A guide to house building in South Africa

A guide to house building in South Africa

Planning: Building for the future

It’s the fourth industrial revolution and EVERYTHING is changing. Or so everyone is making us believe. Sadly, South African building sites are still pretty much the same animal they have been for decades – very few truly new age building techniques are gracing our land (in residential projects anyway).

It’s concrete, brick, cement and lots of blood, sweat and tears from an often underpaid labour force. (Remember, as a self-builder you do have a responsibility to pay fairly and timeously and cover labour accidents with insurance.)

Every article you open in a mag claims green milestones by the dozen, but concrete and bricks are not sustainable, green building materials. In fact, if concrete were a country, it would slot in as the third highest polluter in the world.

There are a number of architects that do specialise in environmentally sound builds. Timber framed houses are starting to take off now, with recycled insulation materials. (Remember, only sustainably sourced timber is considered a green choice.)

However, when you do start a build on any kind, take it upon yourself to try and minimise your impact as much as you can. Principle decisions can have a huge impact on helping the environment.

Despite your choice of building material, everyone is able to make some easy choices that are in line with the new dawn – even though some of the ‘technology’ is basic common sense.

Going green(er)

Every self builder has no excuse to at least include the following features to minimize their environmental impact. Secondly, it will only be to your benefit – either saving you money in the long term or improving the quality of your life.

Water harvesting

When planning a roof design, angle any slopes in such a way that you can easily harvest rain water with gutters. Also include adequate space for large water tanks (at the very least a 4000/5000 liter tank) somewhere discreet, and ideally close to the gutters. Underground tanks are a great option when faced with a space constraint (but more costly).

When you’re laying plumbing points, also consider adding a few extra pipes and valves to harvest grey water (i.e. bath or basin water). Even just using this water untreated in the garden is a winner. A newly landscaped garden is thirsty!

On that note, there is not an area in SA that does not have water restriction of some kind in place. Consider this when planning any garden. Waterwise does not have to mean gravelling an entire garden. There are great options out there and many plants actually require far less water than we think (one good soak a week is better than a light irrigation every day, for example). And plant trees!


An entry level system for basic power coverage is not cheap – R150 000/R200 000 with regular maintenance expenses and battery replacements. Note, to go fully off grid is extremely expensive and difficult. Either way, be very careful to use well established, reputable suppliers. The industry is still experiencing many technical issues and you need guarantees and warrantees in place.

An easier and cheaper option is to get a solar geyser or heat pump. To harness the energy of the sun in our climate makes absolute sense. Please refrain from installing diesel generators as a back up!

Finally, use the sun as a heating agent and orientate your house as best possible to heat up your rooms in winter. Deep eves allow maximum light in summer, but less direct heat as the sun is higher. Solar pipes on the roof can also be used to heat up your home and pool.

North light, with deep eaves for heat protection.

For more info read this.


This is crucial to keep your home warm or cool in alternate seasons. Double glazing has become more affordable in SA recently and is now a must if your house exceeds a certain glazing quota (energy efficiency has to now be included in plan submissions).

It also makes sense to insulate all roofs inside the ceiling with the best stuff you can afford. This can make a huge difference to your home temperature. Concrete roofs can also be insufferable without insulation (contrary to popular belief that concrete is insulated).

You can use a thick layer (300mm) of chips or soil, which has the added benefit of more greenery, but you’ll need state of the art waterproofing and drainage to prevent pooling.

Finally, look at ways of insulating your slab in the ground if you’re building in an area that gets cold. Polystyrene is the general go to.

Most important with insulation of any kind is the installation. If any small area is left uncovered it ruins the effectiveness. Supervise!


Some Johannesburg suburbs have piped gas which allows great options for water and interior heating. Naturally, bottled gas is also an option, especially for stoves. But all installations require certification (on installation and again when you sell).

Biogas is a fabulous solution for electrical generation, but not widely used yet.


When shopping for new appliances, look out for the high energy efficiency ratings. Naturally, light bulbs need to be the same.


Include extra dustbin space to separate household refuse. Three bins in the kitchen is ideal – recyclables, food waste (small compost bins can easily be included in the work surfaces) and general waste.

Better alternatives

Ask question about your products when you start finishes. Has hardwood timber been sourced from sustainable forests, for example? There are also great water-based sealing and painting products out there now (in many cases, better than the solvent-based predecessor). Also, insist on proof of where rubble is being dumped (slip from the fill site).

One area that South Africans have a terrible track record in is disposing of site waste. Left over concrete is often dumped on the site. (Concrete trucks have to dispose of any leftover almost immediately. Always prepare any extra places you might need concrete before the caste. It saves money and time if you have some left over.)

Institute site fines for mixing cement on the ground, or dumping left over chemicals irresponsibly. It’s hard to enforce without a permanent supervisor, but it’s going to happen and you need to lay out the law beforehand.


Many items in a house can be sourced from second hand suppliers, or privately on-line. From floor boards to taps, baths and light fittings. In many instances they are brand new, but are being resold because they didn’t fit. Easy way to save costs too.

Future trends

A few things to consider that are not related to green practices, but very much part of present day property requirements, are opportunities for rentals and internet connectivity.

With increasing rates, many homeowners are considering letting out parts of their homes or building flats for Airbnb rentals. Consider easy accessibly and privacy for these units. Also, security measures that allow access when you’re not home and alarmed up. Also, worth keeping a portion of your plot accessible for future sub-division. Current zoning restrictions are always being reviewed with exploding cities.

With regards to Wi-Fi, include conduiting for fiber supply from the street and throughout house. With our last build we actually included network points at TV stations for Netflix and the like. Also, worth considering in bedrooms if you don’t want to sleep with Wi-Fi signal at night or want to restrict teenagers’ access.

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