Home Automation in South Africa

Righty-o. It’s been a really long time since I have written anything about our home renovation project. That’s because it’s been finished for most of this year and has rapidly moved onto needing to be patched, repaired and generally starting to behave like a normal house again.

Which is boring.

But today I am here to tell you about adding home automation gadgets and gimmicks which is not at all boring. In fact, it’s so complicated it could afford to be a little more boring.

So let’s start with: what do I mean by home automation? In my world that means connecting stuff to the Internet – or at least to my home network. It does not mean some old-school, proprietary system that only works with its own consoles and panels. These are probably a lot more reliable but hellishly expensive and completely incompatible with anything else you may add in future.

Approaches to Home Automation

I’ll get back to the question of why you’d want to connect your house to the internet in a moment. But let’s start with the three basic approaches:

  1. Proprietary: there are numerous systems that are “black boxes”, installed by expensive professionals and work as advertised. These have actually been around in one form or the other for decades as it’s easy to understand that some of them are just switches with long cables attached to them. You see a lot of this kind of gear in corporate boardrooms and in Donald Trump’s apartment. Like him, it’s old, it’s ugly and it’s rapidly losing credibility.
  2. Networked Out of the Box: this is the modern class of home automation devices. They all use internet protocol and a lot of other stuff that makes them a lot more inter-operable (although not always as we shall see)
  3. Networked DIY: this is the murky world of solder and circuit boards and repurposed old desktop machines running Linux and Arduino’s and Rasperry Pi’s. I admire the smart people who set things up this way, and even more the people who succeed in having a seamless automated home at the end of it. They will have to write the article on how they achieved that because I have no idea.

So, as you may have guessed by now, I am going to talk about option 2 above.

What can you Automate?

In a country that typically doesn’t fit smoke detectors (we build our houses out of stuff that doesn’t burn that easily like bricks, go figure) or central heating, the big automation wins right now are lighting, sprinklers, alarms and audio visual equipment. In the security realm there is a lot of stuff out there from cameras to sensors but is actually not Joburg Thief-grade so I’m not going to spend much time on it. But right behind the AV industry in terms of old-school crappy gear the home security industry stands. They need a major shake-up.

So I’m going to talk about these areas primarily.

The Components

Ok so when you start out on this process the hardest thing to get your head around is what the ingredients are to bake the home automation cake. The internet is often unhelpful as it’s populated by geeks who write incomprehensible pieces that only they understand. Maybe they can’t write. Or maybe they’re just assholes.

Here they are, in simple terms:

  1. A Hub: right so in order to control a diversity of gadgets you need some kind of control box that can talk their language. This is simply because your phone (or tablet) in and of themselves can’t communicate directly with most home automation equipment. The likes of Apple and Google hope to change this – and might – but for now you need an intermediary.
  2. The Gadgets: these are the light bulbs, speakers, motors, switches, dimmers, cameras etc. which are designed to operate in a smart home. It’s NOT as simple as getting something that connects to the Internet. They have to integrate with at least one of the available hubs (above).
  3. The App: each hub comes with an app that allows you to control your devices in various ways. There is a degree of inter-operability here so you don’t have to buy a new hub for every brand of light bulb you buy. It’s tricky but a lot of these things do talk to each other quite well which is big advance over the old-style equipment.
  4. The Network: I shouldn’t have to say (but I will) that your home needs to have a network running to use these gidgmies. And an internet connection. Although the devices themselves generally don’t use regular wi-fi the app and hub do and you can’t get away without it. This is true of any happy life anyway – who can live without the internet?

The Technology: Try to Stay Awake

I need to give you some tech details now. Whilst this might be dull it’s quite helpful to get an understanding of what’s going behind the scenes before making purchases.

There are two important technical details that matter here: one is electrical voltage and the other is Z-Wave frequency.

Voltage: right, so you probably know that South Africa’s electricity grid operates at 220-240V. That means that you need to have electrical devices that can run at that voltage. This turns out to matter when you realise that the US operates at 110V. So if you buy US devices they won’t power on in South Africa. And don’t imagine you can get some nifty transformer that can improve your situation because you can’t. I say this as a proud owner of a small number of hurriedly purchased US gadgets.

Smart home devices communicate with each other using wifi, ZigBee and Z-Wave. ZigBee is kind of an open source platform and runs on the same frequency worldwide. But few devices (that I’ve found) use it. Z-Wave on the other hand is much more common but irritatingly runs on a different radio band depending where you are in the world.

Thus even if you get a US electrical device that is happy to run on SA 220V, the Z-Wave frequency will be different and the devices won’t talk to each other anyway.


Ok, So? Where do You Buy Stuff?

Right, so your best option in my view is to buy devices from the UK. UK uses 220V electricity and the same Z-Wave band as us. If you guy from Amazon UK, then, and find a way to ship it to SA, you will be (generally) good. I say generally because there have still been some foibles in my experience. But overall it’s worked.


What do Buy

Ok so this is not a complete list or by any means the only configuration you can try, but it’s what I have and what has worked. Note that not ALL devices here are compatible or talk seamlessly to each other. This stuff is still starting out so you are most likely going to end up with parallel ecosystems. All that really means is having to open multiple apps instead of one.

Hub – Samsung Smartthings v2 – whilst this is not entirely compatible with Apple devices (for instance) it is a really great hub, has a lot of compatibility and has a future. Buy it from UK Amazon.

Light Switches – Aeotec by Aeon Labs – I bought dimmers and switches from these guys. These can be installed into existing lights and pair seamlessly with the Smartthings hub. You can then use the Smartthings app to control them.

Music – Sonos – these devices are only partly compatible with Smartthings, but they are the best multi-room music system available.

Sprinkler System – OpenSprinkler. This is not compatible with Smartthings at all but is a great product and available for purchase in SA.

Outlets (plug sockets) – Samsung Smart Outlets. These are part of the Smartthings family so inherently compatible. I’ve had some issues with these in SA because you need so many converters to make them work. Am currently sourcing UK plugs so I can try and get them working correctly.

Alarm System – DSC with Envisalink – sadly in South Africa because of our reliance on armed response companies most of us are saddled with DSC alarm systems that alarm companies understand. These are old school electronic and not digital systems. Fortunately the Envisalink expansion board Internet-enables DSC alarms. The interface is pretty crude but it’s good enough to let you control the system from your phone. There are some hobby projects to connect Smartthings to Envisalink but they are a little beyond my skill set.

…and others: there are many gadgets still to try, Smartthings UK has a far more limited range than the US counterpart but no doubt more is coming. From video cameras to gas bottle monitors to garage door openers…well, you see where this is headed.

Hope this was helpful to the budding smart home enthusiasts out there. Give me a shout if you want some more specific info.


Architects and Builders


If you think our house is as beautiful as we do, you may want to know who designed it and who built it. Finally, after months of agonising waiting, I am going to tell you.

Let me say first off that finding the right people to handle these two tasks (really three if you include building/project management) was the single biggest reason we didn’t go completely insane on this project. Overall we feel happy and like we got what we wanted. And that’s largely down to two contractors.


Our architect is Andy Kriek from Modelink (he is, in fact, Modelink). Andy was recommended by a friend who has a beautiful house on Kensington Ridge and we just loved his approach.

Andy’s designs are characterised – and we’ve seen a few of them now – by a lot of glass and steel, and concrete. But within this he also has a way of creating interesting spaces within the home, and carefully working out how you will move between these spaces. The result are homes that feel wide open to the outside world but cosy and intimate at the same time.

Andy handles the entire project which includes taking a brief and imagining it into 2- and 3D images; getting all plans approved; dealing with the structural engineer, as well as recommending a host of excellent contractors. He takes on responsibility for delivering the whole project, including liaising with contractors we picked.

For an architect to take this amount of interest in, and responsibility for, a project is unusual. It avoids having to hire a separate project manager or building manager, and he is super-open to working with you on a frequent basis to make sure things work out the way you’d hoped.

He’s also a genuinely nice, intuitive and dedicated person, and a pleasure to work with.

If there are negatives they centre on his rather loose grasp of the financials of the project. Whether it’s optimism or enthusiasm, his cost estimates were wild underestimates and – as with any creative person – it’s best to double-check these kinds of things with someone more realistic.

Modelink/Andy Kriek: (011) 7265271



Many of the horror stories from building projects involve the builder themselves. No surprises there considering these are the people responsible for making the theory into reality.

The truth about building in South Africa is that most of the people doing the work are paid low wages and have learned their skill on the job. Building costs are actually one of the smaller items on your overall budget, ironically, thanks to the low cost of labour in South Africa.

No surprises then that this can be a hit-or-miss affair. Contact names for “a great builder” are passed around like your bobba’s recipe for chicken soup.

Well I can, happily, add a name to that list. We used Tight Brick Builders – recommended by our architect – and I can only describe them as excellent. Exacting, committed, patient and with a relentlessly positive attitude in the face of the usual building dramas, I can honestly say these are the good guys.

Norman – who owns the company – really loves the projects he works on, and frequently fixed things before we even noticed them. His instruction to us that whatever we were unhappy with they are happy to fix was tested on numerous occasions – and they always came through.

No builder is perfect. Wandering through the mosques of Turkey or the cathedrals in Europe you would be forgiven for thinking: if that’s what people could do with their bare hands and simple tools hundreds of years ago, imagine what perfection they could attain today. Sadly this is not the case and my house, much as I love it, will be a pile of dust long before the Hagia Sofia or even the Great Pyramid.

I see many small things that are skew or scratched or slightly sagging (wall, tiles and ceiling, respectively) but these are minor, and inescapable, defects. Overall I am delighted with the workmanship and commitment shown by Norman and his team and I’d highly recommend them.

Tight Brick Builders – (083) 7265813

Word to the wise – and I’ll write a whole post about this soon – your biggest variable is the cost of materials, including glass, steel etc. In any future building project I would spend a lot more time interrogating the quoted quantities of these with both architect and builder.


Right, now this may not seem the most logical place to start but since many people are grappling with spiralling electricity costs, fears of further load-shedding and a general do-gooderness and wanting to save the earth…it’s bound to be a popular topic.

It is a fact that houses built from scratch now need to have some kind of alternative geyser arrangement (not Eskom power in other words) and that glass needs to be, at least, coated with an insulating film. But that doesn’t answer the big questions about power consumption.

Old-Style Geysers

Your first big dilemma is what kind of geyser to put in – or replace. Your old-style, and possibly old, electric geyser is as bad as people say it is. It chews up massive energy, constantly heats itself up, usually to a temperature that’s too hot, and then promptly empties just when you need some extra hot water.

If you are planning on keeping your current geyser you’re going to want to – at the very least – do all of the following things:

  1. Wrap it in a geyser blanket – not an expensive thing to do and it does make a big difference to how long the geyser stays warm, and how long it takes to warm up. You can get this at any Builder’s Warehouse-type place.
  2. Put it on a timer – a very simple modification to your DB Board allows a timer unit, which costs a few hundred rand from a place like Manly’s Plumbing on Jan Smuts, to be installed. This can be set to run the geyser for a few hours a day and, in combination with a blanket, that can be enough for hot water whenever you need it. The unit I have allows me to set different time intervals and also configure it per day so that I can run it longer when I expect to need more water.
  3. Turn down the maximum temperature – if you’re always having to put on the cold water to temper the hot then why heat it to that temperature in the first place. The exception might be the kitchen sink where you may want to scald the living crap out of your plates and pots. But I’d suggest using a kettle for that and saving a lot of money for the other 23 hours a day.

There’s not much more you can do about electric geysers. There are better, more energy efficient models on the market but if you’re going to do a full replacement it’s worth considering something less fossil-fuel guzzling.

If this is where you’re headed, there are three options: solar, gas and heat pumps.

Solar Geysers

The darling of the eco set, solar geysers appear to work like magic. They consume no energy but deliver hot water whenever you need it with just the mystical power of the sun.

That’s the theory.

The reality is that solar has three drawbacks:

  1. Cost: solar geysers cost a lot of money to install – something like 5 times as much as a regular geyser and at least 3 times as much as gas (see below). That may not worry you but when you calculate the actual savings you will get monthly, you will discover that there is a considerably long break-even time ahead of you. In the long-term, yes, this is the best option. But we’re talking 5+ years at least.
  2. What if it’s not sunny?: one of the big misconceptions about solar in general is that it somehow stores energy when it’s not sunny. This is not true, unless you have batteries which add massively to the install costs. So that means on cloudy days (and at night) your geyser will not heat. Which may not be a problem if you have enough water to see you through. But when it isn’t using solar, guess what, it’s using normal electricity. In a place like Joburg it’s sunny a lot, so you’ll still save money, but every time you’re using normal electricity you’re eating away at that break-even date.
  3. Constant heating: like a normal geyser, a solar geyser heats all the time. Not a problem if you’re using the sun but depending on geyser size this does mean you need a sufficiently large solar array to heat it in reasonable time. And, as stated above, once the water runs out you have to wait for it to heat up again like a normal geyser.

I’ll talk more about solar energy in general later but the point here is: solar is a great choice, it’s eco-friendly and cheap over the long-term. But it’s not cheap upfront and the payback time is long. And all you need is one vicious hailstorm to smash your panels and your breakeven might move completely out of reach.

Heat Pumps

Ok so Option 2 is a heat pump. A heat pump is, essentially, an air conditioner in reverse. It takes in cold air and produces hot air. And that heats the water in the boiler.

It is a lot more efficient than a normal geyser (3-4 times) and therefore is a great way to save money compared with traditional geysers. It’s also cheaper than solar to install, doesn’t require big solar panels on your roof and works at night and on cold or rainy days. They can also be retrofitted to your existing geyser.

The big flaw with heat pumps are that they are still electrical devices – efficient, yes, but electrical. That means when there’s load-shedding your heat pump will not run. Which means no hot water for you.

In theory heat pumps can also be configured to do other stuff like underfloor heating and heating your pool – but on investigation you will discover that all this doesn’t come for free and ultimately the overall financial outlay for all this stuff is considerable.

Finally, these are imported devices by and large. That means with the rand at it’s current level you are buying a pretty expensive piece of equipment. And depending on your geyser size you need a fairly big heat pump.

All that being said, if you’re bullish about Eskom’s ability to supply you with reliable electricity, a heat pump is a good option and is certainly a major improvement on traditional geyser at a better cost than solar.


So, we come to the option we picked. There are two types of gas boilers: one that works like a normal geyser and heats the unit up to a required temperature at all times. The other heats the water on demand only. If you’ve stayed in rustic holiday accommodation you will be familiar with a version of these gas geysers which have a pilot light burning at all times which then fires into full action when you turn on a tap.

The modern version of this uses electricity to light the gas and then heats the water as it moves through the pipes as you need it. The beauty of this is that you are using incredibly little energy compared with any other heating method.

The electricity required to light the geyser is minimal and you can attach a UPS device (essentially a battery) which will light the unit if there is a power failure or load shedding.

Depending on the size needed this still costs a lot more than and old style geyser but is considerably cheaper than solar or a heat pump, runs in all weathers, uses practically no electricity and as long as you don’t run endless baths all day long, very little gas.

Installing gas, of course, is extra unless you’re on a gas line – and you have to buy the gas, have the large bottles replaced and so forth. But gas consumption really is minimal: we have been running our 2 gas geysers and gas stove almost every day for close on five months and we still haven’t used one of the large gas bottles up.

Of course gas has its own drawbacks: the price is volatile because unlike the sun it’s not free; and every winter there is a period where gas supposedly runs out. When Eskom’s power stations stop City Power uses gas as a backup in some instances and so in theory there could be a shortage. Personally I’ve never seen this happen but of course there is a risk if you think it might.

Apart from that the obvious sense that it makes to only heat water as you need it with a cheap energy source seems unbeatable to me – and we’re really happy with the solution.

We used Florad (www.florad.co.za) to supply the gas geyser, and High Speed Gas (www.highspeedgas.co.za) to install the gas bottles and connect it all up. I’d recommend both vendors – they’re knowledgeable and helpful and (thus far) the products supplied work as advertised.

Florad also do supply both solar and heat pumps so are good people to explain more thoroughly the relative benefits and costs.

Vendors we Recommend

Ok so looking back over 14 months of building we are now in a position where we can share our recommended (and not recommended) vendors. Most are Joburg-based, given that’s where we are, but some are not.

This article will be an index of a bunch of sub-articles which I will write for different categories.

Sarah has already shared her piece on tiles, so we can start there and move on. Hope this is  helpful.

  1. Finding Tiles
  2. Geysers

Top 5 Things to Consider Before Renovating

Hello good people. My blogging tool tells me it’s been five months since my last confession – that’s pretty ridiculous.

Why is that? Well, largely because this project has dragged on and on and on. I keep thinking I’m going to make a series of “retrospective” posts where I look back at the finished project and say what wisdom I’ve gained. But truthfully we are not yet at the end.

Nevertheless, here is a quick update and the first of those retrospectives:

So, the main part of the house is complete. It looks a lot like it looked in the last post but I’ll post a full batch of photos shortly.

The problem is all the things that aren’t complete – mainly the boundary walls which have had to be stripped and replastered at a ridiculous cost; and the brand new steps which were finished with some god-awful substance that cracked almost as soon as it was laid. So we are now re-doing the steps. The brand new steps.

Anyway…here is a list of the Top 5 Things to Consider Before Renovating (or Building)

  1. Are you sure you’d rather not just buy a new house?
    Ah yes, the dream of doing things exactly the way you’d like them; the romance of poring over architects drawings and making Pinterest boards and choosing tiles and finishes.
    That stuff is actually true. But the reality is that this will be one of the most demanding and gruelling undertakings of your life. And you will not end up with exactly what you’d imagined for a billion reasons. Buying a new house might not be exactly what you want – but it will be easier and, quite possibly, cheaper.
  2. Do you have good enough taste?
    I don’t want to be mean BUT if there was ever a moment to question your sense of taste, style and design it’s before you embark on a wildly expensive renovation project. You will be asked a thousand questions about which taps, which tiles, which paint, which curtains etc. etc. Of course there are people to advise you but you will still have to make plenty of decisions. If you have a knack for picking great stuff then this is the project for you. If you routinely leave the house with mismatched clothes consider buying someone else’s house (and taste).
  3. Do you have the money?
    My project – like most building projects – went way over budget. I’ll write up a whole thing about budgets later. But don’t kid yourself: no matter what you do, and I mean no matter what, you will spend more than you’d planned to. And if what you’d planned to already felt financially crippling, I strongly recommend waiting on, avoiding or scaling back your project. It not costs a lot but it’s also a cashflow issue: unlike a home loan, renovations cost money now. Sure you can get the cash from your access bond if you have it but that may not prevent you running into serious financial problems if you suddenly need to pay a large, unplanned amount.
  4. Can you handle the stress?
    This includes: can you and your partner handle the stress. This stress will come in many forms: things costing too much, shit going wrong (all flavours), people letting you down, things taking too long, living in chaos, noise and mess; neighbours complaining; kids complaining; you complaining, contractors complaining; time off work while you drive to the Builder’s Warehouse for the 100th time to buy a can of sealant someone can’t live without.
    You need to try to be realistic about this upfront: if you’re not good at stress, or you and your partner fight about stuff at the drop of a hat, or you cash-strapped or you just don’t need any more hassle in your life: DO NOT BUILD ANYTHING.
  5. How much value can your property take?
    Because you are putting money into this project, you should ask yourself how much you will be able to increase the sale price of your property by. That depends on how much you bought it for, how much values in your area are increasing by, how much the renovation will add and when you plan to sell.
    The things that add value are, ironically, the parts of the project you may be least enthusiastic about. Put another way: the cool features like that new alarm system or home theatre or that quirky bathroom tile are often too much about you for someone else to care about. Everyone wants to stamp their individuality on a place and so they look for structural features and tend to change the bathroom and the kitchen you thought were so incredible.
    I consulted an estate agent before we renovated to see what she’d put the changed house on the market for. But a good rule of thumb is: don’t spend more than say 10 or 20% of your money on stuff that is an expression of yourself. Keep to the basics: new rooms, improved flow, more light etc. That’ll be the stuff that others look for if and when you sell your masterpiece.


Approaching the Beginning of the Beginning of the End of the Project

So, it’s a been a while. That’s partly due to a lot of stuff going on in life in general, but also because this project is both startling in how frequently thing change; and also frustrating in how the end keeps being just out of view.

Ok so here are a few recent pics of the house as it is now looking. A number of major items are still outstanding: flooring, cabinetry, fireplace, and finalisations of almost everything from painting, to polishing the concrete steps to fixes fixes fixes. And, of course, the kitchen which is currently non-existent.

I will also say that the financial side of things has gone from slightly worrying to borderline apocalyptic. Which doesn’t mean we’re facing bankruptcy but it does mean that costs keep pouring in: unplanned, unexpected and way, way more than what we were quoted.

The pool with a view onto the new (giant) window in front of the kitchen
Similar view – to the right of the big window is the new passageway to the new section
The new section, finally with all its glass installed. Bedroom is downstairs
A view of the new bathroom, with engineered wood floors and the amazing new bathtub in position
The view from the new master bedroom into the garden. This was, ultimately, where we started – wanting a bedroom in the garden
A view from upstairs. This has a lovely view, particularly at sunset. Clear view balustrade is now in place
Finally, a view onto the new pool area with lovely new concrete tiles and some of the new library and reception area

So, that’s more or less where we are. A lot has happened – a lot of money has changed hands, more of both to come.

Most popular question: when?

We think another month.

We could be wrong.

All about tiles

Guest Written by Sarah Blake (@blakey)

(I’ve been promising Jarred that I would do some posts as well – so this is long overdue!)

Jarred mentioned the many, many decisions needed when doing a renovation, and one of those has been tiles. As with many areas of the house, it’s easy to carried away by Pinterest (and amazing Swedish designed encaustic tiles), but then reality and budget hits.

And again, as with many areas of the house, months of research and choosing then rejecting ideas and options has really paid off with us getting some beautiful and striking tiles for our house. In fact, seeing some of the tiles now in really felt like a big step (for me) of the house becoming a home. The rest of the work has been mostly structural, and of course based very much on the vision of the architect (with our input). The tiles going in felt like the first of the decisions that we had made from scratch coming to life, and thankfully it feels like we made good decisions.

I’ve put a list at the bottom of this post of tile suppliers in SA that I would recommend based on the experience of this project. We didn’t get tiles from all of them, but they’re all suppliers that I will certainly keep on hand for future projects. (And a starting list like this would have been very helpful to us.)

We decided early on that we would like to do something quite striking with the new main shower, especially as it could become a feature that is seen from the garden or other areas of the house. (Although, given that it’s our shower, we might end up with screens so that it is seen a little less!) I also think that, if you have the space, a large bathroom that you love is a wonderful indulgence. We’d already chosen great fittings from OXO bathrooms, including a luxurious freestanding bath (can’t wait to have that installed – and then I think I will have bubble baths and wine every day ha ha). We wanted a beautiful shower to complement that.

We looked at getting custom tiles made, but the shower proportions are very generous, and the price of that quickly moved us too far along the indulgence scale. We had looked at encaustic (Moroccan) tiles in Johannesburg, but couldn’t find what we wanted. We briefly considered a long rectangular, off-white tile from Italtile, but when Andy the architect saw it and said “oh, metro tiles, everyone is doing those”, it fell out of favour with me.

Luckily we travel to Cape Town frequently, so I was able to stop in at Moroccan Warehouse on a trip. I got in touch with the owner, Kundra, and she very kindly supplied lists and images over email of the available tiles. I 3-D modelled some options for us, and we placed the order.

And now, they’re in and they look amazing. And they’re about the same square metre cost of the white tile from Italtile, but they’re bold, unique and distinctive. Watching them go in was great, and then seeing the colours getting more brilliant with the sealer being applied confirmed we made the right choice. We chose a hexagon mosaic tile to go of the floor.


The amazing shower in progress.


Moroccan tiles from Moroccan Warehouse in Cape Town

All of the builders have been commenting about our “special shower”, and I certainly can’t wait to use it.

Other tile choices:

From Tilespace, we chose rectangular tiles in three colours, which have been tiled in a herringbone pattern on the outdoor shower. Using a different pattern is a good way of taking “ordinary” tiles and turning them into something quite special.


A herringbone pattern for the upstairs shower

We surprised ourselves by choosing handpainted Mexican tiles for our swimming pool (still to be installed at time of writing). We were going for a plain black tile, but had some talavera tile samples we’d bought from Hadeda (a brief consideration for stair risers, until we realised just how many metres of stair risers we have). There wasn’t sufficient stock of the geometric tile, and someone suggested a mix of tiles. That’s what we’ve gone for, and they’re looking great. They are actually a good complement to the Moroccan tiles in the shower.


Laying out the tile mix for the pool

I’ve also learned more about pool coping than I ever thought I would want to know. Coping refers to the tiles around the edge of your pool, or on the edge of stairs. We had already chosen an outdoor tile, but were not happy with the coping options to go with the tile. Some extensive Google searching later, I came across Wilson Stone in Johannesburg. We went there to look at coping options, and realised that we preferred their tiles to what we had chosen. Luckily, no deposits had been made, and now have lovely, made in SA, tiles arriving this week.

Other tips / things I learned: There are a lot of grouting options (including glitter grout from Italtile if that’s your thing). Grout choice can really change the overall look. We’ve gone for dark grey throughout, which disappears beautifully with the Moroccan tiles, and gives a nice outline to plain colour tiles.

You can get black grout easily, no matter what Builder’s Express says. We found at several other hardware shops. (Black grout is for the pool.)

Likewise, the spacing between tiles can really change the look. Tile spacers start at 2mm, and go much higher.

Look at different layout options to create a different look and feel for your tiles. There are lots of references all over Pinterest.

You generally need to buy 10% more tiles than required to account for breakages, especially if there is cutting needed on the tiles. This can change depending on type of tile, so it’s worth looking at what’s needed and whether or not tiles can be returned. With large patterned tiles you might need more, depending on what areas need to be covered. With mosaic tile sheets you don’t need much extra.

You need waterproof cement for the pool. Buy this from a pool shop, or buy regular tile cement to which you add a liquid that makes it waterproof from a hardware store. It’s cheaper from the hardware store.

Tile suppliers

Handmade in SA

Southern Art Ceramic Design

Custom tiles made in South Africa. They are super helpful and quick to get back to you. Ask to look at surplus stocks for inspiration, or perhaps find the tiles of your dreams already made! Ships from Western Cape. I’m hoping that we might be able to get tiles for the kitchen from here.


Well priced and beautiful quarry floor tiles. New bespoke range of ceramic wall tiles in clean. modern geometric designs. Ship from Western Cape.

Wilson Stone

Outdoor paving and coping, made in South Africa. We are using these tiles on the outside deck and for the pool coping. Showroom: 157 Queen Str, Kensington, Johannesburg

Morrocan and Mexican Tiles

Hadeda in Johannesburg

Encaustic cement tiles (Moroccan tiles – made in Vietnam) and hand-painted Mexican tiles. All available tiles are listed on the website. We bought the tiles for our swimming pool here.

Moroccan Warehouse in Cape Town
Crnr Buitenkant & Commercial Street, Cape Town CBD, 8001

Phone: 021 461 8318

Kundra was so helpful, and emailed us lists of all tiles in stock, and coming on shipments, as well as helping us to see which patterns actually had sufficient stock for us. She arranged the shipping from Cape Town, and they all arrived quickly and with no breakages! Sealant and instructions came with the shipment. We bought the tiles for our main shower here.

Mexican Imports

I chatted with them online when we were looking at tiles for the pool, and they were super helpful. Ship from Plettenberg Bay.

The bigger guys – imports


Showrooms in Johannesburg and Cape Town. We discovered this store by accident (we were driving past it and went in on a whim), and we’re so glad we did. Large range of beautiful imported tiles, and very reasonably priced (like, 1/3 of what we were expecting based on Italtile experience). We bought the outdoor shower tiles here.

Douglas Jones
They really have the market cornered on mosaics, and are available through most large tile stores, including Italtile and Tilespace. We bought shower floor tiles here.

The Building Update

It’s been a while since I’ve posted anything here as we have been in the throes of choices. Choices! Wow, if only anyone had told me the number of individual items we would have to pick in this project. Ok, I’m not sure what would have changed if they had but I might have been more prepared. With better whisky. Or not been on a weird diet that has forced me to stop drinking for the past 5 weeks.

So the project is now at a stage where the main structural work is finished. There are three things to come: finishing up the new structure – our bedroom and the new storey room – with glass and fittings; replacing the front area of the main house with new glass windows and door; and restructuring the kitchen.

Also, most of the scary costs are in. This project has run wildly over-budget, as expected if not anticipated. I am trying to be philosophical about it and also focus on the amazing house we will have at the end of this.

I will do a full cost analysis at a later stage which I think will be helpful to people doing building projects. I have to say we haven’t been especially budget-conscious – we haven’t fought for discounts, for example, which I know others with more canny ways might have done. And we have let ourselves fall in love with certain finishes to the detriment of our budget.

That said, I do think we are investing in a home that will sell for at least the value bought for and invested here. So I am not that freaked out. Perhaps that’s mid-project wishful thinking.

IMG_0541 IMG_0540
IMG_0536 IMG_4821

So clockwise what we have here is the main new structure visible from the deck of the existing house, with the new swimming pool; the beginnings of work on the existing house – this room is changing from being a dining room into being a library (which Sarah insists on filling with actual books instead of just 2 Kindles); the beautiful tile work on the new shower – surrounded by glass this is going to look (as our architect is fond of saying) stunning; and finally a view up our new, long staircase toward the whole house.

Sonos vs. Heos: A Buyer’s Guide

If you’re reading this and you don’t know what Sonos or HEOS are, you may want to read my previous post or come back to this when you are faced with this choice (if ever). This post does not attempt to sell the virtues of wifi multi-room audio compared with other multi-room options. It’s also worth saying that there are other players in the wifi multi-room game these days – but that in South Africa these are the most likely two options.

I have spent the better part of a month to-ing and fro-ing between these two systems. In the end i have chosen to go with the Sonos setup and I’ll tell you why in a minute. But fairly briefly I am going to outline the relative strengths and weaknesses of these two systems.


They are very similar. That is the bottom line. In fact, if Sonos’ rantings are to be believed, Denon has effectively stolen a bunch of ideas and technologies from them and they are going to be suing their asses ASAP.

Both systems consist of the same components: three levels of self-contained speaker/amplifiers; a unit that links non-wifi amps into the ecosystem; a stand-alone amplifier; and a surround-sound set of components including soundbar and sub-woofer.

They also both offer smartphone and tablet-based software which controls the flow of audio from your device to one or more speakers.

Denon – and some audiophiles by extension – argue that their speakers produce superior sound. Sonos argues that they have better software and better integration with smart home systems.

The reality is that neither of these systems are what true audiophiles would select. They are great for background music or for contexts in which each vibration of each violin string is not required. Make no mistake: the sound is good. Both systems feature clear, crisp reproduction with good bass, even without a sub. But it is what it is: it has much more to do with clever distribution of sound within your home, from various sources, than it does with satisfying the SysOps on AVForums

In South Africa anyway they are sold at a similar price point, so even that isn’t much of a deciding factor.

So let’s look at a few features before wrapping up with my decision and reasons.


Anything you put in your house is both functional and decorative. Aesthetics are a personal thing but this is one respect in which Sonos and HEOS are very different.

The Sonos overall has a more solid, modern look informed, one might say, by the look of PC speakers and i-Device docking stations. The HEOS, whilst distinctive, look more like modified hi-fi speakers. Both are available in black or white, and in the end will come down to your own tastes.

For me the white Sonos are the winners – they are clean, square and modern, and they fit with my tastes.


Heos left; Sonos right (the Sonos here is a mix of the white and black models)

Source: Venturebeat.com, where you can also read this excellent showdown review.


Let’s turn to something a little less superficial. How do they sound.

I have auditioned only the PLAY:1, HEOS 3, PLAY:3 and HEOS 5. The high-end models I have heard briefly in-store.

Both PLAY:1 and HEOS 3 are impressive little units. They both have two amps and two speakers and both push out impressive sound for their size and cost. In fact they are so good that I am going to be largely buying these, pairing them up in some rooms to create a stereo field (which both systems support).

PLAY:3 and HEOS 5 are a little more controversial. They’re both good, I’d say Denon has the edge on the larger unit as far as sound goes. But it would because it has a higher spec. But neither is quite as powerful or compelling as one would hope. They both feel like compromises on the larger unit which is why I am investing in a PLAY:5 instead of a PLAY:3, even though it’s more power than I need.

Again you won’t be disappointed with the 3/5, but they just feel a little compromised.

I have to stress that these are all really good speakers. You will be surprised by how full and detailed the sound is and in most circumstances they will be more than adequate. Considering all the other advantages any compromises on sound are, to me, worth it.


Here’s where the power of these systems really comes to the fore. You buy the units, connect them to your network (in both cases this took under 5 minutes), and place them around your house. Fire up the app and you’re playing music. The entire setup from unboxing to party-time is maybe 15 minutes – and that’s if you’re shuffling pretty slowly between rooms.

Of course wifi music relies on decent wifi. Fortunately in a home setting decent wifi is not an expensive proposition. Both systems also support wired networks but that, to me, defeats a lot of the object of not running a wired speaker system in the first place.

The advantage the Sonos currently has is that its speakers form a mesh network – extending the network coverage with each speaker. How reliable this is as a way to network your home I’m not sure as repeaters lose bandwidth as they go. But with powerline ethernet these days, as well as excellent quality wifi access points at low cost, this really isn’t going to be a problem unless you live in Great Pyramid.

Neither of these systems directly support Airplay. They require their own proprietary apps. The reason is obvious which is the ability to handle the multi-rooming. One does suspect that Apple will implement a multi-room Airplay at some point in the future making this kind of thing obsolete. Although I have to say the flakiness of Airplay is surpassed by how stable Sonos seems to be.


The early versions of the HEOS app were buggy and unreliable, and the internet is littered with complaints about them. From what I have seen a lot of this has been sorted out and they seem to work pretty well.

Sonos, however, have been doing this a long time and their app is particularly good. Switching between different rooms, grouping rooms together, controlling volume etc. is all painless and seamless. The HEOS does the same job, but has various UX bits and pieces that could improve.

Of interest is integration with third-party streaming services, the next big way we will all be listening to music in the future. Right now Sonos has a lot more options than HEOS – including TIDAL, the amazing new high-quality service from Jay Z. No doubt Denon will catch up – and already has a few items Sonos doesn’t have – but for now Sonos remains out in front.

Neither, it is worth saying loud and clear, can stream your music from iCloud. Both work with local music on the device, music in a dedicated library (imported into the ecosystem and residing on a server) or one of the supported streaming services. This isn’t the end of the world as you can download your required iCloud content onto your device. But it is annoying. Will it be resolved? That depends on whether Apple decides to try and take these guys on or play nice with them.

Sonos also has a desktop app – which is quite nice. It’s not the greatest app on the world – for example you have to import music from a file system into its library as it doesn’t integrate with iTunes – but it’s great for managing the multi-room and giving you control beyond the little screen.

Worth mentioning

One thing Denon has going for it which Sonos doesn’t is that it’s Connect unit – that links a non-wifi amp into the system – is built to integrate with Denon amps. That means you can end up controlling, at least to some extent, the Denon amp from your app. That will save a few clicks and fishing around for an extra remote control to change zones on the amp or manage volume level.

Bottom Line

If mutli-room wifi audio is what you’re after, either of these systems will do.

For me there are three good reasons to stick with Sonos:

  1. Heritage: these guys have been at this for years and are good at it. A lot of the bugs are still to be worked out in the Denon system and right now it’s just less hassle to go with the market leader. This will change, probably fast, but 1st generation products are always to be regarded with some skepticism
  2. Apps: the Sonos app is better, for now. More integration, slicker, and with a desktop version.
  3. Networking: having the mesh network is a nice option, even if its not the backbone of your wifi strategy. Denon is apparently releasing a firmware upgrade to offer this soon – but like many things with HEOS there is a lot on the list of promises.

For pure sound, Denon has some advantage. And the integration with their range of amps and AVR’s is nice. But when it comes to buying something you’re going to have for years, it seems wiser to go with an established leader whose products have rave reviews all over the place.

Shopping for Sight and Sound

The Denon AVR-X2100w

The Denon AVR-X2100w

The reaches a point in anyone’s renovation process where the thorny issue of AV equipment comes up. What home theatre, amplifiers, speakers, TV etc. should one be buying?

Let me say at the outset that I have not yet spent any money on this stuff – so this counts as a preliminary look at the options. I will follow this up at some point with a rundown of what I ended up buying and installing, to see if it all worked out ok.

So let’s start with the philosophical question: why do you need these things?

If you are a highly evolved being who gets their R&R time from reading books, playing chess and debating Kierkegaard with friends, then a TV means nothing to you. Buy yourself a vinyl record player, pour yourself a drink and move on.

For the rest of us, we’re going to spend at least some of our time watching series, movies and sport (not me in the last instance because I’d rather have root canal. But we know this).

There are many different possible setups as there are homes and families. A lot depends on how many rooms you want a TV in, whether you want audio playing throughout the house, what you video and audio sources are and so forth. That said, it comes down to the following general considerations:

  • Sources: what is the provenance of your audio and video signal? The common options are radio, DSTV, Internet, CD player, DVD player, gaming console, mobile device and computer server. Depending on how many of these you want to support you will need a different sort of setup.
  • Distribution: where do you want all this stuff to appear? Is it mainly in one room or throughout the house? And most importantly: do you want a TV in multiple rooms, or just sound?
  • Quality: in particular, audio quality. Are you after the kind of sound system that shakes you to your very soul? Or will merely fantastic be good enough?

I am going to run through my planned setup and talk about how I’ve approached each of these areas.


I have exactly no interest in broadcast signals, radio, TV or otherwise. I don’t have DSTV and I don’t ever want it. So for me this confines my sources to networked – LAN or Internet, with the exception of a future gaming console like Playstation 4.

From a video point of view, I have an Apple TV and I also have a server with cached videos which I stream to the Apple TV using Air Video from my iPhone or iPad. So I don’t have the hassle of a DSTV installation and I’m not concerned about Bluray or CD players (that said, the PS4 can play both if the need arises).

So, with that in mind, the first big piece of equipment required is an AV Receiver. While true audiophiles (see Quality) may want to supplement this with a dedicated amplifier, and pre-amplifier, for most of us a good AV receiver is enough to push out solid sound.

Your sources plug into your AV Receiver. Decent AV receivers have inputs for many devices, audio and video, and act as a kind of aggregator, translating all those sources into signals ready to be distributed.

Choosing an AV receiver – like all things home theatrish, is a complicated business. There are models from a couple of thousand rand up to tens of thousands of rand – and more. Typical features that come with bigger price tags is sound quality or power, the number of zones sound can be fed to in the house, wifi connectivity and the number of inputs and outputs supported.

The models I have perused include the Denon AVR-X1100 and X2100, the Integra 30.6 and the Yamaha RX-V677. If those sound like lawnmowers then you understand some of the challenges. Differences between units come in strings of letters and numbers like THX and HDMI 2.0 and 4K.

You pretty much need to shop by price and brand reputation. From what I’ve seen you should expect to spend around R8 – R15k on a decent AV receiver.

That’s the home theatre bit.

If you have audio on a mobile device, or a library somewhere, and you want it to play in different parts of your house, you are going to need some kind of multi-zone amplifier. This leads us squarely to the topic of distribution.


Right – so let’s say you’ve got your radio, Apple TV, Playstation, DSTV and whatever else plugged into your AV Receiver. Now what?

The most obvious two immediate places you need to send the audio and video from the amp to are in your home theatre room: to the TV or projector and a set of speakers.

The choice between a projector or TV comes down to price, and configuration. TV’s these days are cheap – even at large sizes. They also have very sharp, bright images with excellent contrast. The drawback is that they dominate the room.

You can get a TV lift which can hide the TV inside a cabinet and have it rise into view when you want it. And you can also get various other cabinets and systems for disappearing the TV for non-watching times.

For our room, however, there really isn’t a convenient place to put a large TV set. So we investigated getting a home data projector with a motorised screen. This is discreet and leaves the lounge able to be a lounge without becoming a permanent TV room.

Projectors demand a trade-off between brightness and contrast. For home viewing you’ll want something that does high resolution (1080p or better) with good contrast. That means less brightness, which means it’ll only really be ideal to watch once the room is dark.

A projector is also considerably more expensive than a TV – and the bulbs blow from time to time (after 4000 hours or so).

Still, if you want something that allows your room to be fully dual-purpose, this is a good option. Plus it’s like going to the movies in your own house which is pretty cool.

So much for video distribution. What about audio?

In your home theatre itself you’ll want a 5.1 surround speaker system, at least. All the AV receivers mentioned above support at least that. That’s two front, two rear, a center speaker and a sub-woofer. You can get additional speakers on bigger systems if you want even more sounds separated out of the audio field.

There are good 5.1 speaker sets out there for under 10k, but you probably want to spend closer to 15 for something that packs a punch. If you can afford it, 20 opens the door to really exceptional speakers.

Two options recommended to me here are the Monitor Audio MASS and the Jamo S626HCS5 or 345HCS. But there are many others.

For the rest of the house you now have a big choice to make. There are two philosophies these days in audio distribution: the old method, which is to cable speakers from a central amplifier to each point in the house they’re wanted; or to use a wifi-based system where each speaker in each room connects via a network to one another.

For the cabled option you need a multi-zone amplifier such as one of the Russsound systems.

There are pros and cons to both – but to be honest these days it makes no sense to me to not take advantage of a wifi system. We have looked at both Sonos and the Denon Heos options.

So, how do these work?

In effect you put a unit that is both speaker and amplifier in each room you want audio. Both Sonos and Denon offer different sizes. These connect to your home network and allow audio to be streamed from any tablet or phone to one or more rooms. You can stream different songs to different rooms, and the apps have streaming services like Spotify built into them. The devices also support Airplay – and Sonos even have a dedicated device that will connect any amp into the network.

The huge benefit is that no speaker cabling is needed and the system is extendable by just buying another speaker unit.

For us, this is the perfect way to go. We will also connect the AV receiver via the Sonos connect to the environment so that we basically have one audio system throughout.


Audio, in particular, is something that people can get pretty tense about in terms of quality. True audiophiles want clarity and definition that demands amplifiers in the tens to hundreds of thousands of rand. The same is true of all the other components in the system – speakers, projector, TV, you name it.

Most of the video and audio I consume streams from the Internet. Whilst the quality is good, it is not uncompressed, zero defect stuff. To me, spending that kind of money on reproducing the exact sounds of sitting in a concert in Carnegie Hall just isn’t justifiable.

There is no exact right amount of money to spend on a home system. How many rooms are you covering? How big an image do you need? How many sources are you integrating and outputting? Do you have kids who want to watch TV in their own rooms – that requires some rethinking of the above setup.

Realistically, there is no setup worth having that includes both a home theatre and a 4-5 multi-room audio setup that will cost less than around R30,000. And that’s cutting a lot of corners.

We live in a media saturated world – and we fortunately have access to fantastic audio and video entertainment, as well as games. To me a house should allow you to enjoy that.

Needless to say, a solid internet connection is required to enjoy most of this properly. How apt that fibre to the home is rolling out in my suburb just in time.