Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Of houses and homes...

South African houses are strange.

I’m not talking about my previous entry describing such things as no built-in heat or a complete ignorance of window screens, despite this being a land of abundant bugs, here. No, I am talking about the way the houses are built.

Hubby is thinking about building and, in going over the idea with me, he has asked if I would be willing to work with the architect to build an “American-style” home. He doesn’t mean a New England clapboard or Pacific Northwest timber frame, either…he’s referring to the kind of layout that most Americans, living in tract homes, take for granted.

For example, have you ever been in a house that, when you entered from the front door you were in the dining room? Well, if you’ve ever been to South Africa, your answer will be “Yes!” I cannot think of a single American home I’ve ever been in that was laid out in such a way. And sculleries…I thought sculleries were the exclusive province of romance novels until I moved to Cape Town! And garages…what house in America, built after 1960, requires you to walk through rain or snow or blustery storm in order to bring the groceries in from the car?

A few years ago we were avidly visiting Sunday open houses (called a “show house” here) in search of a new, larger home. A couple of months later we were back on the show house circuit, looking for our rental property. In that time we visited dozens of houses and got a look at the bizarre building practices employed by South African home builders.

First of all, I am astonished at how many houses have built-in barrooms! We visited an interesting house that had dining room in what looked like was previously the foyer…when you entered the house you practically fell over a dining chair! To the left of this dining area was a galley kitchen so small that once the microwave oven was placed on the counter top and a dish drainer next to the sink, the counter space was gone. Through the dining room we came upon a tiny lounge (South African for “living room”) that managed to squeeze a sofa, TV, and free standing steel fireplace together, leaving a narrow space for walking through to the next room, a huge bar room. This room was two steps down from the lounge, twice the size of the lounge, and was dominated by a built-in bar backed by mirrored shelves full of liquor bottles. Sliding glass doors lead out into a patio and pool, and a rather shabbily kept garden with a cabana area with its own bar! I was astonished!

The person from whom we bought the rental property had a bar and her new house actually has a separate bar room built behind the garage and connected to the house by a glass breezeway. A beautiful provincial-styled house we visited also had the entry through the dining room (the lounge was upstairs!) and a fully stocked bar complete with ice machine and professional bar accoutrements.

When we bought the rental property, we removed the bar and brought it to our house. Today it sits in the garage, turned backwards so we have easy access to the shelves beneath, which are used for storage. The top is handy for putting bags on as I unload the car after shopping. Our liquor collection is behind the closed doors of our punched tin pie safe, only revealed when we have guests or when one of us infrequently wants something stronger than Coke Light or a glass of wine. I’ve never in my life seen so many houses with rooms dedicated to housing a domestic equivalent of the corner pub!

Garages are another story. In my present house, my garage opens out onto a covered patio, from which there is a quick right turn into the kitchen. My last house here saw me walk several feet in open air from the garage door to a covered porch, and from there I had to walk through the living room and halfway up the hallway to get to the kitchen door. This became somewhat of an ordeal, slogging two or three trips laden with heavy bags while the wind lashed ran onto the porch, soaking me and the bags as well. Unfortunately, most of the houses we have seen here do not have easy access from garage to kitchen. One house we saw recently would require you to climb a steep set of stairs out the back of the garage (assuming there was enough room to get around the car while laden with bags of groceries), out into an uncovered, unpaved space (grass), and then enter the house through sliding glass doors. From there, you’d have to walk through the middle of the family room and then the dining room, in order to reach the kitchen. Another house we saw just a few weeks ago, has had some extensive remodelling recently done, and the appearance from the outside was stunning, Unfortunately, in order to get from the garage to the kitchen without getting wet in a rainstorm, you would carry your bags through the side garage door which opens into the master suite dressing room! From there, through the bedroom, down the hallway past the other two bedrooms, then a right turn into the kitchen.

Most American tract homes are designed with the garage having a door that open directly into the kitchen. My house in Northern California had it, the house my father and stepmother bought in 1962 had it, as did the homes of most of my friends. It seems so simple that you don’t even miss it until you find yourself dodging slanting sheets of rain and having to make multiple trips through the weather to bring in the weekly shopping!

South African houses often have sculleries. What is a scullery? Well, it’s difficult to explain because each South African household seems to have a different definition. The most common definition is a room where you wash the dishes, separate from the kitchen. Seems rather pointless to me…but it gets better (or worse, depending on how you view it). In America, most modern houses have the laundry area in the garage, near the hot water heater (called a “geyser”…pronounced geezer with a hard “g”). In South African houses, if you are lucky enough to be plumbed for a washing machine, it will be in your kitchen (front loader). Space for a dryer? Not bloody likely. And dryers sold in South Africa tend to vent hot humid air into the room as they have no vent pipes to the outdoors. I’ve gotten around that by buying a costly Bosch dryer that condenses the moisture taken out of the clothes and deposits it into a water tank that is emptied periodically…usually once per wash day. It works well, keeps the humidity and heat in the house down, but sells for approximately three times what a “normal” dryer costs.

You also are unlikely to find garbage disposals or dishwashers in South African kitchens, and in some kitchens you won’t even find a refrigerator or a sink! Why? Because they are out in the scullery! When he was looking for his first house here in SA, Hubby would email me photos of houses he saw and liked. He was particularly taken with a house that had dark wood and green malachite counter tops in the kitchen. I have to admit, the effect was stunning. But as I peered at the pictures of the kitchen I began asking questions…where is the fridge? Where is the kitchen sink? What is all that huge empty space in the middle of the room used for? Why is there no counter space next to the stove? He didn’t seem to think this was much of a problem until I suggested that he imagine himself making a cup of coffee and a sandwich in that kitchen…how much hiking around from point A to point B would be required? American kitchens tend to have a more efficient layout, requiring fewer than four steps from the sink, stove, refrigerator, which are set out in a triangular pattern. A centre island may be used, something I have seen only once in South Africa.

The scullery idea has some merit, but more like a pantry-cum-mud porch than in its present incarnation. When I see a house with a scullery, about the only thing I can count on being there is the sink. Some houses have a dishwasher or washing machine in the scullery, some have the refrigerator, and others have extra cupboards, like a pantry. Almost all of them have a door to the outside, which is convenient for carrying laundry out to the wash lines. But for the most part, the scullery seems not only superfluous to me, it seems to be inefficient. I don’t like them at all, despite their apparently being a big selling point around here.

Electric stoves are the norm here, despite the energy crisis we are currently experiencing, and I find it surprising that more people have not converted to gas. Now, gas mains do not run in the streets here like they do in America, but I have two 19-litre gas bottles installed outdoors, connected via copper piping to my kitchen stove, and in three years of living here, I’ve used two bottles of gas. Not such a bad deal…and they are amazingly cheaper than the electricity I would be using for the same cooking! But while gas stoves…very nice commercial-type ones, at that…are readily available here, builders continue to install electric stoves with ovens so small you are challenged to roast a large chicken, never mind a Christmas turkey!

It amazes me that South Africans think nothing of having their dining rooms just inside the front door. I have seen dozens of homes with this set up, and it always seems to be just so wrong! I have never cared much for open plan design, and this particular twist on the concept I find particularly offensive. I like my kitchen behind closed doors so that when my guests sit down to table, they aren’t forced to view the mess of dirty pots and pans that went into the creation of their feast.

I also do not like the concept of having to walk through one room in order to reach another. In that house with the extraordinary bar room, one had to walk through the dining room and the living room in order to reach the bar. If you were sitting there swilling beer, every time nature called you’d have to pass in front of the TV in the lounge and dodge the chairs in the dining room just to get to the hallway that leads to the loo. The traffic simply does not “flow” in so many of these houses…the rooms feel like afterthoughts, tacked on in the cheapest, most expeditious manner possible.

So, if Hubby decides we shall build, it appears I will be tasked with educating the architect in the subtleties and pragmatics of American home design. It will have thermostatically controlled ducted heat/air conditioning in zoned areas that can be cut off from each other…why heat or air condition the guest room if no one is visiting?

We’ll have a huge geyser…solar heated, of course…so we never run out of hot water. The windows will be double-paned, energy efficient, and will open in such a fashion that window screens can be used to keep insects out. The doors to the outside will be screened as well…no more mosquitoes!

The garage will be attached to the house in such a way that I can step directly from the garage into the scullery. Yes, there will be a scullery, but unlike the traditional South African one, mine will be more of a utility room, housing the washer and dryer, a space for ironing and a hanging rack for the clothes. There will be pantry cupboards, a laundry sink, and space for an upright freezer, as well as a cupboard for brooms, mops, and the vacuum cleaner. There will also be a storage room adjacent to the garage, one with a workbench, good lighting, rack shelving, and places to store such things as the lawn mower, garden tools, ice chests, and various other bits and pieces of suburban life that simply have no place in most houses.

The kitchen will be laid out with the “golden triangle” of the sink, stove and fridge, and my stove will be gas. The breakfast bar here gets good use, and I like the no-stain, easy to clean black granite counter tops, so that will be repeated in the new kitchen. I’ll get another Franke 3-bowl sink, but this time it will be hooked up to a garbage disposal and a lovely dishwasher will be tucked in under the counter right next to it. I love my wrought iron pot rack, so the new kitchen will definitely have one, and I’m sold on ceramic tile floors in the kitchen and baths. The rest of the house, however, will have French Oak floors, like my present bedroom.

The main bedroom will have a huge bath with a big American-style walk-in shower. A Jacuzzi for two, and double sinks, and the heated towel rail Hubby has grown so fond of on winter mornings complete the bathroom “must haves.”. A walk-in closet and dressing room are a must, and each of the two guest bedrooms will have their own small baths.

With a proper foyer and hallways connecting the various rooms, rather than walking through one room to get to another, the house will be All American in design…at least inside. I’m wondering how a New England Colonial might look here, though…

1 comment:

  1. Hi,
    Have you thought of the instant-source water heaters for the bathrooms? These little heaters are attached to the individual water supplies to each shower, so that one is not shipping cooling water thoughout the house. They are basically infinite in their hot water mfg capacity.

    Also, someone in the UK is making roof tiles that are actually solar panels. They are individually engineered so when one goes out you can shove another in its place. I want them, but they don't sell them in the US - or they didn't a couple of years ago. They make a lot of sense.

    Also, I have several house building plan books with hundreds of house plans in it - most with the garage adjoining the kitchen. Are you interested in one? I can ship it to you so that you have a basis to start with your architect.

    Yes, pantrys are nice as are sewing/project rooms; but this scullery business is odd sounding.

    With all this Americanization you may no longer need your little geckos :-).

    I'm still stuck in Modesto, CA what with crashing housing values and foreclosures outshining the sales. So, I'm just looking for an income source and will delay the move a couple more years.

    Hope all is well with you.



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