A guide to house building in South Africa

A guide to house building in South Africa

Blog: SABauhaus VISI feature

I was honoured to have the website featured in the Octover/November 2020 VISI magazine.

Below is the full text of my question and answers, a lot of which they were unable to use due to space constraints.

Can you tell us a bit about your background and how you first became interested in building and design? What is it about this particular area that continues to attract you?

I have always been obsessed with spaces, both internal and external. Even as a child, I was daydreaming of renovations or perfect rooms. Now I love the smell of building sites and all the potential half completed spaces represent.

Unfortunately, my maths was never good enough for me to consider architecture, so on a whim, I studied journalism and dabbled in corporate life, but it was not for me. There is a lot of building history in my family, including my late father who was a masterbuilder and constructed many of the old Volkskas banks around the country with the architect Gawie Fagan. I guess it runs in the blood.

Why did you start your website and what is your overall aim for it in the future? (And, why did you call it SAbauhaus?)

There is a real lack of practical information about building a house in South Africa that neither architect’s or builder’s advise their clients about, especially if you’re on a limited budget. Neither like getting involved in the administrative and approval steps, especially NHBRC registration or project budget control.

The website covers what I’ve learnt over seven residential house projects, especially what does and does not work – from the perspective of someone that ends up living in the house and not only designs it. I also want to tell people that building, although not stress free, is still more achievable than they think. If I could do it, so can you!

The name came about from my German ancestry (translates to ‘build house’) and the link to the famous art and architectural movement in the twenties.

What’s the number-one most important piece of advice you have for anyone wanting to build their own new home in SA?

Keep the whole process clean. If you have a crisp house design, a clear budget with timelines, qualified contractors, and stick to the rules (avoid planning departures and get all the certifications) you can halve your stress. And, avoid building underground – basements almost always go over budget and present nasty, damp surprises!

Almost every build you hear of goes over budget and over time, usually incredibly so. Set your budget first, adjust your expectations, finalise your design, do your homework (a quantity surveyor can help here), and then keep daily control, because if you don’t, no one else will.

That includes planning and costing as many of the building steps as possible, from submission admin and service connection costs, to final finishes before you even start building. This makes the build quicker and cheaper. SABauhaus provides some checklists for this.

Ultimately, the level of stress for a build is directly proportional to what you pay for the project. If you want it to be perfect (with less stress), get an architect to project manage the full build, with some input from you, till completion. They also tend to use only very experienced contractors.

But it will be lengthy and expensive (anything from R15 000 – R25 000 per square meter, upwards). Architects, in my experience, are not very mindful of either, but in fairness, they are creating art.

If you don’t have a high budget (roughly R10 000-R15 000 a square meter), you might have to get your hands dirty and possibly have some sleepless nights here and there. The first quote I got for my first house was double the budget. Eleven quotes, one bad and one good builder later, we were still able to move in ten months later. It was still a building site, with no garden, pool, decking – but we managed it. Was it stressful, yes! But did the house get built? Absolutely, and we added the rest over time. I’ve never met anyone that regretted building their own house.

You advise people to always use an architect – we definitely agree, but why would you say this is so important?

Every time I’ve built, I’ve handed the architect my exact floor plan and design requirements, mostly to save time and because it’s what I do – much to their horror! But there is no question that they took the design to another level, especially with roof detailing and proportion. If you are going to go to the trouble of building a house, build the best house possible. If you can find an architect that is personally invested in your project, all the better.

If you can afford it, absolutely get the architect to oversee the build and detailing. There is simply no comparison. Even if you have a small budget, you can ask around for a good architect that is willing to consult for a smaller fee. Or why not try an architectural student.

Every design has potential to be better. Also, the more detailed and accurate the drawings, the easier the build. But I will say this…a house needs personality. Don’t rely on the architect for everything – as the client, stand your ground. Sometimes, when architects are challenged, they come up with their best ideas.

Is a great location always more important than a great design?

That’s a hard one. I would always prefer a simple, but good, house in the best location. (If you are building for profit, only a high-end location is likely to grow your investment quickly.) But if you have a very small budget that limits location, why should you not have a wonderful space in the area you can afford? A good design always improves a location.

You’ve worked on a large number of builds and renovations yourself. Which is more complex: a new build, or a renovation?

I found renovations very trying! Once you’re used to building from scratch, it is very frustrating dealing with different floor and roof levels, wiring and pipes that are inevitably in the wrong place.

As most renovations involve fixing the most expensive parts of a house (kitchen, windows, flooring, plumbing), the costs add up very, quickly. You have to be very careful not to over invest. One little change here and there inevitably leads to major changes everywhere. And, for everyone’s sake, move out while renovating!

What has been the single most challenging moment during your own experience of builds and renovations?

Hands down being a woman on a building site comes with challenges. I’m often not taken seriously and have to stand my ground, or insist to the point of rudeness, which is not the way I like to operate. Not great.

And, what has been your single best moment during those builds/renovations?

In my experience, the best moments often come a few months after moving in. At first one is still too wired and snag obsessed. Once that’s all done and you can sit back with family and friends for lunch in your new space, it’s priceless. Although in my second new house build I hosted a large 70th celebration nine months after breaking ground, and two days after moving in. Pretty special.

If you were building your own dream home – with an unlimited budget – in SA, where would it be located, what style would it be designed in, and could you describe it briefly in terms of the number of rooms and key detailing it would have? (Any brief reasons you can give for your choices would be great here too…)

I’ve lived in many parts of South Africa, so have quite a few favourite areas. In Gauteng it would be the top ridge of Westcliff. The quiet top pocket of Tamboerskloof or Higgovale in Cape Town. Otherwise the KZN Northcoast, again, on top of the hill to catch the afternoon sun.

But, ultimately I’m not a city girl, so I would have to say a few hectares in the winelands, or midlands would do nicely. But the site would need north sun, be secure, relatively wind free, and have water. Being close to an airport, good schools and hospitals also helps.

As for style, the more I build, the simpler I like the building and interiors to be, but I’ve always loved high ceilings, courtyards and rectangular lines, with timber detailing and landscaping to soften.

Having said that, our first build was a very basic design. But it had charm as we put our heart and soul into it, which many expensive houses lack. So, I want everyone to know, it’s not always about the budget. Find where you want to live and then make it work. The case studies of my builds illustrate some of these lessons and provide tips.

For investment purposes I would always build at least four bedrooms, three living rooms and a large, central kitchen with a scullery. Flatlets are great for earning potential or future options. Most importantly, I would now absolutely insist that any new build is as environmentally friendly and as ‘off grid’ as possible.

Last but not least: do you/would you work as a project manager on other people’s builds? In other words, could readers get in touch with you if they were on the lookout for a project manager? And if so, where are you based at present?

Project managing a build can become a full-time job if you are detail orientated, so I’m not able to take that on for others. My website is there to offer step-by-step advice, guidance and I’m happy to answer questions or consult and advise on concepts, approach and detailing.

My final advice is to not only find a good contractor or project manager, but also to insist that a very experienced foreman is on site all day. These are the unsung heroes of a well-functioning site.

Above all, if you are self-building, being on site every day is the best solution. You will be surprised how many questions arise each day. Being able to make these calls, or order the next lot of supplies before contractors run out, saves time and money.

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