“Design decisions improve as a result of constraints,” says architect Stephen Hitchcock, as we sit chatting at his dining table with his neighbour, co-designer, practice partner and friend David Long.
The duo have certainly earned the right to say so with this project — a pair of semi-detached houses they share with their partners and, between them, three small children. Situated in the central Cape Town suburb of Vredehoek, on the slopes of Table Mountain, this eye-catching pair of homes is a super-smart model for 21st-century densification in domestic design.
The “constraints” Stephen is talking about included restrictions of space and situation — a plot fronting a busy four-lane road just 190m2 in size, into which two family houses had to be fitted — plus, of course, council regulations pertaining to how tall the building was permitted to be and where it could be placed. But also (and perhaps most importantly of all), they were constrained by their budget.
In fact, it was that restricted budget, when combined with a desire to live in central Cape Town in spite of the high premium on property prices in the City Bowl, that led to this building being created at all.
To realise their dream of living where they do while still young professionals with developing careers and growing families, David and Stephen knew they would have to pool their resources.
In late 2016, they purchased the plot together. It had had an existing house on it, but that had been condemned and (mostly) demolished, and David recalls them viewing the property and making an offer for it on the same day. A few cash- and bond-wrangling weeks later, it was theirs, and the new landowners convened on site for a celebratory beer.
They have since never doubted it was the right choice for them, say Stephen and David, in spite of all the obstacles that building their own homes on a minimal budget could throw at them.
From discovering bits of the foundations of the old house that had not been properly removed during its demolition, to regularly running out of money to continue the build and fit-out of the interiors, there was certainly a plethora of these.
Of course, there were some advantages too. The passing of a city bylaw aimed at encouraging urban densification in particular areas of Cape Town enabled the development of two dwellings on a plot of this size in this neighbourhood.
Another key plus: David and Stephen, both architects at their own practice, Stretch Architects, could design their future homes themselves and knowledgeably supervise their construction. The duo say they took their time with the design process, working through multiple iterations as they raised the cash needed to start building.
As with any other project, there’s “a leap of faith in concept, and then deadlines fix a design into place”, says Stephen. Their plan was to build “the shell first, then floor by floor as budget allowed”, says David.
And he says they soon found this to be an approach that demonstrated the design value of “getting the bones right”. Both designers fondly recall the loveliness of the triple-volume space that was to become these two dwellings when it was first completed.
That “shell” necessarily — due to building regulations — sits on a compact footprint, with the full final floor area of each house being 95m2. Each has three floors: a 35m2 ground-floor living, dining and kitchen space, plus two more private levels above that are each slightly smaller, and slightly smaller again.
A compact metal staircase at the centre of each takes one up through the houses, and as in the classic definition of a semi-detached build — two family homes that share a single central wall — the kitchen wall in one space is also the kitchen wall in the other, with the ground floors existing as mirror images of one another.
Higher up in the houses, however, the two spaces are not mirrored at all — they differ quite substantially in layout, with each architect having decided how best to “fill in the space” created by the exterior shell, based on their own family’s needs.
What you’re always working with in architecture, says David, are “volume, light and materials”, and when it came to decision-making regarding the latter, budgetary constraint informed each call. For example, the upper floors and ceilings are made from timber, not cast concrete.
As David explains, the wood panels that in another build would have been used as shuttering for pouring the concrete — and then removed and discarded — have here been employed as a permanent element of the construction.
Likewise, the decision to use plain, unplastered clay brick for both exterior and interior walls, with the material simply painted white in the interiors, was guided by the budget — as was cladding the roof and third floor of the building in simple corrugated-steel panels.
But the care that has been put into its proportions and openings; that has gone into ensuring natural light floods into the spaces; and that guided the negotiation of the building’s key design relationship between Table Bay in front, and Table Mountain behind; all this demonstrates how considered design leads to results both aesthetically and practically pleasing.
A key factor in this, too, is the generous use of volume, which helps make rooms with compact footprints feel larger.
David points out that the visual connections between the various floors are also a vital element of the overall design of each home. “For daily living, we are as a family able to be together, while not feeling on top of each other,” he says.
“My daughter can play upstairs while I cook dinner — but I can see her and we can chat. If she feels like she needs some privacy, she can close the large sliding door.”
The two houses both thus have a lovely flexibility to them, despite their modest size.
“Small moves make big effects in this sort of project,” adds Stephen. Such “small moves” here include the built-in planters at the exterior of the windows on the second and third floors.
Filled with hardy local species, these have nevertheless taken a few years to bed in because of heat build-up on the steel plates in summer.
But after a couple of cool, wet winters, the plants are now thriving — and form part of the on-the-spot experience noted as part of the “constant learning process” this design duo agree is essential to architectural practice.
Listening to David and Stephen talk about the process of conceptualising, building and living in their homes, it becomes evident that the importance they attach — as designers, colleagues and friends — to “honesty, community, collaboration and evolution in ideas” is encapsulated by what they have built here.
Says David of their design process, “threads collect and become distilled in buildings”, and the threads gathered together here have created something golden.
• See stretcharchitects.com