Thursday, February 25, 2010

The house hunt continues...

South African houses are different from American houses in many ways. The renowned architect, Buckminster Fuller, once said “…a house is a machine for living…” and American home designers have, for the most part, seized on that sentiment and run with it. American houses, by and large, are logically laid out and come with a basic minimum of creature comforts and conveniences, particularly homes built in the last quarter century. Not so South African houses, not even those built in the last year!

Not only have South African home designers never heard of the kitchen work triangle, they’ve apparently never heard the phrase “room flow.” Americans may never have heard of this term, most likely because “room flow” is conspicuous only by its absence, and the vast majority of modern American homes have it…and the majority of houses I have seen on this most recent house hunt do not.

So just what is “room flow”? Well, it is easier to describe some examples of what is not… In average American home you enter from the front door into either an entryway of some kind or directly into the living room (“lounge” in South African parlance). There is usually either a bedroom wing served by a central hallway (“passageway”) or a second story with bedrooms. If the house has a dining room, it is probably adjacent to (or across a hall from) the kitchen. In open plan style houses, the kitchen will most likely be open plan with a family room, the formal dining room separated from the kitchen but perhaps open to the living room. When moving from room to room, you do not have to use one room as a passageway to another (with the exception of the kitchen and open plan areas).

We are not looking in any “downmarket” neighbourhoods. All of the houses we are seeing are in middle to upper middleclass areas and the average price we are looking at is around R2 million. This price will also buy us a very well-appointed McMansion in a gated community, so don’t let the exchange rate fool you. Here is a link to a house we have looked at and is going for R2.1 million. As you can see, this is not a cheap fixer-upper, it is a beautiful, gracious house of more than 5000 sq ft set on a half acre of landscaped grounds. All of the houses we have looked at are pretty much in the R1.6M to R2.6M range, like this one…and despite their handsome prices (and the implication that for this money you are getting a premium property), a shocking number of them were laid out in such a way that they had what Hubby calls “the glommed-on effect,” the antithesis of room flow.

Last week we saw a large house in a leafy suburb near Hubby’s office. It started off ok, we walked into the house through a small entryway, the bedrooms in a wing to the right, the public rooms (“reception rooms”) to the left. The living room was so small as to feel claustrophobic and a narrow opening in the far wall proved to be a doorway to the “family room.” Actually, it was a thatched-roof patio that had had brick walls erected around it, and you had to enter it by walking diagonally across the cramped living room. At the other end of the house, the fourth bedroom had to be entered by walking through the master bedroom…although the room did have its own private door to the driveway. This room, too, had been added on, the insides of the walls simply painted brick, no attempt made to plaster or insulate the walls. So, two of the rooms were just kinda stuck onto the house with no thought for access to them…how would you like your child to have to traipse past your bed in the middle of the night en route to the bathroom? The owners wanted R1.99M for it, way too much considering that it also needed the bathrooms and kitchen (original 1970s vintage) gutted and redone and some kind of internal remodelling was necessary to restore room flow to the house.

Another house we visited had no dining room and a bad remodel of the kitchen had left it withno place to sit and eat. The owners had taken space in the already small living room for the dining table, and right next to it they had erected an enormous, dark, pub-style bar. It overwhelmed the small space, dominating the room like a huge vulture brooding in the corner. Access to the back yard and the pool (and another bar, this a freestanding open-walled room at the back of the garden) was through the living room. So, if you wanted to come in from the pool, your drippy wet self would have to enter the living room to get to a bathroom or your bedroom; if you wanted to take raw meat and gooey potato salad out to the patio to braai, you had to take it through the living room; if you wanted a tipple…well, same thing…no quick trip to the kitchen fridge, but a stop in the family pub that dominates the living room. Pity anyone trying to watch TV or read a book or have a conversation with the local vicar, eh?

There was the house that had a cramped windowless room between the kitchen and the dining room. Dubbed the “TV lounge” by the sellers, the room had to be traversed diagonally to get to the living room, and then around a corner to meet up with the dining table. Then there was the R6.5M “estate” that you had to walk through the main bedroom to access the stairway to the loft bedroom above…and for 6.5M you didn’t even get a garage! It had a nice kitchen, but you had to walk out into the hallway, down the hall, and around the corner to reach the dining room that was just on the other side of the kitchen wall.

Some houses have their family rooms right next to the living room…doesn’t seem to make much sense to me since the family room was intended to be a place where the family could kick back, shoes off, sprawl on the rug to watch TV or play games while the living room, in another part of the house, was reserved for more formal, even adult purposes. And I have yet to figure out the South African obsession with installing a fully functioning bar in the home…we saw a house that had an incredibly dysfunctional, windowless kitchen that needed thousands of rand worth of work, but down the hall there was an obviously costly bar installed…plumbed and boasting beer kegs and bar top taps…that was worthy of a corner pub! This house also required an extensive hike from the kitchen, down a hallway, and around a corner to deliver food from the kitchen to the dining table...but the expensive, professionally-equipped pub was obviously a higher priority than creating a functioning kitchen and rational access to the dining room.

There are houses where you enter directly into the dining room…no foyer or entry way, just a front door that opens into the dining room. I don’t think I have ever…not even once…seen an American house that you stepped through the front door and bumped immediately into a dining table! But I have seen several South African houses with this design, so obviously people buy them despite their awkwardness.

I have seen several houses that had peculiar dressing room/bathroom arrangements…when your closets are in the bathroom, steam from the showers will mildew your clothes, even if there are doors on the closets (I know…I had a house like that). I viewed one house where there was a huge…and I mean as big as the master bedroom…walk-in closet adjacent to the bedroom but no en-suite bathroom. Well, at least I thought there was no master bath until I walked all the way to the back of the closet, past all the clothes and stepping over the owner’s considerable collection of shoes, to find a doorway leading into the bath. I could just imagine myself making a 2 am trip to the loo and getting tangled up in a dress or tripping over Hubby’s size 13s! No thanks…access to the bathrooms should be proximal and unimpeded!

Then there are those darlings of trendy housing design, open plan kitchens. I can think of only one that I have seen, here in SA, open onto a family room so that the cook would not be isolated from her family while preparing their dinner…and in this solitary example, the stove was situated to that the cook had her back to the family room, the family, and all the activity on going (not only that, but her sink, microwave, and fridge were in a different room!). I’ve seen other open plan kitchens that are also laid out so that the cook, while in an open room that segues into another…usually the dining room…is forced by the layout of the kitchen to turn her back on any guests or family that might happen to have wandered in to keep her company.

So, creating easy, sensible room flow is not a particularly strong skill with South African home designers, making it a challenge for us to find a house that does not feel like half the rooms have been “glommed on.” It is an important criterion for us…that, and finding a house with at least a few amenities. More about that next time.


  1. It's an atrocity to have to go through a closet to get to the bathroom. I couldn't imagine stumbling through clothes and shoes when I have to go at night (and I can't be bothered to turn on the lights for every place I walk through).
    That house you linked to looks quite nice. Better make an offer before I do!

  2. Hmnnnnn, I wonder if you should build a house? Although I do realize you are not thrilled with Johannesburg and are even thinking of when you might be able to move, so that might not be such a great idea.

    Are the houses in Johannesburg very different from the ones in Cape Town? I remember your describing your Cape Town home and it sounded lovely to me.

    I clicked on the link you provided and was so interested to see a S.A. home. Interestingly, the backyard really reminded me of the backyard of my childhood home.

    I love reading your stories of S.A.--I have always enjoyed learning about and visiting other cultures. I'm still thinking we might make it to S.A. on our visit to the Middle East in November.



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