Text by Henri Comrie
Published in Architecture SA, July 1998
As is typical when architects design their own house, the design and build process of ours was protracted. To design a house and give attention to every detail is something we all aspire to but are given little space to exercise. In our case the design of the house was combined with the manipulation of the immediate context in which it would be built. In keeping with our budgetary constraints and process-driven approach, it was necessary for the house to be designed to a complete state but in a way that allowed for incremental realisation. The first built increment presented here is part of a greater vision for our postage stamp size plot of only 570m2.
We never set out with the deliberate decision of building a house as we were far from being established in our careers. It was the result of the enticing availability of a tiny and thus cheap but promising land in an existing part of Pretoria that gave rise to the project. The plot was part of a small rural holding surrounded by recently established developments. Just a few years before, it still had sheep grazing on it. The owner’s advancing age and ill health led to his decision to sub-divide the small holding into a series of residential plots of 1150m2 each.
Old brick barns, farm dams and water tanks were sold ‘as is’ with the plots and the boundaries set regardless of the position of these structures. Many of the owners of these new plots weren’t sensitive to the original site’s former role, immediately demolishing these wonderfully original, historical structures before removing the resultant rubble – effectively eradicating any traces of the land’s pastoral history.
Together with a friend we decided to buy one of the remaining untouched plots, with the idea of each erecting a freestanding house. In our favour was recent land legislation which made provision for a second free-standing dwelling, meaning the days of second dwellings needing to be attached to the original structure like a Siamese twin wearing the same outfit has lapsed: each dwelling on the site could now have its own character. Although we jointly owned the plot, we intended to sub-divide the plot as a design priority – so that each new dwelling would occupy its own turf – and ultimately apply for proper subdivision.
One minor complication was that our joint plot had half a barn on it which straddled the southern boundary – the other half was on a neighbouring plot. Our co-owning friend was not interested in the 80m2 ‘half barn’ as he wanted a clear section of land on which to build. As a result we elected to take the portion (575m2) of the plot containing the half barn and, as a bonus, a White Stinkwood tree.
Fortunately the owner of the adjacent plot containing the other half of the barn – also an architect – appreciated the value of the structure and sensitively turned it into an annex to his house. Following discussions with the city council a firewall was built on the boundary – legally dividing the barn in two. So we ended up with a half plot featuring a half barn.
To have a small house on a big plot on the urban periphery, as is so typical of the unsustainable South African middle class ideal, was never a consideration as a small house on a small plot met all our needs and made it possible to build modestly, within our limited means. It increasingly also made sense for people of our generation. This type of urban living is sustainable and logical from both a personal and urban design perspective: it allows for your own identity, it is affordable, takes less time to develop and it is safer from a security perspective. It also ensures greater urban densities and shorter commuting times.
Unfortunately the process for obtaining statutory approval proved frustrating and took more than a year while our friend got on with building his house, which was completed in 1996. By mutual agreement his house has a blank wall facing the dividing line of our communal plot with bedrooms which face north, to ensure privacy.
While we were busy with our protracted second dwelling application – which included the relaxation of the double storey building line and permission to place the garage on the boundary – all the surrounding plots had been systematically developed. That meant that by the beginning of 1997 the design of our house effectively became an infill exercise, as opposed to a ‘green field’ intervention. However we had a degree of control over the role of the existing walled structures and therefore the immediate context within which the house would be built.
We decided to initially leave the barn as a free standing structure and to build a new house behind it. The barn was a unique opportunity for an appropriate re-design but we felt it was just too ambitious given our available resources. The barn affords the site a strong identity, driven by the rich texture of its aged, half plastered walls – rather than its leaking corrugated roof and unstable structure which would require costly upgrades- and so it was best left untouched to start off with.
The idea is to re-develop the barn at a later date by removing the roof and building a contrasting new skin out of steel and glass, set back within the existing walls. This light structure will protrude above the walls of the barn so that it complements the glass and steel corner window of the main house. When redeveloped, the barn will feature a small studio on the ground floor with two bedrooms above, and be connected to the house with a light bridge over the inner courtyard.
After deciding to leave the barn and large White Stinkwood tree ‘as is’, the house had to be built on the 250m2 (including building lines) that remained behind the barn. During the design process, the plan evolved to became similar to a typical duplex house with the living area and kitchen on the ground floor with two bedrooms and a bathroom above. This proven plan layout, with its low ground coverage, makes both economic and practical sense while affording an opportunity for creative spatial manipulation of internal volumes.
We decided to orientate the house north-south to maximise the remaining small garden, with the pre-existing tree as focus and the aged western wall of the barn as textured background. This little garden is effectively an extension of the house, which opens up though double swing doors on the ground floor to create an inclusive ‘open to sky space’ as Charles Correa would term it.
The ground floor with open plan living room and kitchen has a high ceiling of 3.5m which gives the space a generous scale despite the relatively small floor area. By placing the house’s outside walls on the boundary lends privacy to the inside courtyard..
A free standing column, featuring a cactus, is strategically placed to serve as a pivot between the house and barn and to guide visitors on their route to the front door.
The front door is deliberately moved backwards – almost to the rear boundary furthest away from the street – to take the visitor to a secret inside world down an alley that systematically narrows as the floor of the pathway rises. A steel and glass corner window hangs above the entrance, designed so that it appears strangely light. (see SA Architect April 1998 for a description of the corner window).
As a personal statement highlighting the lack of integrity in much of the buildings produced today, it was absolutely critical to get the proportions and attention to detail right. Sixty A3 sheets of hand drawn details were produced before construction began. Materials were chosen for their simplicity and authenticity. The outside walls were homogenously finished with a bag wash plaster in a grey pigment and all the steelwork was painted black. The inside walls reflected the continuity of the outside finishes with standard white paint over simple, flush jointed brickwork.
The use of wood for the ceilings, decks and double swing doors helps to soften the interior. Conventional joinery was unaffordable so the ceilings are made from plywood and the decks from skirting board while the floating ceiling is an assembly of four standard hollow core doors mounted on a conventional SA pine sub-frame.
The design is seen as an opportunity for a timeless spacious experience wherein plane and line are strongly identifiable. Space, plan, form and detail were considered interactively within a development process that strives for the achievement of a meaningful whole.