Renovated Family Home in Observatory

PHOTOS Micky Hoyle PRODUCTION Sumien Brink WORDS Bibi Slippers

Husband-and-wife team Heinrich and Ilze Wolff of Wolff Architects redesigned an old Victorian house in Cape Town to reflect their idea of an unpretentious and liveable home.

“We were looking for a dump, and this was it.” Award-winning architect Heinrich Wolff begins the tale of how he and wife Ilze turned a decrepit hovel of a Victorian house into a contemporary home with a laugh. “The former owner was a narcotics user who stripped the house bare. It was in such a state it wasn’t even on the estate agent’s list, but it was exactly what we wanted: an empty shell,” Ilze adds.

They knew this was “their house” once they’d seen the light quality in and the view of Devil’s Peak from the front room. “It was a glowing moment in our search,” Ilze says. “We had seen so many buildings, but it didn’t make sense for us to pay for someone else’s expensive renovations that didn’t reflect our design ethos.”

Ilze and Heinrich both liked the fact that Victorian architecture is based around rooms, and decided to restore the front end of the house to its former glory. They added a wholly contemporary space to the back of this. “It’s this idea of grafting,” Heinrich says. “We wanted to show the younger generation’s capacity to reimagine our received culture. Because our culture carries baggage, we have to transform it into something that’s our own.”

Ilze says they were inspired by restoration work done by architects in Brazil. “They don’t just faithfully restore; they really add their own values to the space.”

They conceived the new addition to the house around the concept of a red cube, craftily divided into a kitchen, living room and open courtyard. A concrete slab supports the main bedroom and bathroom upstairs.

Ilze and Heinrich built the house themselves, resulting in some interesting challenges. “We hung the roof by its bootstraps and built the slab underneath it. We rebuilt some of the walls that carried the ceiling – so we kept historical things above and built new things below. Physically keeping the roof in the air was hard!”

At first they had no intention of building themselves, but extremely high quotes from builders drove them to take up the task. “We asked Gwen and Gawie Fagan for advice, because they also did their own house. They both agreed they’d do it all over again if they had the chance, but Gwen said if we wanted to give ourselves a real deadline, we should have children at the same time,” Ilze remembers.

They managed to finish the project before populating the front room with two boys. “It was going to be our work room and studio,” Ilze muses with a smile, “but things change.”

And if they could do it again, would they change anything? Heinrich: “We probably could have made it smaller. We sit very far from the TV.”

Ilze: “I still don’t know why we have two basins in our bathroom.”

“We were trying to elevate ourselves out of the middle class,” Heinrich says, laughing, aptly ending the story the way it began.