There were two overriding concerns to be taken into account during both the design and the construction of this unique family home in Rolf Valley. The first consideration was to disturb the indigenous flora and fauna (and the soil) as little as possible. The second challenge was to reduce the structure to its barest bones, stripping away as much of the non-essential finishes as possible. It was an exercise in minimalism and sustainability – creating a comfortable and beautiful family home on a modest budget with no unnecessary or wasteful indulgence.
The site is one of the best preserved pockets of unspoiled indigenous miombo woodland within the city‘s suburban sprawl. Typical of miombo woodland there are copious amounts of Msasa and Munondo trees as well as wild grasses and shrubs and because it’s within a suburban area it hasn’t been subjected to seasonal burning for many years. In fact, because it’s such a pristine site it has become an important breeding ground for a local species of chameleons – the only chameleon conservancy in the region. The owners of the site even conduct ‘chameleon safaris’ for children to introduce them to this fascinating species.
The original site of approximately 1.5 acres has been subdivided into three smaller plots for separate developments although there are no boundaries or fences defining each area so the existing open expanse has been preserved in its undisturbed state. The house, designed by Bruce Rowlands from Architexture Spatial Design, is at the furthest end of the site and set on a fairly steeply sloping, west facing piece of ground of 1400 m².
One of the conditions of sale imposed by the owners was that the existing trees should be preserved wherever possible – not an easy task on a heavily wooded site. Accordingly the architectural design began with a tree survey so the structure could fit onto the site with as little disturbance as possible. As a result the house nestles comfortably within the woodland with trees right up against the structure – or even with trees shooting up through the verandah decking and a tree within the outdoor, open air, downstairs shower room.
Henning Jordaan, from Henning’s Nursery in Greendale, was enlisted to ‘landscape’ the site – although it’s not landscaping in the conventional sense. His brief was to enhance what was already existing, to add rather than remove, and to disturb the soil as little as possible. Chameleons lay their eggs in the soil so creating expanses of lawn or pretty flower beds was not permitted. Henning has concentrated on three self-contained planter boxes near the entrance to the house which he’s filled with indigenous dietes, pachypodiums, succulents and other sculptural plants to soften the façade around the entrance and the car port.
In front of the house he’s added some mulching where the soil had been disturbed by the construction process and to also help preserve rain water and prevent it running down the slope. He’s planted some indigenous grasses sourced from around the area and scattered wild grass seeds which should begin to sprout now with the current rain. He’s added a few carefully selected succulents and aloes, some ground covers and installed a small natural walkway leading part way down the slope. The plants in the planter boxes are very waterwise and the rest of the garden is very low – in fact almost zero – maintenance. The only gardening required will be to remove non-indigenous invasive species!
There’s a small natural wetland at the bottom of the slope with plans to perhaps develop it into a natural water filtration system in future years. The whole house – not just the garden – is designed around sensible and sustainable water usage. Rowlands has designed a water harvesting system so that rain water from the roof and the driveway is channelled into a 10,000 litre basement tank so it can be re-used. There is an existing borehole on the site – although it’s not particularly prolific – so the household is able to function comfortably without relying solely on the council water supply. Another innovative water saving device is the wash hand basin/toilet cistern system whereby water from the basin – which is usually wasted – drains directly into the cistern.
In addition to the sustainable water harvesting system the house has also been designed with solar water heaters and a 10kva solar backup system so the house can almost run off grid. The solar system was supplied by One Stop Solar and installed by JDI (Johnson’s Design & Installation). The house has also been designed and orientated to take full advantage of the westerly views, but uses huge sliding screens, verandahs, cross ventilation and ceiling fans to prevent overheating in summer. The main living space has large glass sliding doors and glass gables orientated towards northerly sun for winter warmth.
Although the footprint of the house is relatively small (293m² on the ground floor plus another 115m² on the first floor) Rowlands has accommodated five bedrooms – the master bedroom has an en suite bathroom – two other bathrooms and a guest toilet. There’s a large study, generous open plan living space and expansive verandahs and balconies.
The ground floor has a double carport and a verandah at the entrance. The front door leads directly into an open plan space incorporating the kitchen (with a scullery and storage space tucked away) and a large living/dining room. The living space has a high double volume ceiling which makes the space feel more generous. Rowlands has utilised the kind of technology normally seen in warehouse design to span the space so the high roof has minimal trusses to disturb the unbroken expanse.
The living room has sliding doors on two sides which open up to wide verandahs and the garden beyond, as well as windows on the third side overlooking the smaller front verandah. A free standing island partially demarcates the kitchen as well as providing a prep surface, storage and a kind of breakfast bar. Rowlands has selected Silver Paradiso granite for the island in a leather finish – lightly textured in a matt finish in keeping with the industrial look of the home. For those few chilly winter nights there’s a small wood burning stove with a stainless steel chimney which leads up through the double volume space and radiates extra warmth for the whole house.
There are three bedrooms on the ground floor. One bedroom is separate from the main house and completely self-contained with a small bathroom and private outside entrance. It can be used as live in quarters for household staff or as a guest suite. Of the other two bedrooms one is tucked away into the heart of the house so it’s pretty well insulated and the temperature is quite consistent throughout the year. The other bedroom is west facing with views of the front woodland. For this bedroom – and the master bedroom which is directly above – Rowlands has designed sliding wooden shutters to cover the expansive glass and cut down on direct sunlight in summer. It also means that there’s no need for curtains to interfere or dilute the minimalist/industrial interior design.
A simple concrete staircase with modest, black painted, steel bannisters leads to the second floor. The bannisters and the rails on the balconies were designed by Rowlands and made by Basil and Lindy Rowlands – formerly of Art Mart. The top floor has the mezzanine study overlooking the living room, a family bedroom and the master suite. There’s also a large viewing deck with a great, elevated view of the natural woodland. The deck has a vaguely ’safari spa’ feel about it – luxurious and tranquil.
Rowlands has kept all the interior finishes to the absolute minimum in line with the modest budget and also in part as an experiment to see what can be left out without compromising the aesthetics and the comforts of a modern home. It’s in line with the philosophy of creating sustainable homes on a modest budget without spending on unnecessary luxuries or design frills. Floors throughout are polished concrete without timber or tile treatments, walls are exposed brick or unfinished plaster and cornices and skirtings have been eliminated. There are no kitchen or bathroom tiles and even the plumbing fittings are kept simple and exposed as part of the visual identity of the home.
The restrained interiors would feel a bit hard and cold were it not for the variety of natural textures provided by the raw materials. There are no curtains covering the large expanses of glass – because there are not many angles from which neighbours might look in. Where privacy is essential Rowlands has substituted frosted glass or sliding wooden shutters. The lack of curtains also helps to emphasise the indoor/outdoor connection and reinforce the feeling of living in the woods. The almost monastic austerity of the rooms has been softened by area rugs and carpets, artworks and wall hangings, and a carefully curated selection of unique furniture and fittings from some of Zimbabwe’s best artisans.
The home is a great exemplar of environmentally friendly design and sustainable living.
-text by Michael Nott
-photos by Structure and Design
-additional photos and plans by Bruce Rowlands