Together for tomorrow


Architect of Change 1: Robert de Jager followed an organic process

by | Oct 10, 2018

It has been said that Goldilocks would find everything in the right place should she choose to visit House Burnett Prinsloo. By any standard that is fine praise for Robert Jager’s build, a finalist for the sustainable AfriSam-SAIA Awards which recognise excellence in sustainable design thinking, the only way forward for humanity. There are four categories: sustainable architecture; research in sustainability; sustainable products and technology; and sustainable social programmes.   This is the first in the series, Architects of Change, focussing on the seven finalists in the architecture category before the winners are announced at the end of the month. Our first interview is with Robert, the architect of House Burnett Prinsloo in Bishopscourt, Cape Town.

Describe your starting point? The brief was for a 300 square metre new house with ‘clean lines’. The building was to be reminiscent of the landscape and formal traditions of architectures that revere nature, not high-tech, but appropriate to, and of, the local Cape Peninsula sylvan setting. I started working from my client, Jane Burnett Prinsloo’s list of required spaces, and with her, gradually built up a vision of the house. We retained the position of an earlier garage, also an old path that became the entrance route, and all the trees on the site. For months we debated plan and spatial options. For instance, “Do we put this room here, or there?” It was a wonderful organic process divided between mutual discussions on site, and me at my drawing-board alone, with CAD tests of what could make best sense. Also many scale models were made to see what things would look like in 3D before committing to final plans.

Describe the finished building. The finished building is composed of two compact, spatially independent double storey pavilions linked at the entrance, each roofed with wide eaves. Many visitors to the house have commented on the calm quality of the finished building in its setting, and the awesome garden.

What criteria did you meet to qualify as a finalist for this competition? All sustainability criteria were dealt with rigorously. Thermal, solar, energy, lifetime-performance, and many other factors were embodied in the design. Mathew Streatfield of HereToday calculated how the building would perform based on the early form proposals. He made useful suggestions, which were incorporated.
The final design orientated all habitable rooms to face north with wide eaves to shade the house in summer, within a fully thermally insulated envelope of double glazing, insulated walls and roofs. For the occupants, the house can adjust to many scenarios of use, embodying other strategies for lifetime versatility. But, it is a house that cannot be separated from its wooded context and views of Table Mountain above Kirstenbosch. This relationship to context reifies the unique qualities of the site.

What are you most proud of achieving in design through this project? I have known my client, Jane, since the late 1970’s. Her late husband, Ivor Prinsloo, was the head of the architecture department at the University of Cape town where I was a student. This house is, for me, the clarification of architectural ideas I learned during that time. It was a very special task taken on with care, with my city-planner client. The building unifies a multitude of divergent criteria in form, and explores materials and landscape relationships. It reduces complexity back to calm simplicity, and makes the abstract qualities of the site visible.

Is there anything you executed here, that you hadn’t done before? We managed to create the illusion of scale and spaciousness despite extremely tight spatial constraints. The project is based on ergonomic and modular decisions, but hopefully it also embodies easy, weightless qualities… and a skip and a jump too.

Is there anything you or the owner would change? There have been no regrets about the design choices made. The CIFA Award Citation in 2017 amusingly said that Goldilocks would find everything in the right place should she choose to visit. For the builder, Mark Lunn Projects, this meant no wasteful u-turns, or capricious demands from client or architect; another form of sustainability that limited waste.

Favourite building? Our country has so many exquisite unmatchable, expressive, architectures. But for reasons of birth, Johannesburg is my favourite collective ‘building’. My father Felix was a serious Johannesburg property developer in the 1960’s. He showed me all the beauties of the city that artist William Kentridge later described as second only to Paris in greatness.

What are you reading at the moment? I’m reading “Travels into the interior of Africa via the Cape of Good Hope” by Surinamese-born explorer Francois Le Vaillant about his travels in the late 18th Century Cape. Also, Karel Schoeman’s “Afskeid van Europa”, and belatedly Edmund de Waal’s “The Hare with Amber Eyes”. I have a never-ending tower of detective stories within bedtime reach.

Where is your next holiday destination? I hope to twist my friend Jaihan’s arm for us to visit the temples at Borobudur, Indonesia, one of these days.

What music makes you want to dance? I love most music, especially Winifred Attwell’s ‘Five Finger Boogie’. Also Vusi Nova, Bongiwe Nakani, Levy Sekgapane, Schumann, Mahler, Boerneef songs, and much else beside.

*The adjudicators for the 2017/18 Awards are Maryke Cronje (architect and President of the SAIA), Dr Sechaba Maape (sustainability architecture academic and architect), Philippa Tumubweinee (academic and co-founder of IZUBA INafrica Architects), Niraksha Singh (AfriSam Raw Materials and Sustainability Manager), Dr Emmanuel Nkambule (academic with particular interest in the social environment) and Richard Stretton (founder of architecture and furniture design studio Koop Design).

Images: Natalie Sternberg

Stylist: Tanya Hass 

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