Out in Pretoria’s eastern heartlands, it’s not just about the bikes – it’s about the building too. Named after the stream that runs through it, Wolwespruit is a 90 ha wilderness that has become a popular haunt for cyclists and trail runners alike since its opening in 2011.
More recently, a statuesque building has gone up near the entrance. To call Trailwolf a cycling store would be like describing the Bernabéu as just another stadium – in reality, it is so much more. Opened in 2016, it’s a striking 500 m² building that expresses itself through large, airy spaces and an emphatic nod to earth and nature through imaginative use of cardboard, wood and glass.
At the heart of the shop lies its bikes and accessories, but an appreciation for the environment is strongly evident in its general design. The shop is clad in enormous windows, one bank of which hugs an inviting forest of white stinkwood, acacia and wag-‘n-bietjie (buffalo thorn) trees – hinting strongly at the shared philosophy of the owner, tenants and architects who blended the need for a functional space with respect for the environment.
Remarkably, the spine of the shop, and indeed the source of much of its inspiration, is an old cow shed that had long been in a state of disrepair at the Long Valley farm in Balfour, Mpumalanga. It belonged to the in-laws of Trailwolf owner Johan Fischer. He liked the idea of crafting something unique from the old shed, not least because it would be less expensive (and more interesting) than creating something entirely new. The shed offered rugged character and tradition, a utilitarian exercise with origins in the fabrication processes and systems developed during the Industrial era.
Pretoria-based firm Thomashoff + Partner Architects was appointed to do the exterior design work. ‘The topography, natural realm and vegetation, micro-climate and potential impact of the building within this environment informed the design,’ according to architect Fritz Thomashoff. ‘The surrounding areas are subject to significant development pressure, and it was my decision to increase [the building’s] lifespan by locating the facility in an area least likely to be in the way of future development on surrounding land.
‘The building footprint required large rectangular platforms, so an area was selected with a fairly simple topography where the various components of the development could fit without causing too much disturbance to the natural environment, using a simple cut-and-fill earth balance.’
The architects were respectful of the natural surroundings, going so far as to consult leading botanist Jason Sampson at the University of Pretoria. He pointed out invasive species in the vicinity and encouraged a clean-out, given that land-owners are duty bound to do so because of the water-hungry nature of invasive plants. Cleverly, species endemic to the locale were harvested prior to construction and re-used in the rehabilitation of landscaping after completion.
The architectural brief was for flexible, robust buildings and spaces that would be future-proofed by being easily reconfigurable for new functions within the life of the building, should there be such a need.
This plan fit was well-suited to the re-use of the structure but modifications had to be made to match the accommodation requirements.
Thomashoff examined the possibilities for re-use by creating several virtual building model options, using the structural elements of the building in different configurations. This exercise confirmed that the original shape was the most efficient, economical and suitable, while creating the best ‘fit’ in the landscape.
‘Following examination … the final shape was pretty much a given,’ says Thomashoff. ‘The programme was shaped to suit this.’
Since it was originally a non-habitable structure, the biggest challenge was ensuring correct and sufficient levels of ventilation and natural light. Lifting the roof by extending the structure to accommodate a mezzanine level – which houses a sports recovery zone, office, kitchen and function area – helped create a more dynamic space, allowing options for future modification should the need arise.
A simple design of stock brick infill and glazed panels was used on facades, with openings in the sides that can be converted into doors in the future to suit alternative interior configurations.
Another challenge was in using the original structure. ‘This was manufactured and reinstalled to quite generous tolerances, and fixing a contemporary material such as the aluminium shop fronts and standard steel window framing to this meant these had to be overcome on site,’ he says, adding that at times the results were disappointing.
‘The nature of the tenant taking occupation is more likely to be found in a retail environment consisting of big-box introverted structures, with little consideration and physical exposure to surrounding context,’ says Thomashoff. ‘With this building they are exposed on all sides. There is no “back door”.’ Then there was the budget, which was extremely tight, mostly determining material options. Structural elements were refurbished, with all fixing and installation details remaining visible.
A further dimension that sets Trailwolf apart from its competitors is that the functional working parts of the workshop are visible to the public. It was a shrewd decision that suited the client’s design philosophy, as the team wanted to be seen while performing maintenance to bicycles, lending an earthy, real, hands-on feel to the shop’s comings and goings.
The tenant installation itself was skilfully executed by interior architect Hendrieka Raubenheimer of Earthworld Architects, which is also based in Pretoria.
Jan-Adriaan van Rooyen, her architecture partner on the interior design project, says the main drive behind the design was to showcase the rapid technological advances associated with mountain biking. ‘Using the medium of green, eco-friendly design, we specifically used recycled and recyclable materials and objects to reflect the nature of this liquid technology in a material sense.’
The detailing of the interior was minimised to such an extent that assembly and disassembly would be easy, a method of construction that makes the feel of the interior transient.
Van Rooyen explains that the fluid, rhythmic motion of mountain bike single-track obstacles and bridges inspired the pattern housed in the interior. Wooden fins, portraying the idea of movement and energy, plus paper rolls were used throughout the design to eye-catching effect, something that intrigues customers. It gives the interior an honest feel by not attempting to hide the materiality of the structure.
‘Being economic in material use and using materials in their natural state was important, as was using the materials as both structure and aesthetic,’ he says.
The client as well as the tenants embraced the design ideas because they shared the enthusiasm for using recyclable material in the interior. ‘Showcasing the bikes and related technology within this transient reality was very important to them.’
Contrary to the design appearing easy to fashion, Van Rooyen says that the only way to achieve this specific look was through deductive reasoning, which entailed countless iterations. ‘Hitting the right spot the first time is just impossible with this sort of design.’
Van Rooyen makes the important point that while the interior may appear simplistic and primitive, paradoxically it takes a long time to achieve such simplicity.
‘We never wanted it to be just another bike shop,’ says Andre Bezuidenhout, who, with Shaun Oosthuizen, rents the space from Fischer, who likens the look and feel to ‘Maboneng [precinct] in a farming environment’. In a very real sense, they wanted to separate the wolf from the pack.
He especially likes the counter-balance between the brightly coloured stock and the down-to-earth space it is housed within. He adds that customers love the high, open spaces and the generous nod to nature that is so evident throughout. It’s a response that was formally shared and recognised at the 2017 International Green Interior Awards, where designers were honoured for creating healthy indoor environments. Earthworld won the retail category for its Trailwolf Cycles project, a singular honour that everyone involved is deeply proud of.
Fischer is delighted with the outcome. ‘There was lots of sweat but everyone did a great job,’ he says. ‘This really is a unique space – far better than my imagination allowed me to think.’
Set amid a wonderful landscape and with a hearty restaurant next door, Trailwolf is a welcome addition to the SA cycling scene. It’s also a remarkable pointer to a more sustainable, environmentally savvy future. All in all, not too shabby for an old cow shed.