Kommetjie House

WORDS AND PRODUCTION Kerryn Fischer/Frank Features PHOTOS Elsa Young/Frank Features

A love for the sea, a deep connection to nature, an innovative design come together in this family home among the dunes.

Nestled atop a dune in Kommetjie, the family home that architect and ceramicist Emma Day shares with her businessman husband, Chris, and their two teenage children is a triumph of intuitive design. It’s the realisation of a long-held dream for the couple, who had wanted to give their children the kind of coastal lifestyle they’d had growing up. “I grew up in Ramsgate on the south coast of KwaZulu-Natal, while Chris grew up in Kommetjie,” says Emma. “So it definitely felt like a homecoming for us when we found this plot in Klein Slangkop eco-estate.”

“We wanted our space to feel open to the elements, and echo what was already here,” says homeowner Emma Day of the design, which – with its light-filled spaces, planted roofs and superb views – feels grounded in the landscape.

Although the couple hadn’t envisaged living in an estate, the 1 200m2 pie-shaped plot is slightly elevated and boasts spectacular sea views, with a strong connection to the strandveld fynbos biome that borders the house at the back. The design process took two years, with Emma taking much inspiration from Christopher Alexander’s A Pattern Language, an architectural treatise proposing that the world’s most beautiful spaces were not made by architects but by, and for, people. Alexander’s approach is not top-down design or bottom-up chaos, but generative constraints that begin with the environment and run through a “grammar” of building – which means the design emerges from these constraints in much the same way that a sentence arises from grammatical rules.

As a result, every part of the house is a response to what’s out there: the aspect, the views, the garden and the weather. “The weather, be it sun ,rain or wind, determines a huge amount in any house in Cape Town,”says Emma.“And this house is informed by the sun.” Laid out as a series of terraces, the building’s long L-shape hugs the natural slope of the dune in an east-west direction, ensuring that every room has a north-facing aspect. And while the three-bedroom home with a stand-alone guest suite is laid out over three levels and on a strict grid, you don’t get that feeling at all when you walk through it. In fact, the house is experienced as a slow reveal of comfortable, light- filled, humanist spaces that lead up from the entrance level,where the guest suite and Chris’s office create an entrance courtyard with the playroom, the surfboard room, Emma’s studio and double garage. From there, a flight of stairs takes you to the living areas, where an open-plan kitchen,TV room,sun lounge and outdoor entertaining area are all centred around an expansive pool courtyard.

Emma’s desire to build efficiently was an important consideration. “In South Africa, we tend to think that a brick house is a good house,” she says. “But there is little efficiency and flexibility to such spaces – once you’ve done all the brickwork, the plumbers and electricians cut holes to install everything, and it’s pretty much set in stone.” Therefore, creating a timber construction that was not only better insulated than a masonry home but also able to evolve with time became a focus for Emma. “I wanted a modular design that would allow for a building to be put together and taken apart with ease.” As such, the basement, internal walls and the slab for the main bedroom on the top floor are made from brickwork and concrete, but everything else above the basement level is timber.

“The entire house is bolted together like a piece of furniture,” says Emma. “The exterior cladding is made up of panels that can be taken off one at a time to access any part of the outside walls.” Similarly, the oak ceiling inside is installed as a series of panels that can be taken off one by one, should they decide to install another light or need to repair the ceiling.

Except for the plants – a crucial element that was part of the design concept from the beginning. “Each design drawing was done with plants, because the plants have become our decor,”says Emma.“The big planters out front provide privacy from the road, the planted roof adds another layer of insulation, and the planted staircase outside that leads to the pool is massively important, because it echoes what is already found on the dunes. It’s such a privilege to watch how nature claims the built structure as its own. As Alexander said, gardens that have to be tended obsessively enslave a person to them; you cannot learn from them in quite the same way.”

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