Arklow Villa lll is the disarmingly grand name of the third in a row of three identical small Victorian semis clustered on a quiet street in Green Point below Cape Town’s Signal Hill. It’s also the passion project of Liani and Jan Douglas, who fell for the property and bought it in 2012. After living in and loving it unconditionally, they felt ready to make the changes required for comfortable, contemporary living, while preserving its 120-year-old charm.
There are few people better placed for the task. Both are architects, and Douglas & Company – their architecture and design studio – has in the past nine years produced striking bespoke furniture and collectible design pieces, as well as a number of architectural projects. Jan is also a director at Cape Town firm KLG Architects, and Liani is a visiting critic and external examiner at the UCT School of Architecture, Planning and Geomatics.
‘Living in the house, we had a much better idea of its potential and the site in order to tackle the alteration,’ says Liani. ‘Being the client and the architect is exciting but also daunting. Without a formal brief to ourselves, we made the decision to do what’s right for the building, rather than strictly adhere to a brief.’
With a restricted budget, the couple’s goal was to transform what, for all its quaint attractions, was a dark, damp and dingy little house into a light-filled, contemporary home. So successfully did they manage the transformation that the heritage cottage won a Cape Institute for Architects (CIfA) Award for Architecture in 2019.
‘It was important to us to retain the special soul of the house, as the old dame had a real personality, although in dire need of a facelift, as the property suffered from a lack of maintenance, and careless additions and patch-ups that took place over the years,’ according to Liani. ‘The transformation of closed, insular spaces into connected areas – with extraordinary views of the mountain on one side and glimpses of sea on the other – is a joy to occupy.’
It’s also a joy to behold. From the front, the seminal little Victorian semi appears almost unchanged, except for the addition of two new, small dormer windows peeping from the corrugated-iron roof. The existing Cape ‘stoep’ has been replaced; the new one closely resembling the old. The decorative wrought-iron balustrade has been reused and painted an oxide red, exposing and counterpointing the warm, textured natural stone foundation walls behind. In contrast to the conservative approach to the front facade, the back of the house presents a completely new building but one so sensitively executed that the blend is as visually seamless as it is satisfying for its inhabitants, enhancing their quality of life.
‘The double-fronted character of the original structure made it possible to divide the house into two zones, with private spaces on the one side and public or shared spaces on the other, with both zones benefiting from the north and south light,’ says Liani.
The layout of the ground floor follows the original floorplan, with some notable changes. The old entrance hall, lounge and dining room have been opened into a single, large living space and the original bathroom has been replaced by an en suite tucked between the bedroom and study. This provided space at the back of the house for a new courtyard that opens off the kitchen, bringing light and ventilation to the previously unlit and dank spaces.
By opening up the interior of this single-storey cottage, the couple were able to create a second storey. On the new first floor, up a striking, twisted black steel staircase, a main bedroom and bathroom now complete the ‘private zone’ of their home. An adjacent small, private space makes an ideal ‘snug’ – a place to relax overlooking the living area below, and opening on to a slatted timber terrace above the mountain view.
The new double-volume space is surprisingly generous in relation to the scale of the cottage, and exposes the existing roof trusses to the living area below. And nothing removed went to waste. ‘Redundant roof trusses we removed were used in joinery and interior detailing such as a new timber staircase screen,’ says Liani. ‘Existing features and finishes were preserved wherever possible, and used in combination with a new restrained palette of brick, natural stone and timber to exude warmth and tactility.’
This ethos of honouring both heritage and sustainability principles permeates the entire project, which blends a rigorous design approach with touches of wit and delight, paying careful attention to detail and craftsmanship.
‘The new work is predominantly executed in South African pine – a sustainable timber that’s readily available and widely used in the construction industry,’ says Jan. The softwood is grown locally, making it more affordable than imported timber, and obtaining it doesn’t incur the same carbon costs. ‘In most applications, pine is normally hidden away behind plasterboard, and not celebrated as an attractive material in its own right, which we think the project does.’
Liani adds that the ‘pine also works well with the existing timber trusses and ties the spatial exploration together. The use of this one material is just right for this small space and it feels much bigger as a result’.
Green features range from passive ventilation through the placement of windows and installation of tall sliding doors, to the use of a hot-water solar system, and harvesting rainwater to supply the washing machine, dishwasher, toilets and garden taps, ‘significantly reducing our reliance on the municipal water supply’.
The water is stored in a corrugated iron tank below the front veranda, forming a rustic feature against the rough stone wall. Some existing architectural features and components of the house were updated and reused. Reclaimed laminated timber from the renovation has been repurposed in a bathroom vanity countertop, existing pine flooring has been repaired, sanded and treated with a water-based varnish to retain a light hue, and the wrought-iron Victorian fireplace with a black stone surround has been given new life. ‘It all helps the dwelling feel contemporary and timeless, yet also comfortably familiar,’ says Liani.
It’s been sparingly, caringly furnished with a few selected pieces of furniture and potted plants to allow the quality of the spaces to blossom. ‘Many of the furniture items here are pieces we have produced,’ she says. ‘Our studio works across scale, and in addition to being involved in the construction industry, we focus on bespoke furniture and collectible design. Working on a smaller scale gives us a chance to experiment with materials, palettes and details, where these tested ideas are then incorporated into tailor-made products as part of architectural products.’
The pieces chosen for Arklow Villa lll weren’t specifically designed for the property but are a selection from self-initiated projects, commercial collections and exhibitions.
‘Our home is a lived-in showroom, where we live with these pieces that are also available to view by clients,’ says Liani. One of their favourites is their E.1027 credenza, ‘a nod to Irish architect and furniture designer Eileen Gray’s little holiday home on an isolated stretch of the French Riviera’. Inspired by Gray’s ‘maison minimum’ approach, which is centred on simplicity and efficiency, the credenza’s profile and rounded ends resemble the villa’s curved entrance wall. ‘We added slim vertical handles in a colour to give a glimpse of the interior colour of the unit. We then incorporated the same vertical handle detailing into the custom kitchen design.’
Another favourite piece is a staple in their design range: a bar cart rejoicing in the name McSorley’s Wonderful Saloon. At Arklow Villa lll, the cart stands in the dining area in front of a frameless glass window, the diffused light providing an ideal habitat for the couple’s much-loved house plants. ‘We like the idea of the cart being filled with greenery rather than our favourite tipple.’
The CIfA judges would raise a glass to that. ‘The design has a clarity and simplicity in plan and section,’ they concluded in presenting their award. ‘This small residential alteration transforms an insular single-storey Victorian-style row house into a new delight.’