Green pioneers

PHOTOS: Greg Cox | PRODUCTION: Cornelia Badenhorst | WORDS: Johan van Zyl

On the farm, Place of Blessings, just outside Stellenbosch, there rose a new cob house – the first step of a young couple in their quest to live sustainably in the 21st century.

It’s so much easier being green with envy than well, green.

So what possessed a young stockbroker at one of London’s top firms to pack up hearth and home in 2004 and move with his family to the Boland – and that to a piece of “abused” earth where the precious top soil, had been sold off ?

Why would they choose to first get rid of a tract of bluegums and then, over a period of three years and with the help of some strong Zulu men, make bricks of sand, straw, clay and water, which they used to build an enormous house? A house with skew walls, a copper-ringed curved roof and spacious rooms where family pieces, antique-shop finds and the most beautiful copper bath have all found their spot.

And now they live here – barefoot, wheat-free and ecstatically happy – with three children, a group of workers, dogs, a cat, some hard-working chickens, Nguni and Bonsmara cattle, vineyards, 800 new trees (with more on the way), a lush organic fruit and vegetable garden that more than provides for them and their workers, a cactus garden on the roof, an olive grove, a wormery, a natural wetland pool, a dam, compost heaps, a nursery and a space-age hothouse dome, fish eagles, blue cranes, weavers, a swallow’s nest in the study and a couple of solar panels.

Eco eating

They’re soon going to be making their first straw wine; plans are in the pipeline to offer “rural, sustainable eating experiences” in a restaurant where you can see all the ingredients outside before heading inside to dine; with the help of landscape architect Patrick Watson, they’re restoring huge tracts of the farm to the original renosterveld; they want to farm with cattle and chickens that are solely pasture fed.

They’d also like to remain anonymous, please, because this isn’t about them or their unique home, but about the principles and goals of a modern, sustainable lifestyle, a certain approach towards the environment that should no longer be a choice.

“In Britain we lived in a value system based on bonuses and promotions,” recounts the wife, who left South Africa at the age of 12. “Actually a lot about cities in the Western world is aimed at consuming, using and abusing. The big transformation came about when, with the help of my brother and the philosophy espoused on the Spier estate, we started planning our home and researching various building methods. We soon noticed most South Africans are apprehensive about the oldfashioned ways of building … many think cob and clay bricks are weird and hobbit-like, or only suitable to ‘ethnic’ homes.

We wanted a spacious, modern home with a minimal impact on the environment: Firstly by using less energy and more renewable, recycled and recyclable materials in the building process and secondly by minimising the energy requirements of the house and waste once we were living there.”


“Sustainability is a complex concept that is hard to define,” concurs her husband. He says it was through architects Keith Struthers of Natural Architecture and Etienne Bruwer from Greenhaus Architects that they got to know about practices such as permaculture and biodynamics, according to him an effective farming practice that continually improves a farm’s fertility.

This is why they now use a Flowform from Avice Hindmarch, a device that restores stagnating water in pipes to its natural, moving structure; and why they plant every plant on the farm according to the biodynamic planting calendar. “I really like the definition of sustainability I found in a report by the United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development that was published in 1987: Sustainability meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

She fetches a pile of albums from a cupboard, all with “Our New House” on the first page, wherein they have documented this direction they took in 2004. “We consider ourselves conductors of a big orchestra,” she says, looking slightly bemused at the transformation. “But truth be told, we’re right at the beginning of our adventure – we’re trying; we’re definitely not the perfect greenies!”

• Keith Struthers, Natural Architecture: 021 794 7655,

• Etienne Bruwer, Greenhaus Architects: 021 794 4465,