SAIA Award for Excellence 2017/18

Situated unobtrusively on the edge of a lake in the idyllic hills of the Midlands in KwaZulu-Natal, the Lake House looks out over the water and the views beyond.

Designed by architect Richard Stretton from Koop Design, the house was built by the client and a small construction team, without a main contractor, using unconventional construction methods and materials.

The brief called for a large house that could comfortably accommodate an extended family for regular gatherings, but which also works for the couple alone. The upper and lower levels are linked with a wide gallery and connected by a bespoke staircase that is positioned to connect the master bedroom to the main living and kitchen area directly below. This enables a more compact living zone when needed.

The house further takes full advantage of the site – something that was commended by the judges of the South African Institute of Architects (SAIA) Awards, who granted the project an award for excellence.

Framed by a rock-walled entrance courtyard, the house transitions from a tree-lined landscaped platform behind the house, through to a transparent facade overlooking the lake at the front. Outdoor living areas are set between the core ground floor zones. These courtyards are nestled between living, work and bedroom bays, allowing both internal and external spaces to enjoy the water’s edge. This also protects the external spaces from prevailing winds, increasing the comfort of sitting outdoors.

The prime structure of the building is made of steel, with the unconventional locally-sourced timber and stone organised around the core structure.

Unique material and construction
Much of the timber and stone used in the construction of the building were collected by the owner for a decade before even commissioning the house.

More timber was bought from communities in the areas where dune mining operations were clearing forest land for mining, thereby resourcing the wood before it could be burnt down and carbon released into the atmosphere, while also supporting local people. This extracted indigenous African hardwood was used for flooring and furniture such as beds, tables and storage systems.

In turn, the cutting of the platform at the edge of the water exposed large boulders which were used to retain the cut slope of the site and additional rocks were resourced from the excavation of a gas pipeline in the district. For the boulder walls, the landscaper, together with the engineer, developed an ingenious rock-packing methodology.

The Lake House was designed so that both the internal and external spaces can enjoy the view over the small lake.

Inventive systems
In fact, custom systems were used throughout the project – from constructing the main structure, down to the fine details of the furniture. “A language was developed in the design process that was scalable so the detailing of the internal walls, ceilings and partitions translate into storage systems and furniture. In turn, the steel structure is detailed in a way that it is translated into kitchen fittings and furniture. This concept is resolved into table feet and cupboard hinges, all uniquely developed for the project,” Stretton explains.

Bespoke furniture
Koop Design is also known for its high-grade, crafted furniture and in the early 1990s, Stretton was one of the pioneers using CNC to process and cut plywood, as well as Saligna to make furniture.

“We generally use our furniture design to enhance our architecture, such as in the Lake House,” Stretton notes. “The furniture becomes very much part of the design. One of the strengths of the Lake House is that the language of the furniture is in fitting with the language of the architecture and it is holistically resolved, and what’s more, it is all delivered through the same processes.”

A love for timber
Stretton, renowned for his timber architecture and furniture, has enjoyed working with wood since he can remember. “As a boy, I played around with carpentry and understood how to make things out of timber. When starting my career, I wanted to build what I designed, and I had my own workshops and spent a lot of time on site.

“What is great about timber, is that you can build anything from furniture to buildings, needing only basic, lightweight tools. On my first project in far Northern KwaZulu-Natal, I was working with the community using timber and we had no electricity. This is how easy it is to build with timber.”

He adds that anyone looking to build in a truly carbon-neutral way, has to build primarily with plantation timber, since it is essentially the only truly sustainable building material in terms of removing carbon from the environment, providing rural job security, supporting the agricultural sector and being completely eco-friendly.

“Over the 14 years that a plantation grows, trees draw carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, trapping the carbon. If the wood decomposes in the forest or gets burnt, all of that carbon is released back into the environment. However, if the tree is felled and the timber is used in buildings, the carbon is sequestered and thereby removed from the environment,” he explains.

“Also, today modern engineered structural timber utilises 80 to 90% of the wood of a tree, resulting in much less wastage than through traditional planked timber. And it has now been proven that you can build almost any size building in timber,” Stretton adds.

Better quality jobs in timber construction
Stretton is also very passionate about the dignity of employment and the working conditions in the construction sector. “I believe that the kinds of jobs that are created in the timber sector are far better quality than in the concrete and steel sectors. Most of the work is done in factories and since timber buildings go up a lot faster and are more lightweight, the people who are doing the work seem smarter and have more dignity. It offers a positive alternative to the ‘old school’ construction economy, which has historically abused labour in this country,” he states.

On the Lake House project, the building process was overseen by a combination of skilled tradesmen and local labour. Skills transfer was maximised by the closeness of the team and the client’s commitment to a project “of the place and by the place”.

According to Stretton, the fundamental design remained unchanged whilst building systems were developed around available materials and skills. “The original design was resilient enough to respond to these developments along the way and the team remained resolute – held together by the intensely dedicated vision of the client.”

Indigenous African hardwood, sourced from a local community where the forest was intended to be cleared for mining, was used for flooring and furniture such as beds, tables and storage systems.

Full thanks and acknowledgement are given to Koop Design and the South African Institute of Architecture for the information given to write this article.

•    “As architects, we don’t force our project into a preconceived aesthetic that we might have. The idea of the building comes from research, unique to each project that we undertake in the early parts of the design phase.” – Richard Stretton, Koop Design

•    “We are not an architectural practice that is stuck in a style; we are more interested in the way we build buildings and what buildings do, than necessarily what they look like.” Although we trust our skills to make anything look great! – Richard Stretton, Koop Design

•    “This building is a prime example of ‘total design’ wherein the most careful design attention was lavished on all scales of the building.” – SAIA Awards, judges’ citation extract.

•    “The stonework and the African hardwoods used throughout lock this building firmly into its place in the world.” – SAIA Awards, judges’ citation extract.

•    “The hands of the various levels of craftspeople who made the building are clearly visible, so is their pride in their handiwork the bedrock of the respect and love that the users and visitors would experience when in and around the building.” – SAIA Awards, judges’ citation extract.

Caption main image:The sensitive placing of the house next to the lake takes full advantage of the site.

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