Tailored to fit

Behind a small Victorian worker’s cottage in Parnell, on a seemingly un-subdivisible piece of land, this contemporary townhouse uses courtyards and simple forms to maximise amenity and connect with neighbours. Text Andrea Stevens. Photos Simon Devitt.

Richard Naish suburban house gable roofs make historic link to surrounding Victorian houses

Richard Naish suburban house simple yet effective front entrance

Richard Naish suburban house neighbour is renovated Victorian worker's cottage

Auckland’s Parnell is a fascinating and successful medium-density, mixed-use suburb. By the retail strip of Parnell Road and the industrial warehouses (now filled with design businesses) of the Saint Georges Bay Road gulley, it has an intricate and colourful centre made up of buildings from many eras.

Parnell provides a useful case study for the new compact Auckland, in exemplifying how we might live in a higher-density ‘village’ atmosphere, and how diverse architectural styles can blend into a complex and interesting whole. Local residents can be close to work, restaurant and retail precincts, with less reliance on cars and easier access to public transport. With more destinations within walking distance, community life – with all its inherent social benefits – is easier to find. Access to public green space offsets the smaller yards, so the model can work as well for people as it can for the planet.

The two-storey townhouse that is the subject of this article is an example of infill housing in a heritage neighbourhood on an unbelievably small site. Built behind a 100- year-old cottage, it cleverly uses its 313 square metres site with an efficient L-shaped plan, and with sensitivity to the existing form and scale of the street. The architecture reworks elements from surrounding Victorian and Arts and Crafts era houses – gabled roofs, small windows, chimneys, courtyards – but does so in a fresh way, both contrasting and blending in with the environs.

Richard Naish suburban house view through dining room to kitchen

One of the great successes of the scheme lies in its use of courtyards to marry the house to its site and create as much useable outdoor space as possible. From the entry court to the living court and the service yard – with its vegetable garden and shed – these outdoor spaces are finished and detailed to maximise their amenity value.

Every surface is brought into play to ensure these spaces are attractive and useable: existing red brick walls feature climbing vines; concrete planters and walls structure the yards; mature trees create screening; a bubbling water trough cools the space and masks street noise; Hoggin limestone gravel is used for texture and easy maintenance.

While the dark house cladding and elegant entry court make the house feel urban and formal, this is tempered by the rustic, almost farmhouse-style finishes and details. The overall effect is a meeting of the new Parnell with the old Parnell – the blending of two worlds.

This scheme makes a strong case for better courtyard design as one of the key devices to making higher-density developments more desirable and thus more successful.

Strong forms and materials

Richard Naish suburban house brass splashback projects warmth and light from outdoor terrace opposite

Richard Naish suburban house view from front door with timber shuttered texture black concrete wall

The house itself is composed of simplified traditional forms. Two double-storey gabled buildings are aligned to make an L-shaped plan making up 205 square metres in total area, 35 of which is a garage. The front (south-facing) elevation has just two windows, with a hidden garage door and an understated front entry. There is a subtle reference to horse stables in its outline, and an unmistakable industrial flavour reflecting the mix of building types in Parnell.

Interior planning is simple and efficient: the ground floor of the larger of the two wings contains the kitchen, dining and living areas, organised along a cast-in- situ black concrete wall, which shields the front entry and a downstairs bathroom. The five-metre- wide kitchen faces east and looks over the vegetable garden; the long dining room is paired with an exterior dining space in the northern courtyard; and the ground-floor living room is set around a fireplace on the western side.

Upstairs are two bedrooms, two bathrooms and a second living room or home office. Windows upstairs are small and deep-set, giving a real sense of privacy despite being next to a large apartment building. A balcony off the main bedroom catches the western sun, and with its outlook over neighbouring brick row houses, it feels part of the vibrant milieu of styles of this city-fringe suburb.

Living on smaller sites and in closer proximity to other houses requires more attention to acoustics, privacy and screening. But with careful design, a site’s features can be used to advantage. This townhouse is a wonderful example of design that celebrates its context and handles density through sensitive planning, massing and detailing.

Courtyard design

As we build smaller houses on smaller parcels of land, outdoor courtyards will become increasingly important spaces. This courtyard has been furnished as carefully as have the rooms within the house.Richard Naish suburban house courtyard provides light and outlook from interior

Richard Naise suburban house courtyard

Richard Naish suburban house Hoggin limestone is an alternative to pebbles

An cast-in- situ concrete pond uses brass to connect with the interior and to reinforce the red tones of the existing brick walls. Hoggin is used as an addition to a timber deck for good ground permeability and texture, and a precast concrete fireplace echoes the fireplaces of the Victorian-era buildings.

Legend of materials:
1. Existing brick perimeter wall.
2. A climber is trained along stainless-steel guide wires.
3. Cast-in- situ concrete pond, with brass finish.
4. Precast concrete fireplace.
5. Timber deck species: Vitex.

Richard Naish suburban house an alternative to pebbles

As an alternative to pebbles, Hoggin limestone is a decorative white chip, forming a compactable surface that has the advantage of keeping weeds down and being permeable to rain. Because it is finer than pebbles, it can be tracked inside, so the surface outside the dining room is a timber deck.

Legend of materials:
1. Stained cedar house cladding. Supplier: Herman Pacific.
2. Hoggin limestone.
3. Cast-in- situ concrete planter.
4. Herb garden.
5. Timber deck species: Vitex.

Design notes

Project innovations
Careful courtyard design maximises the usability of a small site.
Efficient and sensitive site planning help fit a medium-sized house on a tight site.
Design aesthetic and building form link with Parnell’s heritage character while also portraying a very contemporary personality.

Architect profiles

House design: RTA Studio

Richard Naish is a Registered Architect and the executive director of RTA Studio in Auckland. The practice works on public, commercial and urban design projects as well as sensitive residential projects. It has a strong focus on sustainable built environments and developing carbon-neutral buildings.

RTA Studio

Construction detailing and finishes: Bureaux

Bureaux is an award-winning architecture and interior design studio with a reputation for crafted, authentic and character-filled buildings, interiors, exhibitions and furniture. Founded in 2010 by Registered Architects Jessica Barter and Maggie Carroll, Bureaux has produced a diverse body of work that ranges across housing, cultural, retail and hospitality projects.


Landscape designer

Pascal Tibbits


Lyle Hamblyn and Colin Peacock

Project areas

Floor area: 205 square metres
Site area: 313 square metres


Driveway: Herringbone pavers
Roofing: Coloursteel corrugate profile
Cladding: Stained cedar rusticated weatherboards
Windows and doors: APL aluminium joinery
Plasterboard: Ambitec suave plaster finish
Flooring: Engineered teak flooring
Kitchen: GRC benchtop, marble (SCE) benchtop, stained American Oak fronts – by Bremich
Cabinet Makers
Bathrooms: Tiles from Artedomus, custom Bureaux vanities by Bremich Cabinet Makers