A guide to house building in South Africa

A guide to house building in South Africa

Design: Secrets of a great floor plan

The devil’s in the details. It’s as simple as that.

You cannot spend enough time considering every little nuance, feature and light detail.

That is why the Bathroom, Flooring, Kitchen and Lighting design articles are featured here and not in the ‘Finishes’ sub-section. Almost all the decisions for the above need to be made at design stage.

If you’ve finalised as many of these things as possible at the planning stage, it will make your build all the easier and cheaper. These are your crucial elements to consider when planning.


North and east are optimal in our climate – having horizontal, west sun or no light/heat from the south can make a room very unpleasant. Architects are well versed in working with directional light. Of course, double glazing helps insulate windows, but only the top of the range helps with heat. Consider over hangs on north aspect, or external shutters on west.

North light, but deep eaves to protect against heat.

Also try and incorporate two or three sides with windows in most rooms. It makes all the difference to have more than one light source.

For more about windows and doors, click here.


Open plan living is an obvious plus, but it needs good circulation spaces to make it work (consider your furniture placement when drawings starts to help plan with this). It’s a good balance to have some open areas and cosy, private bolt holes or utility/storage areas. Avoid passages as much as you can, and try and keep circulation spaces to 1.2m (no less than 1m), even around beds.


The standard height in most residential spaces is between 2.3 – 2.8m. Taking it to 3.5m immediately gives the space another dimension. You pay for more materials and labour (bricks, cement, glazing etc.), but ultimately a pretty cheap way of taking a space to another level. Another option is to expose your ceilings. Go for single or designed trusses. It’s a bit more expensive, but then you don’t have a low horizontal beam bridging the walls.

(Good insulation will be essential, especially if you open up your ceiling. The smaller the space in the ceiling, the better-quality insulation material you’ll need between roof and ceiling, i.e. the pink stuff and foil is not enough in a hot climate! You’ll need high quality, thick insulation, some of which can even be used as a ceiling board. You’ll never regret it.)


A framed view is obviously the greatest feature of all, but very few city properties come with that.

Use staircases, fireplaces, trees or courtyards to create interesting focal points. Large trees can be craned into a courtyard for not nearly as much as you think. In the bigger scheme of things it can really make a difference between a good house and a great house.


Most residences in South Africa cannot go over 8m from what is deemed natural ground level (taken from a land survey of the plot). If you had a little dip on the original site, that you’ve since bull dozed flat, they will still refer to the original site levels on the survey. It is absolutely essential to get your levels (and boundaries) right.

If your neighbor disputes your build, and you’ve gone over by 200mm, council can shut you down (or make you tear it down). It’s easier to measure land/wall boundaries, but heights on an uneven plot is tricky and requires professionals.

The other tricky business is to get the ‘falls’ correct. The sewer and stormwater pipes have to run at a slope the whole length of your property to the street connection. The same goes for storm water from a neighbor (you have to accept it) and pool back wash pipes.


It’s important to maintain a level of continuity throughout the build. Choose a building style that speaks to you and use it as your guiding principle throughout. Pinterest is great for creating scrapbooks.

Stick to a consistent wall finish in and out. For example, if you use stone, stick to the same colour range. Continuous floor finishes also create a much more integrated interior and make a space look larger.

If you do use different flooring, remember that they all have different thicknesses and therefore require different floor levels. You have to consider at planning stage (i.e. some tiles are 20mm thick, some 5mm) so there is no such thing as shopping for these too early.

Continuous eye line.

Once you start building

Despite taking the greatest amount of care, it’s absolutely inevitable that some tweaks will occur on site. For example, once you build the second floor your realise the neighbor has a direct view into a bedroom window so you shift the window.

Any changes will almost always have knock on effect and a cost implication (structure, electrical or plumbing pipes etc.). That’s why it’s best to plan as much ahead as possible.

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