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Nico van der Meulen – the undeniable master of the upmarket residence

by Madelein
Nico van der Meulen – the undeniable master of the upmarket residence

Nico van der Meulen is no ordinary architect, as he has the most extraordinary gift – the ability to turn the most expensive, exquisite high-end residence into a fully functional family home.

The owner and founder, Nico van der Meulen, and his wife, Santa, established the now family-run architectural practice in 1984. Anyone can see why Nico, who is now in partnership with his two sons (both architects), has been responsible for some of the most remarkable residences ever designed. Each member of the family has established their own reputations within the design industry for their talents in architecture, interior design, decor and art.

Nico grew up on a farm near the border between South Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe. He initially studied civil engineering, then explored project management and finally registered as a professional architect. By the end of this year Nico will be involved in the building industry for 50 years.

Now, let us be clear, when we say most exquisite, we are talking about homes fit for monarchs, sovereigns and sheiks. Basically, building, designing and decorating dream homes for the uber wealthy.

Yet, what makes Nico van der Meulen and his team’s approach so different, is their absolute focus on quality, balanced with functionality, astonishing architecture and sumptuous interior design.

The company remains at the forefront of design by exploring new forms, pushing the boundaries and evolving with technology, without compromising on the authenticity of the design, aesthetics, materials and originality.

Nico van der Meulen Architects has designed buildings in more than 40 countries globally during the past 37 years, many of which have received international acclaim. Some are as far afield as the United States of America, United Kingdom, Ireland, Cyprus, Portugal, Australia, Italy, Saudi Arabia, Russia, Canada and many African countries.

The firm is known for designing many of South Africa’s most beautiful homes. Nico’s work earned him a SAPSA Lifetime Achievement Award for Excellence in Architecture.

Marlene van Rooyen, Editor-in-Chief at Walls & Roofs sat down with Nico van der Meulen to talk about his recipe for success, his family’s contribution and current projects.

Q: Nico, you are well-known in the upmarket residential market. To what do you attribute your success?
Nico: A looong life? Lol….

The company was established in 1984, and from inception, we concentrated on the quality of work based on functionalism and innovation. We marketed ourselves to clients who appreciate the finer things in life and who are not just looking for the cheapest option, but rather for innovation and quality.

“In architecture, functionality should always be given higher priority than the form. Considering we spend our entire lives inhabiting the structures we have designed, rather than admiring their external appearances. Functionalism is our design philosophy and while our facades could have any form and be associated with any style, our buildings will always remain functional.”

Q: How would you describe your personal style and to what extent does it form part of your recipe for success?
Nico: I’m a hard worker and appreciate the better things in life – a stylish lifestyle, but not flashy and rather minimalistic, and this is reflected in our work.

Following a carefully considered approach to design and commitment to meeting the requirements of individual clients has led to us gaining a reputation for creating luxurious designs from the ground up, or transforming existing residences into innovative and extraordinary homes, tailored to the tastes and needs of our clients.

Depending on the client’s brief, I prefer to use only elements that are essential to a project.

Q: What new products or technology have you adopted that helps make your life easier?
Nico: As far as new products are concerned, the one product that is transforming luxury housing is the large-format sintered stone tiles. The advantage of a lightweight material at sizes of 3m x 1m slabs in 3mm thickness, means a huge cost saving when compared to the significant transport and installation cost of real stone. Modern technology also means that this product requires zero maintenance, as it is scratch and fade resistant. The application possibilities of this product in, for example, furniture design, opens up exciting design avenues.

Technology-wise, building information modelling (BIM) is making a big difference in the way we produce designs, both in the 3D capabilities of the programmes and working with consultants.

Q: What is your prediction for the South African residential market – do you see growth in the upmarket segment and where?
Nico: We have not seen real growth for a long time, but at least there is a reasonably steady flow of work locally. However, the rest of Africa is very depressed.

Unless the economy improves overall, I cannot see huge growth in the market, and emigration by large numbers of productive high-nett-worth individuals (HNWIs) adds to the problem, as many homes are dumped on the market for lower prices than it can be built. Building plots cost far more per square meter in places such as Abidjan, Harare and Nairobi than in Sandton!

Q: What new trends do you feel are worth exploring and what do they offer that is different?
Nico: The small home trend worldwide is interesting, and obviously sustainable, but most people will only stay in these for a few years before upscaling.

Generally, the movement to building green, zero carbon and net energy makes a lot of sense, but unfortunately it adds a lot to the upfront costs of a building and does not always yield the desired results.

We still insist on getting the basics right, such as:
• Facing the building in the right direction.
• Maximising and solving the sun’s control.
• Taking the micro-climate of the area into consideration.
• Insulating the building properly.

By following the basics, many energy concerns are reduced from the onset.

Q: What have been some of your biggest challenges and what can be done to change them (red tape, building regulations etc.)?
Nico: Red tape creeps forth inexorably, as every year there are new laws, restrictions, requirements and regulations to get plans approved. (Cape Town is probably the worst place in Africa to get a plan approved.) Our problem is that we are imitating the first-world countries without the trained bureaucrats to implement these regulations, which results in a bureaucratic nightmare and unacceptable delays.

Instead of simplifying the environment to promote growth, the authorities drown the industry in red tape and then you submit a plan in Ekurhuleni for a simple home and wait 6 months to get it approved!

Q: To what extent can one adopt commercial building practices in residential projects and what would you like to see more of?
Nico: We already use some of the commercial practices, as we are using steel construction and concrete frame technologies for many of our projects.

The problem that comes in with high-end buildings, especially luxury homes, is that each building is basically a prototype, with a large percentage of methods and materials used in a different way from previous projects, which infers that a certain amount of experimentation has to take place on the building site.

I would like to see more of the private estates, where most residential development take place, to allow and encourage more innovative architecture, rather than trying to force architects to use dated concepts, especially those estates who still prescribe only traditional roofs.

Q: What are the biggest drivers of the upmarket residential market?
Nico: The client’s ego? It is probably a combination of many factors – people upgrading because they can afford it, a status symbol, security, comfort, growing families etc. The continuous striving for a better life (Maslow’s hierarchy of needs).

Q: What are the key elements that clients expect from a home in this segment – bigger is not always better?
Nico: For some yes, size is particularly important. What we try to ensure, is that the quality does not suffer because of an inflated building size. We live and breathe the conviction of a total design philosophy, ensuring enough budget to create a seamless transition between the exterior and the interior, reducing the scale to finer detail.

This resulted in M Square Lifestyle Design and M Square Lifestyle Necessities being established in association with Nico van der Meulen Architects.

The combination of all three companies’ expertise inspires the architecture of living spaces, with M Square Lifestyle Design being an interior design practice creating bold design solutions, while M Square Lifestyle Necessities is an upmarket furniture and décor service with a selection of the finest imported furniture from design studios around the world.

When we work on a client’s home, our interior design practice and architectural arm work side-by-side, literally, so that we can deliver the best home possible to the client.

Q: Where do you see the market moving to? Mixed-use developments seem to be big – what is your view?
Nico: There are two definite markets – the young, upwardly mobile likes the buzz and convenience of the mixed-use developments, while the older settled generation prefers either the leafy suburbs or the security and status of private estates such as Steyn City.

Q: What advice can you give to young architects?
Nico: Learn to design functional buildings, including the orientation of the building and sun control. It is the foundation of good design. Then learn about running a business if you want to be successful.

Q: What materials excite you and where have they been used with great success?
Nico: I have always liked to work with glass, and with all the new developments in glass technology, it is becoming even more exciting. Unfortunately, here too the regulations are sadly starting to stunt creativity. I often get the impression that a lot of regulations are introduced by the big players in the industry more to improve their profitability than anything else.

Q: Talk to us about sustainability in this market – is it a driver and if so, in which areas?
Nico: If we do not design sustainably, we may not be able to design anything eventually, as the earth may become uninhabitable. It is as simple as that.

Q: What is next for you?
Nico: Who knows? For now, I’m just hoping we can start travelling internationally again.

Nico shared some of his most recent projects with us during our chat and all we can say is: “Wow!”

For more awe inspiring and beautiful architectural masterpieces, visit www.nicovdmeulen.com.

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