Lofty ideals

PHOTOS David Ross PRODUCTION Annemarie Meintjes WORDS Andrea Vinassa

Pretoria-based architect Friedrich Strey believes that saving the planet and creating beautiful buildings need not be mutually exclusive.

Climate change and power cuts have jolted South Africans out of their comfort zone and many of us are now frantically searching for a solution to our energy problems. But Friedrich Strey of Strey Architects has not been caught unawares. Sustainable architecture has been an integral part of his designs since his university days.

Superficially, architecture is about creating an aesthetic solution to the need for shelter. For Friedrich, however, designing a house is about seeking engineering answers to issues of space planning, heating, lighting, materials and lifestyle. Aesthetics are almost a by-product of optimum engineering – he believes the most aesthetically pleasing buildings are also the most well-engineered. Before using a material, he always considers how it will affect energy conservation and the use of light and resources.

Are you going green? Read our 10 tips to a more sustainable home.

The red brick, steel and glass house Friedrich recently completed in Lynnwood, Pretoria, is a prime example of how his passion for excellent design dovetails with his engineering ingenuity. “For me, sustainability is a given and I believe that every designer should take it into account,” he explains.

A challenge was the steep stand set in forest-like surroundings near a noisy highway. The view to the south was impressive but there was no privacy to the north. Friedrich had to make the most of the northern sun without giving the neighbours a view of activities in the home.

Determined to save the existing indigenous trees, he and the client decided on a New York-style loft set in Africa – call it “Industrial African”. Thanks to the steepness of the stand, he was able to achieve a three-storey building, including a wine cellar that doubles as a flatlet with a view – a non-negotiable request from the client.

“One can either stagnate as a designer and do the same thing for 30 years, or experiment to achieve better architecture, which benefits the user by creating improved living and work spaces. But innovation costs money, so architects usually experiment on their own houses and then use the successful findings in their work,” explains Friedrich.

He chose an L-shaped structure with an anchor wall acting as a “spine”. The materials, windows and doors in the spine ensure optimum passive heat storage, while the skeleton of the building is made of steel and hangs off the “spine” wall like ribs. “This is a better choice on a steep stand than a stepped-strip concrete foundation because it is more economical,” says Friedrich. “We also wanted to create the impression of the house ‘floating’ in its environment.”

Economical in the long run

Sustainable architecture might seem expensive initially but can be economical in the long run if lower energy costs and reduced maintenance expenses are taken into account.

“The question is: can one afford not to employ solutions such as solar heating and proper insulation?” asks Friedrich. “In the light of electricity shortages, there is an advantage to being self-contained through passive design.” In this house, the windows are oriented to help save electricity through optimal usage of light and heat, as well as to make the most of the views. Money was spent on intruder-proof glass that is laminated and strengthened to provide both insulation and security.

“It is easy to create affordable passive heating and cooling systems through good design,” says Friedrich. Sun, wind and water are channelled so that heaters and air-conditioners are not necessary. For example, the swimming pool is positioned so that the summer wind blows over it, carrying the cool air through the large fold-away doors into the house.

In winter, the wind blows from a different direction and the cold air is blocked by the closed doors. Heat generated by the mass storage device and the 450mm-thick brick spine is retained by the properly insulated walls, floors, roof and windows.

The interior and finishes are also planned to conserve energy. If oil heaters are an inefficient way of heating, what is the answer to freezing temperatures? Solar under-floor heating, of course. The concrete slab for the floor doubles up as a “heat sink” where heat collects – even though it is covered with tiles, it emits warmth. Energy-inefficient materials such as glass and bricks are balanced by efficient, low-maintenance finishes.

Friedrich is fond of multipurpose rooms and has installed screens and partitions where passages can become offices and bedrooms can be closed off during the night to contain body heat. Before installing a balustrade or a door handle, he thinks about the effect of the material. The temperature of wood is closest to that of the human body, so elements that come into contact with bodies are made mostly of wood.

But if you think that all this makes for an austere environment that is more about saving the planet than enjoying life, you are wrong. After taking first impressions into account, Friedrich installed a welcoming water feature to greet visitors.

The intriguing front entrance also entices them into the magical space on the inside. After all, houses are places where humans live, raise their families and entertain friends.

Strey Architects, 0861 782 724,