The brief to Robert Serman Architects for this project, called for a family home which blended into the natural setting that the site offered. The owners were clear that they wanted to make the most of the surroundings and that they wanted spaces where the family could come together and spaces that would allow the teenage children a space of their own.
House Wisse is located at Monaghan Farm, which is a 400-hectare lifestyle estate in Lanseria on the outskirts of Johannesburg. As a development, Monaghan Farm prides itself on its sustainability initiatives and environmentally sensitive approach. The farm is organically certified, and with its vegetable garden and roaming cattle, remains a working farm. Through restricting development to six clusters and keeping the density of the development extremely low, it is not only the farm that is preserved but also the biodiversity of native Egoli Grasslands.
According to Robert Serman, the opening statement to the clients, “House Wisse is to be a house in the veld, a house in the sun,” was as much a reading of the context as it was the concept. “It was from this starting point that designing a home, strongly rooted in its place, began. A home that sits comfortably within the veld but also protects itself from the natural elements and environment that it sits in,” he explains.
Just under an acre in size, the House Wisse site is a quintessential piece of the highveld that slopes gently northwards. The site has no adjoining neighbours and is surrounded by natural veld. The position of the stand within the farm allows for nearly 180˚ view ranging from a row of Bluegum trees to the East, a soft rolling valley to the North East and then the distinctive flattop Renosterkop Mountain to the North.
The house is 640m² in total and comprises of four bedrooms (all en-suite), a study, a guest toilet, a kids lounge and entertainment room, an open plan lounge, dining room and kitchen space, a flexible outdoor living and dining space, garages for four cars, a store room and domestic quarters.
The immediate design response by Robert Serman Architects was to embrace the landscape. The slope of the land was respected and incorporated into the design. It is for this reason that the home gently steps down the terrain rather than creating a single large cut and inserting a single level home. Furthermore, in general the roofs follow the slope of the land with the exception being the main living wing. Here the roof pops up against the slope to accentuate its presence as the focal point of the home.
House Wisse was always envisaged as a home that relied on passive design principles to control temperature and create a comfortable living environment. In terms of orientation, the primary facades of the building face northwards which allow for good solar penetration in winter but through the use of deep roof overhangs and a combination of shutters and louvres, solar gain is mitigated in spring and autumn and totally excluded in summer. The staggered nature of the plan creates shaded courtyard spaces, which are utilised to enhance cross ventilation. Through a simple convection current, cooler air from these spaces is pulled across the narrow widths of the wings towards high-level openings on the Northern facades.
The louvres, screens and sliding shutters are the most distinctive feature of the home. These elements are made from composite timber slats on steel frames and their lighter, filigree nature, contrasts with the mass and solidity of the masonry and concrete components of the design. Although they have a strong aesthetic presence, these screening and shading devices are crucial in terms of modulating light and controlling the amount of heat that enters the home. The sliding shutters, located at the bedrooms and the outdoor living area, enable the users to adapt certain spaces based on the season or time of day.
Ecological responsibility, critically endorsed by the client at the briefing stage, guided the design of the home. The strategy was to provide a well-insulated envelope, shade the building where required and to reduce the energy demand.
A thermally efficient envelope was created through the installation of insulation under the surface bed, within the cavity walls and within the ceiling. The well insulated skin aids in reducing the need and costs associated with heating and cooling the home. The glazing chosen for the project continues this principal with glazing types (varying from double glazing to Low E single glazing) rationalised to specific spaces and orientations.
Where required, screening and shading, in the form of fixed louvres, sliding shutters or horizontal projections are introduced and integrated into the design. Although these devices have a strong aesthetic presence and expression, they are crucial in terms of modulating light and controlling the amount of heat that enters the home. The sliding shutters, located at the bedrooms and the outdoor living area, enable the users to adapt these spaces based on the season or time of day.
In a similar but more subtle way, the rain chains acting as downpipes are designed to recede into the background. However, one specific chain is suspended off a cantilevered gutter and is clearly visible, it drops directly into the ‘hidden’ underground tank alongside the pool. Thus, demonstrating and hopefully leaving the viewer with the intriguing question of where it leads to. The ‘hidden’ underground water harvesting tank has a capacity of 40 000 litres. Rainwater and storm water harvested from the majority of the roofs and the driveway reduce the need for municipal water for irrigation purposes.
The energy demand, in terms of electricity, is reduced by the introduction of a gas hob. Water heating is handled by energy efficient heat pumps, with all hot water points supplied with hot water circulated via insulated pipework on a ring main. This simple intervention, reduces the amount of hot water wasted while waiting for hot water. A hydronic under floor heating system operated by the same heat pumps lead to reduced heating costs and a comfortable “barefoot and t-shirt” environment even in winter. At the time of construction consideration, in terms of roof structure and electrical reticulation, was made for the installation of photovoltaics on the north facing garage roof. Therefore, further reductions in energy demand can sought in future.
Landscaping, is endemic if not indigenous and is kept to a minimum. The veld grass that surrounds the home has re-established itself and provides a low-cost, low-maintenance solution as it doesn’t require additional irrigation and is left to follow the natural systems. The landscaping further contributes to the reduction of waste as all excavated material was utilised to create landscaped berms. These two principals ensure that the home is integrated back into the landscape and screened from neighbouring properties and roads.
When discussions regarding the inclusion of a pool arose, the decision was to introduce a natural pool. A natural pool, or wetland pool, doesn’t require any chemicals and relies on a natural eco-system of carefully selected planting for its cleansing. With water quality and clarity reminiscent of a mountain stream, this low-maintenance and self-sufficient eco-system is also beneficial as it attracts further bio-diversity to the garden.
“The concrete elements such as the off-shutter and board-formed concrete posed challenges both in finish and mass,” notes Serman. Through a series of mock-ups a finish that the contractor was confident of reproducing and the owners were pleased with was established. During the course of the build, lessons were learnt regarding formwork kicking and techniques were improved and adopted moving forward. The louvres and shutters were also incredibly labour intensive and required a considerable amount of detailing, planning and on-site testing before they could be finalised.
“There were no major issues with the site, however, the first challenge came from the perspective of, how not to detract from the beautiful setting presented. And secondly, due to the fact that there were no existing structures or distinguishing features such as rocky outcrops or established trees to restrict or anchor the building, much consideration was given to positioning the home within the large expanse of open veld.”
House Wisse recently won a 2017 Award of Merit from Gifa (Gauteng Institute for Architecture). There were 36 entries of which 30 were short listed and 20 or so received wards. The regional institutes individually award prizes of Commendation, Merit and Excellence. Projects that receive Awards of Merit & Awards of Excellence then progress to be judged for the National awards from SAIA (South African Institute for Architecture).
“With the home inhabited and the landscaping established, I am very pleased with the end product,” says Serman. “I am incredibly grateful that the owners were bold and that I had their support and trust from the first concept presentation onwards. Good clients make good buildings! Admittedly, receiving photographs from the owners capturing the home from their point of view and hearing the owners affectionately referring to the home as ‘Sonvanger’ is deeply satisfying and rewarding.”
“An old colleague once mentioned that you only get 80% of what you draw, forty drawings and numerous sketches later I can confirm that he was indeed correct. Although the level of finish and detail achieved on this project was remarkable, what has become apparent is that there is an immense effort required to create a truly crafted piece of architecture,” Serman concludes.
About Robert Serman Architects
Robert Serman studied at The University of the Witwatersrand and graduated with a BArch degree in 2004. He gained experience in a few medium sized firms before starting his own practice, Robert Serman Architects, in 2010. The focus of their work is concept, context and clarity, resolving projects with an approach rather than a style. Since the practices’ inception, the odd renovation and small house have led to larger and more challenging briefs. Although still undertaking mostly residential work, they currently have an indoor swimming school and Aquaponic Greenhouses on the boards.
Photography: Paper Cut Photography – Natasha Laurent