Written by John Williams
Photography by Jamie Cobel
With several thousand apartments under his belt, more than 600 in construction, and many more on the boards, he is Auckland's most prolific apartment designer. John Williams caught up with Colin at his stylish new penthouse on Ponsonby Rd to discuss downsizing and design.
As we sit on his deck looking out over the Auckland skyline, I ask Colin, out all his designs, which is his favourite? Quick as a flash, he says, “Well, they’re like women… there are blondes and brunettes. They’re all different.”
OK, let me re-phrase that. Which one stands out? “Princess Wharf. But it sticks out, rather stands out,” he quips. “It’s not an iconic high rise, but a wharf that sticks out a kilometre into the harbour.” “You know, it only took three months to get resource consent for that project. The chairman of the then ARC said he liked it, grabbed his chief town planner and said, put it through. It really took Auckland City Council by surprise,” he chuckles. Princes Wharf was possibly the first luxury waterfront apartment complex in the city and, looking at it now, against a backdrop of its contemporaries, it’s still a design that stands apart.
Looking back to the city again, Colin points to the distinctive sculpted roofline of the ASB building on North Wharf. “Isn’t that a joyous, decorative building? The sad thing is, its architecture is from an offshore designer," he bemoans. "We are very conservative and restrained with our bigger buildings in Auckland. We are very self conscious; we don’t want to offend our peers, our neighbours, our old school chums, or our Auntie Muriel,” he laughs.
“Apartments are now a viable alternative without losing social status.”
Bringing Colin back on topic, I asked him about the current trend of baby-booming empty nesters, like himself, flocking to sell their family piles in Remuera and opting for the bright lights of the city, as an apartment dweller. “There has been a huge sea change,” he admits. “Previously, my peer group regarded people who lived in apartments as impoverished, but that thinking has changed dramatically over the past few years."
And he speaks from experience, as he and his architect wife, Lindy, are one of those eastern-suburb migrants that have exchanged their comfortable family home for a penthouse in the wild west of Ponsonby. So how’s apartment living treating them? “We love it. It's fantastic,” he smiles. “We have a beach house where we spend our weekends, and during the week we’re here, right on Ponsonby Rd… and loving every minute of it.”
What’s the biggest difference about living in an apartment, I ask him?
“The lack of responsibility. You’re not responsible for lawns, for swimming pools, for hedges… I find living in an apartment quite an irresponsible act,” grins, Colin.
The only downside Colin can think of is that apartments don’t enjoy the same capital gain as owning a house and land. But saying that, it could all change because the developers are currently using all the best bits of land along Auckland’s ridge lines for their new apartments. Down the track, they will have to settle for less attractive sites, leaving the current crop of high-rises in the driving seat when it comes to resale.
This brings me to me next question. What advice would he give someone looking to become an apartment dweller?
“The smaller number of apartments in the development, the better,” he says. “That way you will have more say in what happens to you and your environment. Also, look at the quality of the building. Pick a good builder. Find out who designed it, and the overall intent of what the project was trying to achieve – whether it’s an investment block of flats, or a quality development intended for owner-occupiers.”
Going back to size, Colin said something interesting in passing... “A 90m2 apartment is bigger than a 90m2 house.” What does he mean by that? “Well, in apartments you rarely have hallways and staircases – there’s no lost space – you just flow from one room to the next. Every space is used.”
Is buying off the plan a good idea?
“It is if the market is heading in the right direction, but you need to do your research on the developer and the builder. If I were buying off the plan, I’d want the builder nominated in the contract.”
Lastly, looking back to the city from Colin’s vantage, high up on the Ponsonby ridge, I asked him what his thoughts were on the wall of apartments that dominate the city’s skyline from the west? “We were not involved in any of those buildings,” he says. “Back in those days, the council didn’t have any rules around what buildings looked like. What the council didn’t anticipate was how blunt developers could be, so we ended up with a lot of utilitarian buildings that now occupy the plum sites in the city, with all the best western views. And now we have them forever,” he adds.
And on that sober note we went and got a beer and watched the sun going down over the Waitakeres – the view from the other side of Colin’s deck.