30 May 2020

Architect Judi Keith-Brown: the future of NZ homes

From Saturday Morning, 9:40 am on 30 May 2020

Staying home during lockdown has made New Zealanders intimately aware of the strengths and flaws of our houses.

Newly-appointed President of the New Zealand Institute of Architects,.Wellington architect Judi Keith-Brown has been busy over past months checking up on clients to assess whether their home space has been adjusted to meet their changing needs.

A locked up construction site in a suburb in South Auckland of day 1 of the lockdown.

Photo: RNZ / Claire Eastham-Farrelly

She takes over as NZIA president at an interesting time for the profession. Her mainly-residential practice is having to get to grips with the changing design demands posed by more clients working from home.

She tells Kim Hill that during the lockdown people when people were obliged to stay home, that the use of space has been the centre of renewed attention for home-owners. It was also true of her own situation, with her husband working from home too.

Keith-Brown thought it a good idea to check in with clients to see if their needs had changed since lockdown and whether home space had been flexible enough to be adjusted to the new situation. She said some had set up work spaces in unqiue places.

“I do make it that there are spaces in the house that can be used for lots of different things and in particular just thinking about probably having two type of living spaces. Not necessarily huge livings spaces, but two spaces that different parts of that the family, couple or whoever is living in the house can be in, so that not everyone is crowded into the same living space.

“I’m surprised about where some people have set up working space in their houses. A client… sent me photos of one of her daughters and she’s kind of hidden herself in this desk that they have in their living room that’s got this roll-down door that you have on a pantry sometimes and her little daughter perched herself on this desk and shut the door and was hidden inside in this tiny little space."

Being placed strategically in the house is also important for people, both for aesthetic reasons and to remain connected with the outside as much as possible.

“What I found with adults anyway was adults wanted to be near a window and a lot of people wanted to be near a street, so they could see any action happening in the street.”

“It was a real buzz hearing from people, how much they enjoyed being in their home and how much they realised the work I’d done architecturally had made a difference to their house.

“I was really encouraging when times could seem so grim to get such upbeat feedback from clients.”

Open spaces are fine, she says, but functionality and the feeling of being warm and cosy was central to her conception of what a house should be.

Judi Keith-Brown

Judi Keith-Brown Photo: supplied / Catherine Cattanach

“You can have open space and it can look kind of dull, a great big space an art gallery space, a sort of show-home kitchen at one end and hanging fireplaces at the other end…The work that I do, and my fellow architects do, is actually adapting existing houses," she says.

“So, the house that we live in now is like an old working man’s cottage. It started off as… four rooms that were pretty much the same size. Two of those rooms were knocked together to make an open-plan living room and kitchen, but it’s got these two wings off the side of it, which are like cosy spaces.

“So, while it is open plan, the shape of it and the way that the windows are positioned in it and the way that we’ve organised the furniture makes it feel really cosy. The colours that we chose for it – it’s got a lot of warm timber floors and joinery in the kitchen, I always try to design spaces that, when you’re coming home walking against a southerly storm in the rain and you’re drenched and you walk into your house, it looks warm and it looks cosy, that’s what I aim for. It looks warm, and comfortable and sunny. It’s important to me that houses are easy to live in.”

Her childhood home had influenced her appreciation of well-planned dwellings. When her father was given a scholarship to study at Harvard University, the family moved in the United States and into an apartment designed for married students.

“All of the students in there were married and most had children... The whole space was really simple and really light, with big glass windows so you had an amazing view… When we went home to New Zealand mum and dad painted all the rooms of the house white, they took down of the curtains so we could see out and had a view… so we had this little bit of modernism in Johnsonville.”

Other trips to the US exposed her to more modernist architecture, which was again inspirational and helped push her towards a career in architecture at university.

She says she doesn’t leave ‘mark’ on her own work, which is neither modernist or postmodernist.

“Each of my projects is more about the clients than it is about me. And that’s really important to me that, at the end of the project, those clients own the project.

“I love going back to old projects and seeing if they’re working. There’s something satisfying about that. There are probably some things in the project that are about me, but they don’t belong to me, they belong to the client.”