This section is from the book "Modern Buildings, Their Planning, Construction And Equipment Vol6", by G. A. T. Middleton. Also available from Amazon: Modern Buildings.
(Contributed by H. S. East, A.R.I.B.A.)
In most cases the ground floors of buildings, and in some cases the first floors also, are protected from the sun and weather by verandahs and balconies carried over the pavements, and supported by columns at the edge of the curb. This protection is a boon to pedestrians alike in wet and fine weather. Besides this, care must also be taken to protect windows facing north and west from the heat of the sun with louvred shutters, Venetian blinds, sun-blinds, or other means, of which, in spite of their limitations as regards design, louvred shutters are the most satisfactory from the practical point of view.
Owing to the powerful light and clear atmosphere, internal light areas are much smaller in size in proportion to those necessary to obtain sufficient light in England. The principle, though, is very often carried to excess, and many of the lately erected high buildings are entirely spoiled by introducing more offices than could be effectively built upon the site, and by non-calculations of angles of light. A safe working principle to go upon is to allow the walls of an area or areas to be built two to three times their width, this height being calculated from the sills of lowest windows.
All buildings over four storeys in height should have a fire-escape staircase satisfactorily and conveniently arranged; in fact, in Johannesburg and in some other towns these stairs are insisted upon.
Lifts are a necessity in any building of such height or higher, and two at least are advisable in any block of over, say, 6000 feet super. and more in proportion. They are usually electrically worked.
In Cape Town and Cape Colony towns generally, sites are usually of no given sizes, but Johannesburg and other towns laid out in very recent times have been cut up into blocks or stands of 50 by 100 feet, occasionally subdivided again at corners into 56 by 50 feet. This, whilst ensuring uniformity of frontage to a certain extent, has the great demerit of being a very awkward size to treat architecturally, unless the building is very high or rather low.
As, however, the average height of office, store, and shop buildings generally is about 60 feet plus basement, it will readily be seen that, except on the longer frontages, good proportions are not easily obtainable, and the square box form difficult to get away from.
The larger stores and emporiums with showrooms, etc., display very little grasp of their business requirements as regards planning, and have mostly been built piecemeal as the business extended, and without much regard for the safety, convenience, and comfort of their customers. Of course, some of the later erections of Johannesburg and elsewhere are exceptions to this rule, and are as up-to-date as possible in all ways.
Owing to some towns (including Johannesburg) not having a sewage system up to the present, all sanitary conveniences in these towns have had to be planned apart from the main block of buildings, and a sanitary passage (usually about 3 feet wide) arranged for from the street, with open-air stairways up to the various latrines for emptying purposes. In such cases these stairway sand passages are usually utilised also for fire-escape purposes.
A reference to several Johannesburg buildings hereafter illustrated will show how much this question has to be studied, and how difficult in many cases the problem is. As, however, most of these towns, Johannesburg included, are installing a water-borne sewage system, the problem will gradually disappear.
Chambers or flats are not numerous in most towns, although at Johannesburg there is perhaps rather a plethora of them at the present. They are usually arranged either as single rooms or in suites of two or three rooms, each set having its own bathroom. Generally speaking, in these blocks one or more of the ground floor shops is arranged as a restaurant, where occupants can arrange to have their meals at more or less reasonable prices on a monthly tariff.
In many parts of South Africa fireplaces or other means of heating are unnecessary. Where the climate or conditions make artificial heat at times desirable it is accomplished by means of fireplaces or low-pressure hot-water pipes with radiators on the usual systems, differing not at all from the European types, but perhaps not always so efficiently carried out.
Of late years the tendency in South Africa in town buildings has been towards the American "sky-scraper" type mostly, kept down to a reasonable height. In nearly all cases skeleton steel framing has been used, without, however, in many cases sufficiently efficient protection of stanchions and girders from fire by means of concrete or other suitable material.
Building being costly and high rate of interest a primary factor, the fronts are usually in brick cemented, this last being often coursed to imitate stone. Still, a goodly proportion of stone and terra-cotta fronts can be seen, looking perhaps the more effective for their grey surroundings.
Shop fronts and fittings are mostly imported from England, and designed, not by the architects, but by well-known shop-fitting firms. They therefore differ not at all from the usual type to be seen everywhere during a ramble round London, except that the carving and scrolls, etc., are even more incongruous and out of place in this dusty climate. There are distinct signs of a change in this direction, and the author knows of at least one long range of shop fronts which have been constructed locally, and from designs and details supplied by the architect.