Of the vast catalog of cultural differences we’ve encountered in Wellington, one I have found to be both puzzling and ultimately charming is the upside-down houses.
It is utterly normal for suburban houses here to have their kitchen and primary living space on an upper floor. This was consistent across almost every house we saw in person, and anecdotally seems to be the case throughout our entire neighborhood based on glimpses of upper-floor kitchens and dining rooms through windows – since folks don’t tend to hang curtains in a kitchen.
I’m not widely-traveled enough to know if this is a Wellington-only thing, a New Zealand thing, or a British commonwealth thing. Heck, maybe Philadelphia was the only place in the world where you expect to walk into a living room and then a kitchen when you enter a house. I have no idea.
At first the upside-down layouts seemed absurd to me. Why would you want to carry groceries upstairs all the time? Why would you want to exit and enter the house near the bedrooms and clomp all the way to your parlor!
Having lived with the arrangement for a few months now, it’s making a bit more sense to me for three big reasons.
First, houses in New Zealand are known to be poorly-insulated – even modern construction! Heat rises. It’s a pretty simple equation – it makes sense to have that heat rise to the rooms where the most people in your house will be spending most of their time living. It’s easy to heat up your bedroom with a radiator for the night and then switch it off in the morning, which is more energy efficient than an empty bedroom being warm all day long.
(Plus, it means food smells from the kitchen don’t rise to the bedrooms, which is a major peeve of mine.)
Second, due to the hilly nature of Wellington, many upper floors have phenomenal views – whether that’s of the city or a body of water. Many houses have some sort of porch, balcony, or deck. Those views would be wasted on a room used primarily for sleep.
I’ve always been puzzled by American houses that have those features on a bedroom – do people really wake up in the morning and fling open the doors to walk right out onto their little terrace before getting dressed or having coffee? Those elevated outdoor spaces feel so much more useful when attached to communal spaces.
Third, privacy. When your living room is at ground level, it feels like everyone can just stare into it from the street and every passing car to see what you are doing. That means you have the drapes drawn closed all the time if you have any kind of foot or car traffic on your street.
With the living space on the second floor, I feel fine having windows un-shaded. If someone sees the tops of our heads from down on the street as we watch TV or play music, it’s not such a big deal. Meanwhile, you’re almost certainly going to have curtains on your bedroom windows no matter what floor you’re on, as you conceivably want to be able to make it dark and will sometimes be getting dressed in there. Why not leave them on the bottom and have open windows on the top?
Despite all of those positive points, I still remain a bit puzzled by some of the impractical detractions.
When you enter an upside-down home, there’s an odd disconnect between where you take off your shoes and coat and where you’re actually heading. I find myself constantly puzzled about where to set down my keys and charge my phone – things I expect to do in my living space, and not in a disconnected foyer hallway on another level.
Parlor-on-top layouts mean bedrooms tend to be next to front doors and garages and exposed to all the drafts and street noise that entails. The bedrooms have living spaces overhead, completely with all the noise of footfalls that comes from that. And, dampness is a big issue here, which means you’re sleeping in a potentially damp space – ick.
Plus, it makes the daily routine feel a bit backwards – waking up in the morning, walking up the stairs for breakfast, and then back down the stairs to leave.
Finally, there’s the aforementioned lugging of groceries up flights of stairs, whereas I think most suburban Americans expect their kitchen to be adjacent to their garage. It’s a minor annoyance, but one that I’d be hesitant to lock in for years if I was buying a home.
All that said, as I type this from our couch looking out over the harbour, I have to say I’m really coming around to these upside down houses. E and I briefly thought about having a house built back in the states, and never once did we discuss a living room or kitchen on an upper floor. It’s one of those “of course things are done this way” cultural assumptions.
Now, if I had the choice, I’m not sure where I’d choose to place those communal spaces in a house built from scratch. There’s no right answer, and some of my objections from when we first started seeing homes now feel downright silly.
I’m sure Kiwis are equally puzzled when they visit friends in the states, wondering why their living rooms are always frigid and where all you can see from the windows are the hedges.