restoration projects often start with a single room or area in desperate need of repair,” says Wade. “Once we complete one room, it builds confidence with owners who then get inspired to renovate other parts of the house when they see what can be achieved.”

A two-storey Tikorangi villa where the restoration started with a rotten  bathroom floor, is a classic example. 

“We stripped out the rotten wood in the bathroom. While very little timber here could be saved, modern materials with a period look and new wood was put back in but in the same style as the original,” explains Wade. “We re-gibbed the walls and painted them in period colours, installed an extractor fan and a heater. The restoration made the bathroom dry, warm and modern but still with an old villa feel.”

Seeing the result of the bathroom transformation, the owners asked Frontline to restore the three bedrooms upstairs and turn another downstairs bathroom into a storage cupboard. In each room, Wade retained all the original skirtings and fittings that he could or replaced them with fittings in the same style.

While the new build projects Wade’s team of six are commissioned for have a defined period of time from start to finish, villa restorations are unique in that the owners are still living in the home and so work is completed on a room by room basis.

The historic Waitaha Villa near Rahotu is the longest restoration projects Wade has been involved with, taking nearly 7 years to complete! With his grandfather and father both builders, it was Wade’s father who originally started the renovation project.

Owned by Moyra Grey, nee Wright, whose family has run a dairy farm on the coastal property for four generations, the villa dates back to the early 1880s. It is reputed to be originally put together from two army barrack buildings that were shifted from New Plymouth to the site by bullock train.

Now an iconic villa, run as a Bed and Breakfast, it is well-known by all who drive the coastal road.

“My ancestors built this homestead on the coast in 1883, no doubt with the help of the other new settlers in the community,” says Moyra who grew up in the villa. “When my husband and I bought it, we wanted to restore it back to its original condition. We asked Frontline Builders to check it over first to see if it was worth restoring.  It took years as we could only renovate as money and time allowed.”

The villa was originally six bedrooms, but to run the home as a BnB meant one of Wade’s jobs was to convert one bedroom into a bathroom.  This bathroom was once a saddle room back in the day, then a bedroom and now a bathroom.

“Restoration is different from renovation in that with renovation there is often some level of demolition,” explains Wade. “When you are undertaking a restoration, you can’t just rip materials out because you are going to restore and use them again. They have to be carefully taken out, labelled as to where they came from, so they can be put back in. You simply have to know which bits go back into which room!”

Salvaging and restoring materials is one thing, and the other is to try to find fittings and materials that work with the period. As it gets harder and harder to find replacement fittings, in some cases, replicas from new materials will have to be made. To do this, Frontline will take a sample of a skirting or an architrave to a supplier such as Timberco who will make up mouldings out of new wood in the same style to match.

“On the Waitaha Villa project, we even re-purposed old Rimu timber from a barn on the property by cutting it down to size,” says Wade. “That’s when you really appreciate the work of the old-time builders who didn’t have power tools and had to cut everything by hand.”

Moyra, who would frequently go on salvage hunts for period furniture and light fittings around the country for her villa agrees.

“You can’t make perfection when it comes to renovations so at some stages you have to compromise,” she says. “However, the effort has been worth it. Wade is great to work with and our villa is now, warmer, drier, quieter. Our guests just love the results. We have had guests book in just so they can enjoy the old, claw foot bathtub!”  

Renovations also create an opportunity to overcome one of the least attractive things about old villas — they can be draughty and hard to heat, says Wade.

“Our clients want the old villa look and feel, but they also want to live in a modern, warm home. Stripping out walls and ceilings gives us the access to put in insulation and even ventilation systems. We often gib straight over the old sarking which also creates noise insulation between rooms.”

The discoveries that are made when fittings are removed for repair can be a treasure trove in their own right. Often decades old wallpaper, newspapers and even tools can be discovered!

With a team of two foremen, a builder and three apprentices to keep busy, renovating villas is just one of the building services Frontline Builders offers.

“I like to choose a variety of projects that will interest the team,” says Wade. “So we also work on new builds, renovations for any period of building, and commercial builds. Renovations are like restorations. Where many builders cringe at the thought of what challenges await behind the demo facade, we get excited!  There’s nothing that tests your skills more as a builder than working to ensure the existing structure of a home will be compatible with a new build.”

“Commercial projects bring a different set of challenges. Often there are tight timeframes as well as the need to manage multiple parties at once. We’ve undertaken various commercial projects and have proven experience, flexibility and expertise to manage all the moving parts of such a project.”

“And of course, there’s nothing more exciting than the gloss and shine of a new home. So as well as turning our client’s dreams into a wonderful living reality, the Frontline Builders team aim to guide and support clients through what can be an emotional roller-coaster ride when clients embark on a new build journey.”

Adding peace of mind for clients during a building project is a Builtin 10 Year Building Warranty Frontline offers. This means that during the building period, the warranty cover includes refunding a lost deposit or paying additional costs to complete the home. After completion, the cover also includes fixing defects found after the first 2 years after completion and fixing major defects in the following three to 10 years.

“The Frontline team prides itself on applying integrity, honesty, family values and pride across every aspect of our business,” says Wade. “I take a hands on project management approach for each client and like to get onsite every couple of days for each project because my passion and desire is to ensure people’s dreams, no matter how big or challenging, are fulfilled. At the end of the day, that means the buck stops with me.”

(06) 752 2523

021 38 38 21

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