A Building Update, and Five Insights

Well, this photo says just about all of it:


What you will see poking it from behind the rubble is our first new wall, rising from the earth like a volcanic mountain range. So that’s encouraging. The rest looks pretty apocalyptic, I’ll grant you. But it’s coming along.

I thought I’d share five insights about building that I have now learned. These will not be the first five insights I learn and I suspect they may become increasingly hysterical as time goes by – but here they are anyway:

1. It is possible to budget fairly accurately

The common wisdom about building is that the budget will be missed by anywhere between 50% and 100%. So when you are approaching a building project you are warned to expect calamity.

So far – and granted I’m not all the way through yet – I think it is possible to create a fairly accurate cost. You will never, ever be able to account for everything (I just spent R3000 taking out a tree, for example) but you can commit your contractors to a fixed cost and provided your architect has done a good job of specifying everything it’s actually not impossible to come in close to your estimates.

Having said all of that, I advise spending time with someone who has recently renovated and going through their finished cost tracking sheet so you can remember all the things that are sometimes forgotten.

2. Glass is f*$%ing expensive

Our design has a lot of glass in it. These days you are forced to come up with energy efficient glass designs given that we no longer have a functional electricity provider. And it costs serious, serious cash. A full third of our cost estimate is the glass doors and windows.

These days a lot of home design has a lot of glass – and no wonder given that it’s awesome to have a lot of light and view of garden from your home. But if you want to do a renovation inexpensively you need to use glass sparingly.

3. Simple

A very clear design trend – it’s everywhere – is minimalism. This is good news from a building complexity point of view, but it’s surprisingly hard to accomplish, particularly in SA. Why? Because a lot of the stuff out there – from tiles to window frames to furniture – bucks this trend. There is so much frilly, elaborate crap available and very little stylish, simple stuff. And – ironically – the simplest, cleanest stuff costs the most.

I think creating something singular and simple is a wonderful challenge and a beautiful aesthetic. But be prepared to fight the fussiness of what’s on the shelf.

4. Live at Home

This is controversial, but I’d advise living on the property you’re building if you possibly can. The number of small tweaks and insights we keep having just by seeing what’s going on is immense. And being available to the crew on a daily basis to field questions and provide guidance is invaluable.

It is not fun. Our architect has told us to move out a dozen times. But we have structured the building program in such a way that we can live here while its going on, and it feels like a smart move.

5. Browse

To create something wonderful you need to fill your head with wonderful things. You are not an interior designer (unless you are). And you are not an architect (unless, again, you are). So you know nothing about what makes a beautiful space or structure. Unless you have a gift for it – which probably comes from having immersed yourself in design for years – you’re going to have to study up, and fast.

I will post a list of resources at some stage that we have used but needless to say the three obvious ones are:

– Websites – like houzz.com and similar. There is endless inspiration, albeit frequently not that well organised or searchable.

– Books – go and spend hours in Exclusive Books or at bookstores like Warm & Glad and just look at things. There are also countless magazines to browse although I’d advise against spending too much time with international publications featuring beautiful products that you cannot buy here

– Shops – where the reality sinks in. Get out to wherever your furniture and fittings mecca is in your city and just start seeing what is available. Kramerville and Fourways in Joburg are musts, but there will also be a lot of small places all over with useful things to see.

Bathrooms, kitchens, tiles, fabric, furniture, flooring – the choices you will be called upon to make will be countless. It’s easier, eventually, when you have a mental catalogue.

Construction begins (after a long silence)

Well. It’s been a good long while since I updated this blog. Some of that can be attributed to the long wait for Heritage and Council to pass our plans. Some of it is due to overseas travel and other delays. But we have also spent a good deal of time getting our heads around this project, and, of course, getting the quote. More on that in a later post.

For now I am happy/terrified to report the construction phase has begun. And, like all good things that go up, the first step is to break shit down.

This project can more or less be broken into three parts:

1. The reconstruction of the old “cottage” space into a new master bedroom with a new storey and viewing deck

2. Modifications to the main house – primarily to open it up and join it to the new master bedroom above – currently these are entirely separate structures

3. Changes to the garden and outdoor area – primarily to open up the space which is quite oddly designed at the moment so that the garden and home feel like two different spaces

Because we plan to live on the property throughout (yes, I realise this is insane) we have decided to do the project in phases beginning with the cottage to master bedroom evolution. This will mean, in theory, that we can move into that space while the modifications to the house are being done.

The builder estimates this is an 8 month project. Yeah right, I hear you say. Add two and double it. Well, optimism is a rare thing and so I plan to cling to it as long as I can. Two days in and I have nothing to report in this regard.

This is where the cottage began this week:

cottage before

And this is what it currently looks like:

cottage after

(Cool, right?)

Demolition is a fast acting agent. Needless to say (why do people say that if it truly is needless?) it’s going to be quite some time before I can post a picture of the new structure. “Builder’s holidays” (different enough from everyone else’s holidays so as to have their own name) are in full swing and so getting materials isn’t likely. The builder himself – who seems great by the way – is keen to work through but I suspect this has more to do with wanting the income than enthusiasm for the project or a protestant work ethic.

So – next step is to check whether the foundations of this structure can support a double-storey. For this a mysterious character called the “engineer” (think: Prometheus) will turn up at some stage to make an inspection. Based on that…well, we shall see.

It’s an exciting prospect to see a physical space you know so well transforming into something entirely new. It’s less exciting to watch your funds slowly leak out of the bottom of your bank account. I believe this is the see-saw I’m going to have to get used to being on in the next year of my life.

Imagining in 3D

Not everyone planning a renovation can afford to have an architect to do the heavy lifting for you. But if you decide to spend the money you get the enjoy the magic of seeing your new house rendered out into some pretty lifelike.

from garage_real2 15 junefrom garage_render 15 june

There are some ambitious ideas here: creating much more flow between the house and the garden; putting in a natural filtration pool; and putting in large, glass sliding doors and windows across most of the front of the house.



garden toward pool real 1 15 junegarden toward pool render 1 15 june

The idea is to then turn what is currently a cottage/gym into the master bedroom, with a new storey and viewing deck (Craighall Park actually has some lovely views if you can find the height and position). So here we will put in a wide set of steps and again create a glazed room that enjoys the views onto the garden (which isn’t visible here but which is lovely with established trees).

So the pondering now begins. Oh, and the quoting – which no doubt is going to curtail much of this 3D revelry.

Wine Cellars

One the craziest thoughts we’re having in this renovation is putting in a wine cellar. We both love wine and so this makes some sense although the costs and usefulness are still to be determined.

In terms of Wine Cellars I’d say you have three basic options:

1. Dedicated room at house-level

There are many examples of this kind of wine cellar. Below is a typical example of a special room converted or constructed as a wine cellar. You’d see this kind of thing in many restaurants.

room_wine cellar

Often (as here) these are glass-walled rooms with shelves, a bit like a walk-in closet (in fact our current walk-in closet has been earmarked for a possible conversion).

The thing about wine cellars is that they have to be carefully temperature controlled. If you can find a naturally cool place that’s great. Otherwise you need a special cooling system which doesn’t come cheap.

2. Underground Wine Cellars (Classic)

Of course the term “cellar” puts one in mind of something you have to descend into the earth to find. With stone walls and maybe a few spiders. The nicest of these options you could actually eat in – I’ve eaten in a few before. Here is a particularly amazing example of one of these:

underground_wine cellar

This is not a particularly practical option as an add-on to a house I wouldn’t think so I’m imagining this is a wine cellar for a different building project. One on a wine estate maybe.

3. Underground Wine Cellar (Modern)

Some very innovative wine cellars are now available that can be installed into a giant hole anywhere in the house. Bizarrely enough the local supplier of these is in my very road and so they are certainly the first place we will be visiting to find out more.

underground_wine cellar modern

What is really smart about this is that it can be retro-fitted and takes a small amount of space. It’s pre-fabricated so once you have right size hole you can plop it in and off you go.

The local supplier is Urban Cellars.


As with everything on this project we are merely in the discovery phase but the idea of wine cellar, which started as a silly fantasy, is at least sounding somewhat possible now.

Check out the rest of our idea board on Pinterest.


One of the features of our renovation is to join the current main house to the cottage – a structure used variously in the past as a servant’s quarters, granny cottage, yoga studio and, most recently, as a gym.

We’ve chosen to work with Andy Kriek, an architect recommended to me by a friend whose gorgeous new house on Kensington Ridge he has recently completed.

The current house structure has the kitchen in the front, facing the pool, with the cottage off the right separated by a split level deck. The two structures are completely separate and thus joining them into one house, that looks and feels like it’s meant to fit together, is challenging.


The current structure with kitchen (left) and cottage (right)


Extending the actual house by, for example, adding a room has various drawbacks. Firstly the pool is in the way. Secondly this would involve a lot of structural change – extending the roof and potentially cutting the kitchen off from all the natural light it currently enjoys.

Thus we have decided to explore what may be called an “add on”. The best example of this from this example on Pinterest:


The use of glass and steel let’s this area stand apart from the main structure but also be completely different in style to it. It’s a kind of conseravatory which, in our case, will link from two sides joining the kitchen to a new passageway into the new master suite.

Ambitious? Perhaps. We haven’t yet seen the quote :)

Here are the rest of our inspirations shared on Pinterest:



Home Renovation Commences

For the next year or so this blog will be dedicated to the renovation and rebirth of my home in Johannesburg – now newly occupied by myself and my partner Sarah. Her move to Joburg and our decision to stay in this house, at least for the foreseeable future, has prompted us to re-imagine the space.

I am no stranger to renovation, having been a part of four office revamps in the past fifteen years. I am aware, of course, of the pain and expense ahead of me. And of the many treacherous decisions that have to be made – structure, space, fittings, interiors. The disappointing service providers. The missed deadlines. The endless Pinterest boards of homes more beautiful, more lavish and more impressive.

However I have also always want to create my own space – to construct something bespoke which suits my idiosyncrasies. I now have a partner who is up for the challenge and equally excited about the outcome. And so, we begin.

I will post here all the contractors, options, stores and suppliers as we go along and I will do my best to offer some advice where I can.

The house itself is in Craighall Park and is a fairly typical home in this area. It has been renovated previously so that much of it is fairly modern, although some corners were cut. In particular the exterior “cottage” is actually in the prime position on the property whilst the house itself sits somewhat uncomfortably up against the road and behind a beautiful, but huge, oak tree. So it lacks both sunlight and view which are both easy to imagine from the cottage.

So the overall plan – at this early stage – is to move the main bedroom and some kind of living space to the cottage, join it and the house, put in some kind of deck from which to enjoy the sunsets, and then refit and refurnish everything. We are determined to create a space worthy of a Pinterest board rather than just inspired by one.

Wish us luck.

The Derivativeness Syndrome

In this piece I’m going to pick on Dan Patlansky a bit. It’s not entirely fair but he is the catalyst for my writing this so he’s just going to have to bear up. I’m quite certain he doesn’t care what I think anyway. But for those of you who think he’s some kind of guitar demigod: be warned.

Patlansky had the honour – a rare one I’m told – of opening for Bruce Springsteen at the Johannesburg concert earlier this month. Given that Springsteen played for three hours and had brought three – four including himself – world-class guitarists with him, Patlansky was unnecessary in both temporal and auditory senses. Nevertheless, there he was.

Without doing a detailed review of his performance let’s say two things. First, he is technically a very proficient guitarist. His phrasing is clear and precise, and he is passionate with the instrument. And secondly his material is utterly derivative and unoriginal. When musicians use the word “blues” to describe their music, in 2014, they are telling you to prepare yourself either for cover songs, or for painful attempts to add to a genre that is already too crowded. By and large, I mean. Every style of every art still has space for new geniuses. Unfortunately Patlansky isn’t one.

During the concert I tweeted that Patlansky had both listened to too much White Stripes, and not enough. As a fairly obvious example of how a guitarist, with blues roots, can completely change the musical landscape, look no further than Jack White. That said, this is no more helpful than saying “look no further than Picasso”. White is a genius, both of the instrument and of composition, and is placed into this scene as a point of comparison. An unfair one perhaps, but I did warn you I would be.

Patlansky offered up to the enthusiastic crowd at Soccer City every rock and blues guitar cliche ever invented. There wasn’t a single sound or note that wasn’t an imitation of something else. I know there is no such thing as “truly original” in music, or anything else, but there is a difference between technique and mimicry. Mastering a scale but deploying it in a surprising way is, in effect, taking something played a million times before and playing it yourself. Lifting, wholesale, phrases and sounds, and piecing them together is more akin to remixing than invention. And even then we must demand novelty rather than simple competence.

And competent he is. As I said above I can’t fault his physical technique or delivery. If you want to hear someone trot out blues and rock cliches one upon the other, at times with superb athleticism, Dan’s your man. His vocal skills are less impressive and his band merely capable, but his guitar playing is excellent.

The problem here is that he – like so many talented South African musicians before him – is failing to innovate. And, like many South African musicians, plays crowd pleasing music that has the tin ears of the general SA public vibrating in ecstasy. We too, you can hear them thinking (and read them tweeting), have our Peter Green; our Stevie Ray Vaughn. Indeed, our Tom Morello. Yeah Dan, rip up that stage.

This is not to say that South Africa has never produced great music or great musicians. Depending on your tastes, and your generation, you can point to some examples of bands that have done something unique and have gained international acclaim as a result. But the truth is that in a country of 50m+ people, 20 years after sanctions ended, we have produced hardly any really world class acts. In fact, I’d go as far as to say we have produced none. We have no U2 or Sigur Ros or Crowded House (to name three of thousands). For international recognition we have some Apartheid-era icons like Johnny Clegg or Hugh Masekela. And we have the sorry examples of The Parlotones and Goldfish: horrible me-too acts that, like Patlansky, are all trying to epitomise something they overheard.

The fault, it must be said, is with the audience more than the musicians. As a public, as a culture, we are content to hear someone quote Hendrix and Jimmy Page. We mistake that for greatness. We are connoisseurs of craft, instead of champions of originality. I see this in many parts of our art and culture (with obvious, but telling, exceptions that prove the rule). It’s as though we were so starved of this kind of thing during the Apartheid years that we believe it is sufficient to simply keep up with the Joneses. And as long as we do that we will never have an iconic world band emerge from this country.

It is wonderful that young South Africans are so supportive of local music. From Hip Hop to Rock, Metal and RnB we have lots and lots of love for local music. Credit must go to radio stations, venues and people in general for snapping out of the belief that South Africa has no talent. We have, in some ways, drifted to the opposite extreme. We now think we have so much talent that all we need to do is show up and throw empty beer cups at one another. We’re great so what’s the problem?

The problem is that we are going nowhere with all of this. There is no emergent culture or style in the way that kwaito, or even boereorkes, was. There are just white guys, with fake American accents, aping acts from times gone by, who were blessed with more talent and the benefit of being pioneers. It’s kind of tragic when you think of it like that. Or, if not tragic, then at least self-defeating. I’m not taking away from the fact that everyone in the stadium had a jolly old time when Dan laid down his blue notes against a 4/4 rhythm. But having fun and growing culture are not the same thing.

We have to start supporting musicians whose goal is not to be a great example of something but to create something new. And whilst they too will be derivative and inspired by others they will, in the process, create something that is an expression of our country and our culture. Something we can export with pride and be the world’s best exemplar of. Springsteen took to the stage and utterly, effortlessly, erased any memory of Patlansky within one song. And well he might: he is the best in the world at being what he is. We stare, as South Africans, in wide-eyed wonder as much at his fame as at the object lesson. He cannot be dismissed. This is what we need to encourage and nourish in our own land.