How did she do that? Jessica Britten on turning a historic hall into a home

10 April 2018
By Fashion Quarterly


Jessica Britten and fiancé Warren Durling purchased an old railway lodge in Ponsonby in early 2016 with the view to converting it into their home.

And they’ve been on an adventure ever since, renovating the historic hall to their specifications while still taking care to preserve the building’s heritage. Documenting the progress on Instagram, Jessica and Warren are slowly but surely adding charm, character and love back into the space.

We caught up with Jessica to ask her some questions about the renovation and her decor tips and tricks:

Can you tell us the story and steps that led to the purchase of the old railway lodge building in Ponsonby?
Warren and I had been searching off and on for the right property for around two years when we found the hall by chance. We looked at all different types of properties far and wide, when we eventually decided proximity to the city was a priority to us, so we narrowed our search down to smaller one to two bedroom places as close to the city as we could afford. We would search online daily for new listings and one day the hall popped up in the search (because despite its size it only technically had one ‘bedroom’!) At the time, we were renting a teeny granny flat down the road so we thought – along with half the neighbourhood – we would poke our noses in at the open home, more out of curiosity than anything!

Auckland, I adore you 💛 life is sunny @hallweneed

A post shared by HALL WE NEED (@hallweneed) on

Why purchase a heritage hall and turn it into a home? What was the attraction behind this alternative home buying route and what inspired you to do this?
Right from our first conversation about buying our first home together we were always looking for something that others might not be instantly attracted to – we figured that was our best hope at finding a good buy in such a crazy property market. The attraction to unique architecture has always been there for me, perhaps because I grew up in a heritage building in Christchurch which my dad converted into a home. The dream was always to have a home of my own one day that had lots of character and personality, but you really can’t plan these things… Buildings of this nature only come onto the market once in a blue moon and when they do, you have to be in a place in life where you have the energy and finances to take on the project. We’ve got the energy bit sorted!

Have you come up against any major issues renovating an old building and turning it into a home? Is it an adventure you would recommend to others?
After seeing how incredible the hall was in person we knew we would be crazy not to put a long-shot offer in, so we launched into due diligence like it was a part-time job. We had no experience with the heritage aspect so spoke to everyone from council officials, specialist architects, engineers, builders, electricians, plumbers and the lovely folks at Heritage NZ. By the time the time we finished researching, we felt confident we understood the potential risks and rewards involved. Surprisingly, we haven’t had any unpleasant surprises in the two years since we moved in! It has been a really special adventure so far and I would recommend it in a heartbeat to anyone considering taking on a unique project. My advice would be to make sure you know what you’re getting into, spend the time researching and do all of your financial planning based on worst case scenarios.

What would you consider to be your biggest success in the development of the hall?
We have celebrated lots of little milestones along the way – a few highlights have been putting in a kitchen after ten months without one! And when we partnered with Dulux and painted both the inside and outside of the building, it felt like a big moment, like a fresh start in the life of the hall. But by far our biggest accomplishment has been working with our amazing architects [Dorrington Atcheson Architects] on concepts for the long-term vision of the hall. It is so motivating and exciting thinking about how we want the hall to look and feel in five, ten, 15 years. We now have beautiful plans which we can now roll out in stages as we can afford to do the work. Having a long-term vision and goals on paper feels like huge success.

What is your favourite area, aspect or characteristic of the space?
I adore the contrast of the outside of the hall which is very bold, strong and imposing next to the neighbouring gorgeous little villas. The hall has its own unique charm and sticks out like a sore thumb with the classic ‘Railway Lodge’ sign writing on the side. And then when you walk inside, the scale of the space is really striking and unexpected. The ceilings are mezzanine height and the beautiful timber floors seem to go on forever. When we first got the keys I danced around the empty space literally bursting with inspiration and excitement that this was our home. Such a pinch-me moment.

You both have juggled your day-to-day lives on top of the renovation… Has it been tricky essentially having this extra role and what has been your coping mechanism?
Absolutely! I get asked all the time if we work on the hall full time… I wish! Warren and I need to both be working to fund the project, and while it is a juggle it doesn’t feel like a chore. Perhaps in part because we enjoy the challenge and get to do it together. It’s fun having a seemingly never-ending project to work on with your bestie.

A post shared by HALL WE NEED (@hallweneed) on

Renovating the hall has been a process that has included a lot of DIY – have you also had any help from family members and experts? If so, who and how?
We’ve been blessed with lots of help from family and friends, especially when we first moved in it was a beehive of activity with people cleaning, sanding, painting and fixing. We enjoy rolling up our sleeves to tackle jobs that don’t require extensive skilled labour. Since we both work it has been important for us to recognise when it will be faster and more cost effective to call in the professionals rather than attempting to do something ourselves, especially when you want a high-quality finish – not a finish that reflects two novices attempting a DIY job!

Has it been satisfying bringing life to, preserving the history and putting love into such a historic building? Can you talk us through the process?
Immensely so. We are so proud of what we’re trying to achieve at the hall. So often heritage buildings fall into a state of disrepair because they are too difficult or costly to preserve. We feel really lucky that we have the opportunity to take on the hall and contribute to its story, but obviously you can’t please everyone. We are converting it into a home, so it is a delicate balance making it warm, dry and inhabitable for modern day life while also ensuring that any original features of the building are considered and preserved.

Do you have any tips and tricks you would recommend when decorating on a tight budget?
Shop around, mix old with new and try to buy quality wherever possible. I know this is challenging on a budget, but you will get more value out of buying a quality second-hand piece from an op shop or TradeMe, than a crappy new piece that will break within a year and need replacing. Plus, it’s much better for the environment.

If you could describe your home’s aesthetic, how would you sum it up? Do you have a style of décor you gravitate towards?
Our home is such an evolution. I would currently describe our style as eclectic minimalist. I dislike clutter but love character. My nightmare is a bland space that looks like an Ikea showhome! I have tried to create a unique, pared back space that focuses on quality over quantity and feels like a welcoming home to everyone who visits. Striking that balance brings the magic.

You’ve been documenting your journey with the hall on Instagram – how has it been sharing the development and stages of renovation with the public? Has help, advice and opportunities opened up for you in the process?
Sharing the journey has been great so far! It’s an awesome way to document the little moments along the way and connect with others doing similar things. We really enjoy looking back on our progress, especially since we’re living in a perpetual state of renovation – it’s a nice reminder of how far we’ve come and motivation to keep working hard. It has also connected us to lots of absolute legends who have been supportive with advice and encouragement.

From Instagram, we’ve noticed that you’ve enjoyed buying second-hand furniture and pieces with history to add to the building. What has been your favourite find to date?
I love finding a bargain! I also love well thought out spaces with loads of refined character, but if your decorating budget is limited (ahem…mortgage) then second hand it is. A few of my favourite finds are our Marcel Breuer ‘Cesca’ style chairs and our giant BoConcept linen couch that I nabbed off TradeMe for $2,000, originally around $16,000.

What is the first thing you’ll do as a couple as soon as the restoration is complete?
Have a wine in the hot tub on our roof terrace overlooking the city! If this ever happens it will be ten to 15 years away, but dreams are free right?

Follow Jessica and Warren’s progress with the railway lodge at @hallweneed.

Interview: Ella Francis.
Photos: Instagram.

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