[ Interview by Shawn Gough ]
[ Photographs by Sheryl Watson ]
It is a house and a business, yet it is more than those. Kingwoods Skis in Lyttelton is home to Kris and Alex Herbert and their son, Obi. To create it, they had to battle. I went in search of a story about skis but instead came away with an understanding on how people need to treat work and life.
It is a cold morning in Christchurch and, being the dutiful reporter that I am, I have used Google Maps to find the address of Kingwoods Skis. But, as Sheryl, one of the photographers for The Fuller, and I search for the entrance to the old Lyttelton Rugby clubrooms, I become aware of an error: it is not where it is supposed to be.
This is where I am first introduced to the warmth and kindness of one half of the couple that we were about to meet; all correspondence for this interview had gone through her. I call Kris and tell her our predicament; she can’t believe that the internet is still giving the wrong directions and kindly informs me of their location.
Once parked, we arrive on foot at 14 Norwich Terrace and are welcomed with a massive red 14 on the wall of what looks like the back end to any factory around town. To say it is unassuming is to sugar-coat it a little. Big doors greet us as we round the end of the driveway and, after a buzz on the door, we meet Alex. He is casually dressed for the temperature – tee-shirt and jeans – and I wonder if he is unaware of the weather conditions outside. Once we are through the entrance, a Tardis-like enclosure reveals itself and the reason for Alex’s casual dress becomes apparent. Looking around, taking in the factory and its layout, there was no indication of the space that hid behind those copper-coloured doors. But wow!
Walking into the cavernous space affects you. Firstly, it was frosty outside and the cold bit at you but, as soon as you go beyond the entrance of Kingwoods Skis, that chill is removed. The temperature is pleasant, comfortable, welcoming even. On my right is part of a stone-covered wall – it is cut into the side of the hill that Lyttelton’s main street backs onto. Interspersed between these sheets of gravelled walls are concrete and steel pillars that stand to attention and hold everything secure. The architecture is something that strikes you first and the layout of the factory floor, if you can even assign that label to it, and the upper mezzanine, reveals the relaxed nature of the business and Alex and Kris.
As soon as we enter, Alex starts to reveal his sense of pride in the structure and its construction. The story of how this business/home stands before and above me flows naturally, especially as Kris joins us from upstairs. They form a natural tag team explaining how their desire for a workable and liveable space evolved but, as I would find out, you have to be willing to fight for what you saw as right, not just for your family and business, but also for the redevelopment of Lyttelton.
The interview becomes less of an interview and more like passionate story-telling as they recount the journey of their creation of Kingswood Skis and their home. To be proud residents of Lyttelton, Alex and Kris had to make a decision. Unlike many Cantabrians who questioned staying in Christchurch after the 2011 quakes and, after weighing up their options, they decided to make a stand. This would involve taking on the powers that took control of the city after the destruction caused by the events in 2011.
So why did they choose Lyttelton? Well, in their early life as a couple they travelled around a lot but didn’t want to live in Australia or America. Alex loved the buildings in Christchurch so chose this place and here they are still.
“When we were first looking for a home, we were in a Vauxhall and drove around the hills and saw this Alaskan-like fishing village with quaint buildings and we just knew.”
And Lyttelton has been their home since 1997.
Their house and business are the former Lyttelton Rugby Clubrooms. Kris tells me that the building/premises went to public tender because the club could not afford the renovations bill. Kris, a former journalist, did her research and knew the importance of the place to the township. They were worried “about how their use would affect the community.” During its life span, the premises had been used for many purposes, including a roller-skating venue. They won the tender and Kingswood Skis is a proud 10-year sponsor of the rugby club.
Kingswood Skis as a brand hit the market in 2005 and the lower floor of the house/clubrooms became the home of the now world renowned brand. In 2009, conversion of the upper level took place; this meant taking the 70s looking bar and renovating it into their living space. Everything was going well. They thought “We can’t believe we live here.” They lived in it for a year. The rest is quake history.
Many were left with a decision to make after September 2010 and, as Alex states, “The quakes provided opportunity for redevelopment, new designs, new developments, but red-tape and restrictions stopped a lot of creativity and meant Christchurch lost some great minds and businesses.”
After February’s quake, the decision to stay and rebuild got tougher for many and Kris and Alex’s business and home was red-stickered. This is where the battle began.
They won the battle and the rights to demolish their own property on their own terms. Again, this benefitted them because they were able to save money.
The insurance company wrote a cheque and said ‘see you later’ and, as Kris states, “The insurance company would have spent a third of the money on demolition, whereas we spent a tenth.”
While the battle raged, Alex took the factory to Bromley and continued the business. It was less than ideal. It was colder and it affected the bamboo used in the construction process. For Alex, this was frustrating because the building of Kingswood Skis is a process. He always wants to make quality skis.
When they won the battle, it was a massive wow moment. “Taking on something like this is challenging yourself and your capabilities,” Kris says. From this small victory, “Other projects have come about because of the success of this endeavour.”
Given the green light given, they knew exactly what they wanted to do, even though they had design limitations because of space. There were other issues to consider as design guidelines for building and renovating in Lyttelton added further restrictions, that is, buildings had to reference Victorian-style buildings. Kris informs me that, even now after the quakes, this document is still being used. Both Alex and Kris agree that the look of a place has to have impact and consideration for the future, but do not agree with holding back promising design ideas and modernisation. This is another battle that Kris has tried to win for the development of Lyttelton as it moves forward. It is, as Alex mentioned earlier, a loss of potential for both Christchurch City and Lyttelton if you try to maintain the past.
Their factory and home are evidence of how you can develop modern urban living spaces and a place of work without destroying history, but by modernising it. While it may take a little more out of you financially, the final product is breathtaking.
As we move through the factory and their home, we can see it has been created with care and energy. A friend and builder said he would help and, as soon as they began working together, things just clicked. “We put some sounds on and just worked. We worked until we felt like stopping and it just felt right. It became an enjoyable renovation. We worked with passion.”
It helped that they had completed their own demolition because they were able to reuse many of the materials from their own property. For other materials, they ‘wheeled and dealed’. They made decisions that had a cost but, for the couple, aesthetics are more important. The wooden window frames for their living space are an example of this mentality. They cost more but they create a stunning view of the harbour from their kitchen.
After coffee while looking out over the harbour, it is time to depart – we have encroached on Obi’s family time. The Herberts made us feel very welcome. Interviewing was more like meeting new friends who have wonderful stories to tell that make you feel empowered and happy. They treat their life like Alex makes his skis; they are about precision and aesthetics first, which allow you to enjoy what has been created.