By André Mellet and Willem Human, owners of Mellet & Human Architects
One of the biggest gratifications of being an architect is when clients come back repeatedly because they realise that the value we add to a project makes every cent worth it in the end.
For this is often where clients are scared off – when they see the fee structure, but not the intrinsic value. But when clients out of the blue get an offer on their house that they can’t resist, without their house even being up for sale, or get a great reselling value the day they want to sell their house, that is when they realise that involving a qualified and capable architect made all the difference.
Redesigning bad design
We are often called in to redesign existing or old houses and it is very apparent when the design was not done by a sufficiently qualified architect, or a technician, or merely a DIY job. We see houses that allow very little natural light inside, or layouts that are not functional at all. Some might have very interesting fronts and one can see that they were designed to make an impression on arrival, but then the rest of the house just does not work.
Use the space right
A key part of good architecture is to consider the best orientation of a building, its optimal placement on the site and making the absolute most of natural light in interiors, considering the angle of incidences in both winter and summer. This not only makes the house much more comfortable to live in, but it could also save a lot of electricity.
We also create focus points and lines of sight in our designs. One thing we try to avoid is corridors, because they are just a lot of wasted space. But if a corridor is necessary, we make it work by adding a window that can provide a view to the outside, for example.
As younger people move into older suburbs, it becomes evident that many of the houses built during the 1960s and 70s are just not ideal for modern living preferences. Many of these houses have level changes inside as a result of building against a slope, and sit-pits were also a fashion of those times. Nowadays, however, people prefer continuous, flat floor surfaces.
Another downside of many of the older houses is that the layouts are not functional – the kitchens are hidden away and the swimming pool is often way back in the furthest corner of the yard.
In cases like this it is sometimes best to just turn the whole arrangement around and move the kitchen to the opposite side of the house, where it is close to other living areas, the patio and swimming pool. And contrary to what was the norm before, kitchens may even face north, because that is where people spend a lot of their time nowadays. In fact, kitchens are becoming increasingly important and are often the centre of design.
In addition, we are moving away from designing foyers, especially in smaller houses. Some clients want to make a statement with a beautiful entrance, but often people don’t even use the front door anymore. This is why we often propose designs that see guests walking right onto the patio upon entering, instead of them having to walk through the entire house first.
Clients also ask for spaces to be flexible and interchangeable. Rooms don’t have just one specific function anymore; instead people want open, spacious rooms that aren’t too prescriptive in terms of layout and which don’t limit their use of it.
Volume is another aspect that creates a sense of spaciousness and luxury. While the standard ceiling is 2,6m high, we rarely put in anything lower than 3m, and we don’t use a 2,1m door, but rather a 2,4m one. It doesn’t cost that much extra and it makes a great impression.
Architecture that lasts
Ultimately our goal as architects is to design timeless buildings that are suited to the terrain that they are built on and that best address the client’s needs and preferences. Sustainability is not just about “green” features – it is about creating a building that is functional, low maintenance and that won’t require a facelift in ten years’ time.
For optimal interior comfort, the building’s orientation plays a big role and insulation is important, not only in the ceiling, but also in the floor and walls, together with double glazing.
We like working with textures and materials such as natural stone, raw concrete and bricks that are sealed instead of plastered. We also reuse what we can. For example, in one of our projects that involves the conversion of a garage, the budget for rubble removal was R20 000, but we ended up only using R400 of it since we cleaned and reused the demolished bricks in the paving and mounted the old garage doors on frames to create striking sliding doors. In yet another project in Irene, a lot of stones was uncovered on the site and instead of spending money on removing it, we found a way to use it in the design.
And we always try and keep the trees, designing and building around them instead of having to wait years for another one to grow.
Interestingly, the type of client approaching us for residential and commercial design is already motivated to install solar panels and solar geysers. This is not necessarily to achieve savings, but they see the benefit in designing their houses and offices to be independent from the grid and not affected as much by power failures. Some are even flaunting it as part of the design, instead of trying to hide it.
Changing with the times
Practising architecture in a time with rapid advances in technology keeps it exciting. While we still like to draw a perspective by hand, technology now allows us to show a client from many different angles what a design looks like, and it is much easier and quicker to change aspects and make adjustments.
Just a few years ago we were having nightmares about the installation of wiring for speakers and alarms, but now it can all be done wirelessly.
Always add value
Our approach to upmarket residential design is not about choosing the most expensive products or installing over-the-top home automation gimmicks. It is still about getting value for money. In the early days of the Tuscan trend, we designed a house with coloured plaster and in 18 years, it has not been necessary to paint the house – it is aging like an authentic Italian villa.
It doesn’t matter what the style or the details; it is about doing it right, not taking shortcuts and not exploiting clients. In the end, the space needs to function as it is intended and it needs to last for years to come.
Main image: Many clients are very motivated to include green features in the design. The owners of this house in Groenkloof opted for a corrugated water tank that complements the style of the house. Raw concrete also provides a low-maintenance exterior.
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