Paarl House

WORDS Annette Klinger PHOTOS Kyle Morland

The domed facade of Pine Concrete House is an architectural exclamation mark in the midst of the otherwise-unassuming suburbia surrounding it on the slopes of Paarl Mountain.

You’d be forgiven for inferring that the domed column that punctuates Pine Concrete House pays poetic tribute to Paarl Rock, the gigantic granite outcrop looming in its background. “You’ll have to talk to my dad about the metaphors of this house,” says a smiling Johannes Berry, who co-founded Brussels-based architectural firm Sugiberry with his wife Mayu Takasugi in 2016.

Fortuitous as the architectural echo is, the concrete-and-wood residence’s design was informed by a set of logical principles that Johannes and Mayu work according to,rather than any visual reference.“We like to consider the potential in what already exists,” he explains. In the case of Pine Concrete House, what existed was the double-storey home of Johannes’s parents, Roland and Elmine. “The initial brief from them was to build a double garage – but like most projects, it grew,” says Johannes. “They’re getting older, and because of the size of their house, we proposed renovating it so it could ultimately be split into three self-contained parts – a top half, a bottom half and an extension – so they’d still be able to live there, but rent out the two other spaces.”

Although Johannes and Mayu initially had wood and canvas in mind as the predominant building materials for the extension, the area of land they had earmarked needed to be excavated. “It’s a bit of an engineering feat to build with wood underground because of the moisture, and we didn’t want to focus on technical statements,” says Mayu. “The decision to build with concrete is really what started the design. We asked: what is concrete? How do you make concrete? Okay, you need formwork. What is formwork? If you use wood to make formwork, what happens to it afterwards? Can you not reuse it? It’s a logic of being considerate and aware of things.”

The resulting design is a unique expression of materiality that highlights the interplay between positive and negative space. Both cast and mould play equal parts: for every off-shutter concrete surface, there exists a pine formwork counterpart. For every addition, a subtraction. For every light, a shadow.

Take the stairwell, for example. To give Johannes’s parents the option of adding a stairlift later in life, the stairwell needed to be curved. The dimensions of the convex formwork were incorporated into the design so that once the concrete was poured, the curved formwork would protrude on the front of the building, where it would ultimately be crowned with a formwork dome. In the same way, the landing of the stairs dictated the shape of the canopy at the front door. “It’s a mechanism that creates a certain kind of awareness,” says Johannes. “It’s like those spot-the-difference pictures kids have. You start to see the differences, and by seeing the differences you also become aware of the materials.”

With an eye on the future, Johannes and Mayu configured the interior according to the principles of universal design. “Also called barrier-free design, it means designing in a way that’s universally accessible for everyone, no matter their level of mobility,” says Mayu. All the doors, for example, are wider than usual, and the bathroom’s shower floor doesn’t have any barriers, but instead has wider spacing between the floorboards and a water catchment tank underneath.

Following the logic of working with what existed, the couple based the dimensions of the formwork boards – and, as such, the design of both the exterior and the interior – on the standard 1.2-metre, 2.4-metre and 3.2-metre (and so on) measurements of structural pine. “Because of that, we hardly had any wood offcuts,” says Johannes. “Usually, when we design, we say, how wide do I want the door to be? We’re saying, how wide can the door be?”

The pine formwork was used to create adjustable shelving units that occupy three sides of the open-plan living area.

The choice of fittings for the interior was similarly informed by what was available as standard, but that would also blend seamlessly with the spartan design language the couple envisioned. The plug plates, taps, showerhead and toilet, for example, are all stainless steel; the lights are all the same inexpensive glass fitting from a commercial hardware chain.

One of Johannes and Mayu’s favourite spots in the open-plan, one-bedroom house are the sash window seats that have been built into the formwork, and that allow you to take in the sprawling view of Paarl Valley below. Unsurprisingly, they were designed using the existing length, width and thickness of the formwork boards, which just so happened to have a horizontal structural member at 43 centimetres, which corresponds with the universally standard seating height. The seats are as easy to recline into as they are to get up from thanks to the height of the windowsill, which also acts as an armrest. It’s more than considered design – it’s considerate.

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