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:, 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.

Steel Yourself

Right, so the great building project has moved decisively into the next phase. That phase is defined by the erection of large steel structures which represent the major aesthetic addition to the house. And also by the first two major snags – one the fault of some previous swimming pool builder and one the fault of our architect.

So, this is what the structure now looks like:


Some pretty impressive steel work going on there. However two problems are visible in this picture to the observant eye.

1. The pool, it turns out, was skew. It’s always been skew. Or the house is skew. Or something is skew. But upon erection of a wall next to the pool this became obvious. The brickwork you see in the pool is the rather costly undertaking of changing the orientation ever so slightly. I am now convinced the “changes” to the pool are costing more than an entirely new pool.

2. The steel beams are too high! Turns out the 3D drawings were just “artist impressions” and the fine steel work is, in reality, large thick steel beams. That’s ok – but someone’s measurements were off and they are now towering over the house instead of sitting nicely under the eaves the way they were supposed to.

The design, if one refers back to the 3D renderings, had these two “glass boxes” pushing out from the front of the current dining room/new library, and in front of the kitchen. This was to create the effect of having added a modern section onto an existing house. With the steel as it stands here, we actually have a steel structure towering over the front of the house and obscuring the entire existing structure (well in front of the kitchen anyway).


To make a long story short, the architect did some fancy footwork and has redesigned the house “on the fly” as it were. His enthusiasm, after some initial wariness on our part, worked. And we are now officially excited about our redesign.

new house plan

You will notice – if you’re still with me – that the roof facade now includes a stepped level with a skylight. This roof will also, I’m told, extend forward and over the pool.

So – challenge faced. I should also add that our architect has offered to cover any additional costs incurred by doing this – which is pretty excellent of him, and once again makes me feel good about who we are working with on this project.

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 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.