This unconventional long-distance architect-client “relationship” resulted in the design of a house built for the extreme desert environment. We look at the drive for a ‘green’ home and compare the inclusion of sustainability alternatives vis-à-vis conventional building methods as well as the tradeoffs between green technology and higher costs.

Civil engineer, Hannes van der Merwe and his wife Esme, commissioned architect Nina Maritz (based in Namibia) to design their new house after stumbling across pictures of a Namibian house she designed. The appeal of Maritz was not only her approach to design but the sustainable nature of her specifications. The owners felt confident in Maritz’s understanding of their environment and their lifestyle preferences with regard to architecture and sustainability.

Despite the challenge of working across borders in “getting to meet face-to-face enough to set up a good dialogue”, Maritz believes that the “long-distance” design process was easier than anticipated due to the client’s “flexible, unpretentious yet unambiguous lifestyle requirements”.

While Maritz’s houses incorporate economic sustainability, this particular 285m2 house was expensive at R10 526.32/m2. Although the architects were not involved with the final costing of this project, Van der Merwe, who took ownership of the project upon completion of the technical documentation, involved Maritz in the final decision making process regarding finishes. Van der Merwe admits that his highly demanding job resulted in him being a rather “bad project manager” on his own site. That said he managed to save some money and energy by using local materials and simple finishes as well as omitting tiles and plastered walls by effectively incorporating cement finishes rather than expensive, unsustainable timber, floor tiles or carpets which incidentally fell in line with their preferred “look’ for the house.

To further reduce costs, the architect specified timber skirting’s which are more versatile than tiles in the long run. The cost of tiling the entire house would have cost around R19 500.00 (excluding grout, adhesive and labour).

Although custom-made joinery comprising forest steward certified (FSC) solid timber, recycled timber and scaffolding was very expensive, it was to the client’s exact requirements and if conventional cupboards were used (formica tops, marine ply etc.) the cost would have amounted to a similar amount but fallen short of sustainability requirements.

Maximum exposure to the natural elements was achieved by designing the house around its orientation. Views are gained through clerestory windows in the living room and main bedroom to catch northern light (protected by large overhang of roof). Although the architect would have preferred doors and windows made from standard steel in standard sizes to reduce costs and labour, the client preferred the look and quality of aluminium and in the end most of the doors and frames were custom made. In keeping with design and sustainability preferences, the large glass sliding doors in the corner of the living room which are at eye level, open up to the outside to create an extended room to allow better natural ventilation and consequently reduce the need for air conditioning.

It could be argued that air conditioning would have been cheaper and the cost of the build could dramatically have been reduced by including cheaper products, less windows and sliding doors which cost almost half a million rand, but the objectives of sustainability, of being energy frugal and green conscious would have been ultimately defeated.

See the full feature in the June/July 2011 issue on p58. Images: Rey van Rensberg