WORDS Tracy Greenwood PHOTOS Jan Ras PRODUCTION Sumien Brink
Tucked away in the rambling gardens of a centuries-old wine farm in the Cape are two sweet and unusual cottages that started life as grain silos before being reimagined by a resourceful young couple with a vision.
“Whenever I draw a circle I immediately want to step out of it.” These are the words of eccentric American architect and futurist Buckminster Fuller. It’s a statement that turned out to be oddly prophetic, because Fuller went on to design a series of loosely circular homes only to find nobody wanted them.
But it’s a good thing Alex and Sumari Milner didn’t feel the same way about the grain-silos-turned-stables that had settled into a state of disrepair just beyond their front door. Said front door is to their home in the old waenhuis (coach house) on the Milner family farm, Natte Valleij, in Klapmuts. Or it might never have occurred to them to transform the neglected little buildings into something so unexpectedly charming.
The couple turned their attention to the dilapidated old silos after renovating the waenhuis that became home to them and their two small boys, Henry (5) and Georgie (2).
Alex is the winemaker at Natte Valleij, home to the Milner family since his grandfather bought the place back in 1969. Originally a wine farm, it wasn’t suited to equestrian pursuits, so Alex’s granddad ripped out the vines to make way for paddocks – stud farming was his stock in trade.
“Back then the grounds were really neglected. My step-grandmother was a keen gardener and she created all this,” says Alex, gesturing at the ponds, pergolas and mature trees that create dappled light and secret spaces as far as the eye can see. It’s little wonder the garden has become a popular destination for weddings.
Architect Sam Muir from Minc Interior Architecture held her wedding on the farm and subsequently became firm friends with Alex and Sumari, which led to Sam designing their reimagined waenhuis.
“Our house,” says Alex, “is far from complete. It’s never-ending!” But by the time they were ready to turn their collective hand to the silos, the couple drew on the experience they had gained working with Sam to project-manage the revamp themselves.
Farmers, says Alex, don’t always consider design. “A lot of the buildings on the farm are almost a tapestry of additions as one family moved in and built on bits and bobs to serve their needs. Every dwelling adds to the story of the farm and those who have inhabited it over the years. “The problem,” he says, “is that when it came to the buildings the priority was functionality over design, which is why Sumari and I wanted to do up the silos nicely, adding value to the farm.”
Finding the right craftsmen to execute their plan for the silos could also have been tricky, but fortunately, they met a great carpenter and builder while working on the waenhuis. “Our carpenter literally drew on the wall where the staircase needed to go and our builder executed the plan,” says Alex.
All the wood used in the silos comes from a big stack of Oregon pine the couple had sourced and stashed before the time. “When you’re working with an older building, the more you can use from it the more sympathetic it’s going to be,” says Alex. They were determined to keep the silos as true to the original as possible.
“Looking out of the upstairs bedroom window makes you feel like you’re a child in a fairy tale,” says Sumari.
Mission accomplished then.