A version of this piece was published in the Sunday Times Home Weekly, 17 June 2012.
“Werner and Piet’s house? Ah, the church!” exclaims the security guard outside. He nods at the imposing triple-volume facade. An enormous red brick plinth gives way to a structure of corrugated iron and beams, standing almost alone amidst crackly, dry veld - a lifestyle estate in its infancy.
But while the lines of the impressive exterior are sharp and angular on one side, a separate-but-connected barrel vault roof rolls away to the left, softening the curves of their creation.
30-year-old architects Werner Nothnagel and Piet du Preez grin proudly as they critically run their eyes over their masterpiece - their first real shared home, that’s all their own, a living testament to their architectural aesthetic. “It’s our training camp,” Piet says. “We’re learning as we go.”
“It’s a showcase of how you can do things differently,” says Werner. “We pulled the lines apart so they play with each other. To highlight the details with contrast.”
The pair only bought their 600 square metre Waterfall Estate stand in 2011, with construction beginning in earnest last August. The results are extraordinary.
It is a symphony of red brick - all sourced from the highveld - with different patterns of bricklaying making the foundation a mural in itself. The house is a careful marriage of sustainable farmstyle living with contemporary lines, and a nod towards reinterpreted classical architectural forms, “so they won’t get lost,” Werner says.
Piet smiles. “It’s a barn,” he says. “A modern interpretation of a barn.”
“It plays with the rhythm of windows and steel,” adds Werner, “and then it breaks down to smaller, more intimate spaces.”
The exposed steel beams painted in charcoal and deep dove grey pick up on the dark patches of pigment in the brick, which Werner describes as a nod to the old Transvaal.
Enormous picture windows and extravagantly high ceilings on both floors bring the outside in.
The pair built their home as a showcase of their aesthetic. “People think, ‘That’s a strange idea...’ Then they see it here,” says Piet. “It’s lovely to get a chance to experience our own designs... To make sure they work!” he says.
The couple met at Tuks five years ago, and found that their design philosophies and love for honest lines complemented each other. But while their interpretation of farmstyle living may be avant garde, the home’s ethos is every bit the warm and functional.
The north-facing open-plan kitchen is the focal point of the home, with light pouring in from the neat veggie patch outside. The house is designed to subtly adapt to changing family dynamics - from the study nook next to the dining area, “so kids won’t get in the way of mum,” to the indoor braai-cum-fireplace.
Floating shelves show off crockery, a motley collection of orchids and a jacaranda sculpture or two in front of a muted aubergine wall. Warmth meets form in the overhanging Tom Dixon lights. A whiff of fynbos permeates.
It’s not a prescriptive space. “We wanted to force whoever lives here to fill in the gaps, make it their own,” says Werner. There’s room for imagination amidst the raw kiat wood surfaces and nougat kitchen palette - for re-invention and malleability.
Tiny details - like the low glass window alongside the floor in the guest bathroom, and the gas fireplace recessed into a stone slab - reflect Werner and Piet’s quest for thoughtful perfection.
In the connecting entrance hall, mini skylights made out of PVC piping drip sunlight through the flat roof, while overhead, vertical wooden strips of differing lengths in the ceiling draw the visitor’s eye to giant aloes behind a huge picture window.
Everything runs on gas here, including the Smeg stove. Their celebration of modern sustainable living stretches from the home-grown vegetable beds lined with locally-souced Irene rock, to the earthy karoo colours - succulent greens, steely greys, the purples of distant landscapes - throughout their home.
The living area is a celebration of natural textures - from an elaborately sculpted Weylandt’s bamboo fibre light fitting to the retro wicker set donated by Piet’s mum which makes up their relaxed “pyjama lounge”. The stairs and doors are Maranti timber, stained teak for richness - contrasting with the dark wood floor. And nearly all the doors slide, “for that moving wall effect,” says Piet.
It’s study in pragmatism with no fixed spaces. Each room awaits reinvention. “Houses need to grow and adapt with families,” Werner says.
Upstairs, the gabled master bedroom is flooded with light under a roof rising to a peak of more than 4 and a half metres. The Luxaflex grey blinds create a luminescent wall of glowing texture as the sun moves overhead. The house is angled to be warmer in winter and cooler in summer, and the slightly tinted glass helps with heating bills.
Werner and Piet looked towards hotels and spas for inspiration when designing their upstairs respite. “It’s supposed to be more than a house - but a getaway,” says Piet.
The powder blue guest bathroom with its porthole mirrors, rain shower and painted concrete is reminiscent of a coastal hideaway - inspired by the Strandfontein beach house Piet’s family has been escaping to since he was 6.
But for all the serenity, this is ultimately a house for playing. Werner’s 4-year-old dog Andries has embraced the ethos and is literally bouncing off the walls. “We’re convinced he’s half Jack Russell and half rabbit,” says Werner.
The indoor braai creates a dual-use area, which opens up to an open outdoor fire pit, whose curves echo those of the roof. “We repeat elements for emphasis,” Piet explains. Double flues prevent the smoke from sneaking indoors, and everyone gathers round. “It’s an interactive space,” says Werner. “We now have three braais a week.”
The pair are waiting for their newly-planted wild peach trees to grow into a shared canopy for privacy, next to the indigenous riverbush willows and bitter aloes. It’s Werner’s first landscaping attempt, and Andries yaps in approval as he chases wild rabbits into the veld.
The couple say the change of scene and perspective has provoked a change of lifestyle. They’re much more self sufficient, embracing country living along the estate’s 37 kilometres of walking trails, and time for themselves.
Here, they finish each day with a sundowner on their stoep, in a vintage wire garden chair, next to a cut eucalyptus stump.
“We miss city living sometimes,” says Werner, “but this feels much more grown up.”