Softly spoken Pretoria architect Braam de Villiers, co-director of Earthworld, has strong ideas about the meaning of ‘home’. Today, he says, ‘a home has become a house – a commodity for resale. But long ago it was a sanctuary, where the family could gather meaning in their way of life. In the hustle and bustle of a world devoid of any form of privacy, a house must again become more than a place to invest in or rest your head. It must become a home – one of our few sanctuaries’.
That’s exactly what Hildi and Elias van Dyk wanted two years ago. ‘We were living in a Pretoria townhouse, but our daughter of 28 was moving to Cape Town and we were ready for a change,’ according to Van Dyk. ‘Elias [an engineering project manager] was also tired of long commutes in heavy traffic. We wanted a place nearer to his work, where we could live more quietly and meaningfully near nature, which we love – we’re keen birders. And today our home in Waterfall Country Village has it all.’
An oasis in the heart of Midrand, where Johannesburg and Pretoria are rapidly meeting in a maze of development, it’s on the edge of a vlei where a stream runs through rushes and grassland into a pretty dam. Just outside the estate gate, it’s frenetic. But inside, you drive slower, move slower, live slower – and more fully. And the Van Dyks attribute this as much to the house De Villiers designed for them as its setting, from which it seems to organically emerge.
It’s a small home – 245 m2 – perfect for two people, on a long, narrow plot that slopes steeply towards the stream and vlei, and it’s flanked closely by large estate houses. It was from these features that De Villiers evolved the design.
He wrapped it around a central courtyard for privacy. Entry is via a walkway that edges around a lowered courtyard and rises to a timber deck and entrance alcove. This opens to an unexpected interior – one long, continuous open space embracing the functions of kitchen, lounge, dining and study areas. The areas melt into one another, united by a uniform sweep of pale terrazzo floor tiles and warm, plywood-clad walls and ceilings, and ending in the entrance to the main bedroom.
‘The house was designed with simple spaces, simple materials – with just the essential spatial requirements,’ says De Villiers. Yet there’s a sense of spaciousness, ease and light. Focus is on the sweeping vista to the south through a series of floor-to-ceiling sliding glass doors, while the long wall opposite ensures privacy from the road to the north of the property, but admits light and air though a series of high clerestory windows.
This communal space appears to float above the natural ground level below, which holds a TV lounge, a guest bedroom and bathroom (perfect for granny and other guests, according to Van Dyk), and a utilities and storage room that keeps clutter from creeping into the communal area upstairs.
There is no veranda to detract from the compactness of the home, because none is needed. ‘In summer you just open the sliding doors and you’re part of nature,’ she says. ‘And our bedroom looks over both the southern view and the courtyard to the north. It’s so airy and light.’
The home is also warm in winter and cool in summer – at no cost to the environment. This is no mean feat, given the extremes of the Midrand climate. ‘An important aspect that influenced the design of the home was northern solar access to all living spaces,’ according to De Villiers. ‘The north-facing clerestory windows give maximum sun access in winter for light and warmth, and horizontal solar shading devices of steel and RhinoBoard shade them in summer.’
Low-e glass has been used throughout – glass with low emissivity, thanks to a microscopically thin transparent coating that reflects energy waves. When the interior heat of a house tries to escape to the colder outside air in winter, the low-e coating reflects the heat back inside, reducing the radiant heat lost through the glass.
This moderating effect has been enhanced by the use of double insulation in the roof – 80 mm-thick polystyrene board, plus a layer of 100 mm-thick blanket insulation in the ceiling. ‘We need to embrace technology along with nature, culture and style in design,’ says De Villiers.
The Van Dyks still like to have a fire in winter, however, for ‘cosiness and some extra warmth’, and have taken to rearranging the furniture to make the best of each season. ‘In summer we like to put the dining table between two of the sliding windows, next to the wooden wall, because it’s cool and so private,’ says Van Dyk. ‘In winter, we move the dining table next to the kitchen where it’s warmer, and put our big red couch in front of the fire, which is between the kitchen and bedroom. Just moving a few pieces around gives the house a different feel.’
The couch and other furniture is all from their old house, and fits in comfortably with a long, built-in wooden work bench De Villiers designed for the study area. ‘It’s a very enjoyable space for working on the computer, wrapping gifts, sewing or looking up something in our multiple books,’ says Van Dyk.
Her biggest interest, however, is the garden. Initially, a landscape designer was brought in but Van Dyk had ‘different green ideas’ and opted to go it alone. ‘I wanted the garden to extend and blend with the surrounding veld, and to encourage insects and birds. It was overwhelming at first, because the climate is much more extreme than what we were used to in Pretoria, and I’m still experimenting and learning.’
One of her inspirations is Piet Oudolf, the planting designer behind the High Line park that runs along 2.3 km of abandoned elevated rail track in Manhattan, New York City. ‘As Oudolf puts it in Hummelo, his book with Noel Kingsbury, I’m moved by “a strong desire for naturalistic aesthetic, sustainability, and a focus on creating a home for biodiversity”.’
Like Oudolf, Van Dyk has focused on indigenous perennials and, with the High Line in mind, has extended her planting to the flat roof of the garage. She has also put in olive, lemon, fig, pomegranate and quince trees, herbs and some vegetables for cooking, feeding them from two water tanks and a compost heap.
‘I want lots of textures. I’m not there yet but I’m loving it,’ she says. ‘Green spaces are crucial. Rural areas are disappearing fast, especially here – and wildlife with them. From our place we can see the Mall of Africa and big houses, as well as the vlei and veld. My best is when the grass dies down in winter. People say it looks bleak but it’s beautiful – wide open, with all that blue sky.’
According to Van Dyk, you can hear jackals at night, slender and yellow mongoose are regular visitors, and monitor lizards, scrub hares and hedge-hogs are often spotted. Then there are the birds… ‘More than 200 species, and we’ve seen 152. So far my greatest gardening success is that the black-chested Prinia has nested and raised three young here successfully, despite cats and the mongoose.’
It’s imperative that a home be ‘harmonised to the natural landscape’, and the garden is part of that, says De Villiers. ‘Every opportunity to build must be used as a catalyst for change and upliftment in an environmentally sustainable way.’
It’s a creed that has won Earthworld Architects acclaim for standout buildings, such as the low-energy I-Cat ecofactory in Pretoria and the interactive Foghound coffee shop in Midrand, constructed from shipping containers. Both achieved commendations in the AfriSam-South African Institute of Architect Awards for ‘outstanding sustainable architecture and innovation’. But for De Villiers, these are no less important for a small residential commission such as this one.
His philosophy is that ‘homes should be simple but an extension of people’s aspirations. They should be filled with light and texture, and leave inhabitants to live in a positive manner’.
Hildi and Elias van Dyk
Jan Pienaar & Associates