Bloemfontein Home

WORDS Robyn Alexander PRODUCTION Sven Alberding IMAGES Warren Heath/Bureaux

Philip and Lisa Nel have lived in this compact prefabricated home since 2009 – and by layering a quirky cosiness onto innovative design and construction, they’ve demonstrated the long-term value of this increasingly popular way to design and build.

Set in a burgeoning grove of indigenous Karee trees on the outskirts of Bloemfontein, Philip and Lisa Nel’s home anticipated the current trend of prefabricated dwellings by a decade. Back in 2009, having just renovated and sold a house, Philip finally took the plunge and built the prefabricated small dwelling he’d had in mind for a while. A piece of property adjacent to his parents’ home on the western edge of the city was the chosen site – and 12 years later, it’s where the couple still live.

prefabricated home in Bloemfontein
The owners take a walk with Raspberry.

Originally just 45m2 in size and manufactured in three sections that fit neatly between two of his beloved karee trees, the design for Philip’s own home became the basis for a design and construction business, Inizio Homes – a company that offers a turnkey solution including design, fabrication, project management and construction. The Nels’ prototype house had garnered local publicity from the start: it was published in ArchSA, the journal of the South African Institute of Architects, in 2009, while Inizio Homes was nominated for VISI’s emerging designer award in 2012.

READ MORE: Contemporary Bloemfontein Home

Every item of furniture and element of decoration in their abode is something specially selected that has been “found, collected, and is very much liked”, says Philip. The couple definitely have an eye for unique vintage furniture, while the large bookshelf – which used to do double duty as a room divider between the living and sleeping spaces – is packed with treasured titles, as well as being home to small artworks and part of a collection of indoor plants.

prefabricated home in Bloemfontein
Lisa and Philip Nel with their two wire-haired terriers, Rusty and Luna, on the outdoor deck that extends the house into the surrounding landscape. The table and benches were designed by Philip.

When Lisa was working on a master’s degree thesis in 2019, and required long periods of privacy and quiet, Philip decided the moment had come to extend the house. The result is a new bedroom and bathroom, completed in early 2020 – “Just before lockdown began, thank goodness,” he says – that adds a further 23m2 to the overall footprint of the home.

READ MORE: Dutch Houseboat

The new section was constructed using similar materials to the original, including the steel frame that forms the basis of all Inizio structures, but also utilising insights from Philip’s experience with his other builds. The result is a delightfully airy space with north-facing clerestory windows that allow just the right level of light and sun into the room, while on the opposite side, sliding glass doors lead out onto the extended outdoor deck. Other key features of the room include the exposed-truss interior roof configuration that Philip has discovered works much better than traditional board ceilings; and a large vintage steel bath, which “we’ve had for five years”, waiting for its ideal setting.

READ MORE: The Huddle on Rosemary Hill Farm

Now, it’s a showpiece, with the artfully rusted exterior kept intact and the interior fully restored. In Philip’s view, in the last 10 years there’s been a change to the “misconception that prefabrication is a less-permanent building solution, or something overly functional and unattractive”. And with Covid-19-related mind-shifts with regards to working remotely already having a clear effect on housing markets and options around the world, it seems many more of us will be thinking about the possibility of living in a new, custom-built house in a small town or peri-urban location – particularly if we can have a closer connection to nature.

All this, of course, makes Lisa and Philip visionary early adopters of the “close to town but out of town” lifestyle trend. Their delightfully cosy home is filled with collected treasures and populated by two very happy humans and their beloved wire-haired terriers – not to mention the pet donkey and rescued teenaged guinea fowl. In fact, rather like the evergreen, frost-hardy and drought-resistant karee trees that surround it, this is a future-proof home that has already stood the test of time.

Looking for more architectural inspiration? Sign up to our weekly newsletter, here.