This Eco-Friendly Home Wears the South African Bush as Camouflage

This Eco-Friendly Home Wears the South African Bush as Camouflage

By Mandi Keighran
Sunken in the earth and topped with native grass, this low-slung concrete home lets the landscape rule.

When South African couple Lukas and Wendy van Niekerk decided to build their own home, they chose the spectacular setting of the Monaghan Farm eco-estate in Lanseria, a small village near Johannesburg. The estate’s masterplan, as well as parts of the architectural and environmental guidelines, had been developed by Daffonchio Architects. Impressed with their portfolio, the van Niekerks decided to work with the firm to design House V. Set over several pavilions with a separate cottage, the residence showcases how close collaboration between a design team and client can deliver a striking outcome.

Monaghan Farm is a 1,300-acre eco-estate about an hour north of the center of Johannesburg. The architectural and environmental guidelines for the estate outline that only 3% of the land will ever be built on.

As a design engineer, Lukas put together the brief and drove the design process. "We had a very detailed brief," says Wendy. "We wanted a modern design crafted from ‘off-shutter’ concrete, raw steel, and glass with lots of light bringing the surrounding environment up to the house."

The material palette is almost exclusively "off-shutter" concrete, both inside and outside. The main metal elements are crafted from raw steel.  

The house is intentionally sunk into the ground, a point that Daffonchio had insisted on when developing the general guidelines for Monaghan Farm. As a result, the large scale of the home is diminished in the landscape and the double-height front door, crafted from raw steel, is revealed only after walking down a set of steep steps and through a courtyard.

Off-shutter concrete is created by removing the shuttering—normally wooden planks used as a temporary structure to contain setting concrete. "Casting the perfect texture of old wooden planks on the concrete, while getting all the services placed correctly inside the shuttering, was an Herculean task," says Daffonchio.

"After opening this very imposing door, visitors find themselves in a double-volume glass box with sweeping views of the bush and river," says Daffonchio. "This is an intentional sequence of spaces and emotions."

The artwork on the outdoor deck is by Cape Town sculptor and blacksmith Conrad Hicks. The artist also made the front entrance gates. 

The simple interiors are given a strong sense of character with eclectic furnishings and artwork styled by Wendy van Niekerk.

The house comprises a series of pavilions with deep overhangs, thin roof slabs, and recessed floor-to-ceiling glass that create an elegant horizontal profile that sits in harmony with the surroundings. Glass corridors connect the pavilions internally, and boardwalks that float over the veld grass link them externally.

"Wendy and Lukas were looking for a natural, sporty lifestyle and a sustainably designed home," says Daffonchio. "It is always rewarding to see the owners living the lifestyle they had dreamed, and seeing their joy in living the home and its incredible surroundings." 

The pavilions are separated by courtyards and "green fingers", which are contrasted with the open natural landscape. "It was important to have these enclosed courtyards so that the African bush could be safely enjoyed at night," says Daffanchio. Many of these courtyards also double as outdoor living spaces—such as the external space adjoining the master bathroom, which features an open-air bath and shower.

The secluded site boasts unimpeded views of the Jukskei River and the surrounding indigenous bush. "It is sensational," says Daffonchio. "It’s like being in an African game reserve."

The home features expansive views of the open landscape, as well as enclosed courtyards that offer privacy and protection at night.

In response to the site, the home is almost entirely glass on the river-side, opening out to expansive views, and completely closed on the road side. "We did a thorough sun study so that we could include enormous glass surfaces that opened up to the views without overheating the house," says Daffonchio. "The unimpeded access to the surrounding nature was very important."

The planted grass roofs are a recreation of the landscape that existed before the home was built. They are dynamic landscapes that change with the seasons.

The home also has many ecologically friendly features that respond to the architectural guidelines set by Monaghan Farm, including water harvesting, photovoltaic panels, and roof gardens. "It is very long and low, like a prairie house," says Daffonchio. "We literally recreated the original landscape on the roof gardens, so that from a bird’s eye view, the home should blend perfectly into its surroundings."

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A timber boardwalk through the veld grass leads to a 15-meter, reed-filtration lap pool. 

Lukas also came up with practical solutions to several unusual elements in the design. "The clients are well educated architecturally and had a very clear wish list," says Daffonchio. "For example, they loved a particular detail from Carlo Scarpa’s Canova Museum, and this inspired the glass cube window on top of the shower."

These steps lead to the rooftop garden. They run alongside the master bathroom, which features a glazed corner detail inspired by Carlo Scarpa's Canova Museum.

The glazed corner detail allows natural light to flood the shower in the master bathroom.

The bathroom counter tops are crafted from concrete, which was cast on-site and polished. 

"For us, this is more than just a home," says Wendy. "Besides functioning as a house, it is also a way of expressing our energy. The living area is unique with big glass sliding windows, and when these doors are open, this space becomes part of the environment. We love living so close to nature and are constantly reminded of how fortunate we are." 

"The design went through several changes to eventually get to the accepted design," says Wendy van Niekerk. "We were very intensely involved from the start of the design to the final design."

Floor plan of main home and studio cottage of House V by Daffonchio Architects.

West elevation of House V by Daffonchio Architects.

Section of House V by Daffonchio Architects.

Site plan of House V by Daffonchio Architects.

Related Reading: 

A Floating South African Cabin Borrows From the Landscape

A South African Architect Designs an Off-Grid, Modern Home For Her Parents

An Elegant South African Home Embraces Mesmerizing Views

Project Credits:

Architect of Record: Daffonchio & Associates Architects / @daffonchio_architects

Builder: Lukas van Niekerk

Structural Engineer: Len Nyenes

Landscape Design: Lukas & Wendy van Niekerk

Interior Design: Lukas & Wendy van Niekerk

Sculptural Artwork: Conrad Hicks

Photography: Adam Letch 

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