Award-winning House Burnett Prinsloo is in tune not only with its surroundings but also the evolving needs of its inhabitants


American-born urban planner Jane Burnett Prinsloo and her late husband, architect Ivor Prinsloo, had lived all over the world before settling in Cape Town, where she joined the City of Cape Town and he headed the school of architecture at UCT for many years. The couple fell in love with a 5 000 m2 property on the Liesbeeck river in Bishopscourt with striking views up Table Mountain, and for 20 happy years they lived there with their extended family in a comfortable, somewhat rambling home. Then Ivor died, the children left home, Burnett Prinsloo retired, and the house did not work well for one person.

‘Still, I couldn’t bear to leave this beautiful setting,’ she says. Her solution was to subdivide – to sell the old house and build a new one purposed to her new needs and future ones. With her background in design, Burnett Prinsloo knew what she wanted would present challenges. ‘Bishopscourt is an established neighbourhood with substantial family houses, so it wouldn’t be sensible to build a single-person home – it needed to be able to meet my desire for a compact home but have a certain heft and flexibility, capable of accommodating visitors, perhaps a carer some day, tenants to generate income and, after my time, a new family with lots of kids.’

Burnett Prinsloo meticulously drew up a list of requirements and ideas, and approached a half dozen Cape Town architects. ‘This city has a wealth of outstanding architects but Robert de Jager stood out – and not only because he’d been one of Ivor’s students in the 1970s,’ she says.

De Jager’s practice is a small, select one, which he combined with lecturing at UCT while designing Burnett Prinsloo’s house. ‘I like to do things myself where possible – drawings, models, site meetings.’ He and Burnett Prinsloo hit it off from the outset. ‘She’s the ideal client – well-informed, even-tempered and, being from the design world, a great decision-maker.’

His approach is ‘slow’ or ‘considered’ architecture. ‘Everything is debated and thoroughly interrogated before a decision is made. Then there’s a certain amount of the quiet time an architect needs to make a design more than a collection of shapes and spaces,’ he says. ‘A good design process is less wasteful, there are no surprises, no reasons to redo things. In the end I think there was only one fixture we decided didn’t look right: an uplighter in painted wood. We had it remade in stainless steel, and it turned out to be a very beautiful item.’

House Burnett Prinsloo, as it’s now known, is an elegant, clean-lined solution to all the challenges presented along the way. The first was the topography: the property is part of the greenbelt that follows the Liesbeeck river as it descends from Table Mountain and Kirstenbosch Gardens. It’s sloped and thickly forested, with many trees more than 100 years old – and Burnett Prinsloo and De Jager were determined that none should be cut down. This, along with the requirements that any structure be set back significantly from the boundary line on the street side, severely limited the footprint of the new house.

Another challenge was the need to maximise natural light throughout, while maintaining visual privacy from the street and the two neighbouring properties. De Jager also sought to maximise solar ingress in winter months while permitting virtually none in summer – all in line with the best green practice close to his and Burnett Prinsloo’s hearts.

The solution: two roughly rectangular double-storey ‘pavilions’, as De Jager calls them, linked by a glass walkway on both levels. One pavilion contains Burnett Prinsloo’s living room-cum-library downstairs (a wall of shelves for design books she and Ivor amassed down the years), opening into a dining area and partially open-plan kitchen. Above it is her bedroom and a spare guestroom for visiting family or friends.

The other pavilion, set slightly to the side and further back to ensure privacy, is focused on flexibility and the future. The ground floor incorporates a large double garage and a room that Burnett Prinsloo currently uses as a work space or physiotherapy room, but which could be a bedroom one day, should negotiating stairs become an issue. Above this and the garage is a self-contained guest flat she could rent out.

‘When the house is sold to a new family, this could become another bedroom or a substantial playroom or teens’ space in what would be a comfortably sized family home using both buildings,’ she says. ‘I like the idea of flexible spaces – something we used to find in Victorian houses but that’s generally less available in modern homes. Our aim was to create a home capable of accommodating a family’s changing needs over the different stages of life.’

Running throughout the project is a deep respect for the environment in which the house stands. The river and its surrounds provide a significant ‘highway’ for birds, porcupines, snakes, bees and other wildlife linked to Table Mountain, and a reminder of the historic farms in the area. This setting is celebrated not only with huge glass walls that bring it into the house, but in the green principles that underpin its every design element.

‘The pavilions were positioned to give all habitable rooms north-facing solar exposure to maximise available light, and give generous forest and garden views through the all-glass north facade,’ says De Jager. All windows are double glazed, and insulation in cavity walls, under the ground floor and in the ceilings minimises the need for artificial heating or air conditioning. Solar power wasn’t appropriate in the forested setting, so a heat pump for each pavilion was installed for energy-wise water-heating. A wood-burning stove in the library heats both the ground floor and the main bedroom above it.

LED lighting has been used throughout, along with eco-friendly FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) timber and recycled granite. And rainwater from the gutterless roof is directed into a gravel bed and returned to the garden.

With the house finished, the garden is Burnett Prinsloo’s passion, tended with advice from landscape architect Clare Burgess and plantsman Nikki Delange. ‘My approach has been to find plants that can be happy here, and then plant them en masse,’ says Burnett Prinsloo. ‘Besides being easier to manage, it makes for a more peaceful feel. I find as long as there are one or two elements that are maintained, like a well-kept lawn and properly managed pathways, everything else can be a bit wild.’

As well as nurturing the venerable trees already there, Burnett Prinsloo has planted many new ones: Cape holly, yellowwood, white stinkwood, wild olive, waterberry, wild peach… ‘It’s not just that they’re beautiful,’ she says. ‘I’m interested in the “urban services” provided by trees – the work they do cleaning the air, retaining water, modifying temperature. They’re truly magnificent.’

So is this home, whether looking out from it to these trees, or in from the garden at the serene interior, furnished with the pared-down, purposeful style of Shaker and Japanese homes Burnett Prinsloo has admired on her travels.

Small wonder House Burnett Prinsloo won a Cape Institute for Architecture award in 2017 and a Corobrik South African Institute of Architects award in May 2018, followed by an AfriSam-SAIA Award for Sustainable Architecture and Innovation in October. The citation called the house ‘a mindset change from a typical residential typology within an affluent area’ and noted its impressive scale, size, budget and level of connection to its environment. ‘This house celebrates the “poetics” of habitation, the relationship of a building to the landscape and the assembly of materials.’ As AfriSam raw materials and sustainability manager Niraksha Singh puts it: ‘The recipients have demonstrated that if we each take responsibility in shifting our own behaviour, we can trigger the type of change that is necessary to achieve sustainability for human and other organisms on the planet.’

Burnett Prinsloo’s own contented assessment of the forest home she has grown. ‘I looked up the definition of “harmony” and found “the combination of simultaneously sounded musical notes to produce a pleasing effect”. The example given was “the piece owes its air of tranquillity largely to the harmony”. Well, that’s exactly how I feel about my house.’

Jane Burnett Prinsloo
[email protected]

Robert de Jager

Cost consultant
JRogers Consulting
[email protected]

Mathew Streatfield, HereToday

Structural Engineer
Adema Structural Consultancy
[email protected]

Eurostyle Aluminium
Windows and Doors

Mark Lunn Projects
[email protected]

SIRAC Southern Africa

Nikki Delange
[email protected]

Kymina Kitchens

Clare Burgess

By Glynis Horning
Photography: Natalie Sternberg Photography

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