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.
Probably the climatic conditions are almost entirely responsible for the differences in the arrangement of South African houses as they exist to-day from those of other countries. The old Dutch farmhouses still sparsely scattered over Cape Colony, the oldest settlement in South Africa, have little or no influence on either latter-day planning or construction.
There can be no question that these houses have and had at least the merits of coolness and suitability to their immediate surroundings. The thatched roofs, thick sunburnt white plastered walls, the upper or attic storerooms approached by an outside staircase usually at side of house, and the lofty rooms all contributing more or less to this satisfactory result; whilst the style architecturally, with its quaint gables, doors with upper and lower halves, small paned large windows with panelled shutters to the lower half, although differing considerable from its parent in Holland, seems to harmonise quietly and most effectively with the rolling veldt and towering mountain scenery of the Cape Peninsula, and this harmony is specially helped by the masses of oak trees invariably planted by the original founders.
The internal arrangements, however, by which each or nearly all the rooms communicated one with the other, lack the privacy dear to the heart of the English side of the community at least, and are not therefore altogether suitable to present conditions, mode of living, etc.
The modern development of South African life has resulted in the centering of the bulk of the populations in towns and their outskirts. The natural outcome of this has been to crowd houses and population together, although not by any means to the same extent as in any or all of the European countries, - not even excepting those whose climate approaches more nearly that of South Africa.
Many houses have been built, and many will doubtless continue to be built, even in the towns themselves, as well as their suburbs, on such an amount of ground as may be necessary to show the architectural characteristics; still, as a rule, the area is too circumscribed to allow of successfully arranging a house satisfactory in all points. Town houses, such as are commonly arranged in the more or less aristocratic neighbourhoods of London and other large cities, are practically unknown. Terrace houses of one, two, or three storeys, and even semi-detached ones, are still in the minority.
The principal problem which the architect has had to face in house planning in the past, and seems still likely to have to meet, is to arrange a satisfactory dwelling on a site of 50 feet frontage by 100 feet deep (Cape feet - equalling respectively 51 feet 6 inches and 103 feet 0 inches English), with the probability that the house required on such a plot will be of one store)' only.
This subdivision and similarity of size of plots has naturally caused a hackneyed style to spring up, the planning usually being faulty, and the elevation commonplace and tawdry to a degree, and the arrangements (especially the lighting and outlook of bedrooms) of such a kind that the houses are anything but exhilarating to live in.
To add to these disadvantages, estates are cut up into plots (always approximately of the above-mentioned size), and plots are sold singly or otherwise without any restrictions as to class, quality, or appearance of the houses to be erected, except perhaps for a proviso that no houses built on the ground shall be occupied by the coloured people. It is therefore not infrequent for a man, who has as a pioneer built a house of considerable attractiveness both in size and appearance, to find it surrounded by a row or series of houses squeezed each on a plot of ground very little longer and very little broader than themselves - a juxtaposition, to say the least of it, exceedingly galling to the pioneer.
Roads, too, particularly in the neighbourhood of Cape Town, are often absurdly narrow, leading nowhere, if so be that thereby another plot or two can be squeezed out of the area cut off. Owners when selling, in the past at any rate, not being compelled by law or " moral suasion" to make or pave them, or to lay sewer or water mains, they are too often mere dust-heaps in the summer and veritable quagmires or roaring torrents in the winter. The narrow roads, however, are discounted to a certain extent, owing to it being the usual custom to set the houses as far back from the street as possible, with the gardens in front and only a kitchen yard at the back.
From this short introduction it will be readily seen that the planning of the house of the ordinary man, the usual every-day problem, is attended with no small difficulty. In fact, one notices one or more of the following defects in nearly every house, namely, the best bedroom contiguous to the entrance door; the other bedrooms, and possibly the dining-room and study, with no other outlook but the boundary wall or fence a few feet away, and above that the upper part of the windows of the neighbouring house; long narrow airless passages; and the kitchen so arranged that the smell of cooking is almost more prominent at the front door than in the kitchen. These defects, of course, occur mostly in the one-storey house, which is still the most popular owing to the fact it is more easily worked, if necessary, without a servant or servants.
All houses, however, have a stoep or verandah, quite the most charming and useful feature in this climate, and a most necessary adjunct.
One may summarise briefly the principal points to be aimed at in planning a South African home as follows: -
1. Large, broad, and if possible continuous stoeps, with three aspects, so as to give shelter from the sun during all parts of the day on one side or the other.
2. Large airy rooms with natural cross ventilation wherever possible, and, in the case of living rooms, direct access to the stoep, or balcony, as the case may be.
3. Roomy hall and broad well-ventilated corridors.
4. Privacy of bedroom and bathroom accommodation, and good outlook to bedrooms.
5. Kitchen offices as much detached and cut off from remainder of house as possible.
6 Avoidance as far as possible of a western aspect to the more important rooms.
Lofty rooms are considered a great desideratum, but are not so necessary provided that the window heads are kept as near the ceiling as possible and the rooms well ventilated.
The houses illustrated in Figs. 282, 283, and 284 have been designed for restricted sites, and are all one-storey houses, and serve as types to illustrate the foregoing. That shown in Fig. 282 was designed for a site of a not altogether unusual size, namely, a plot and a half, the original plots being 40 feet wide. It was designed under instructions that the dining and drawing-rooms must face the front street (there being a street also at rear), a stoep on three sides of the house, and bedroom and other windows as far as possible not overlooking the neighbouring houses. The separation of the living rooms from the kitchen, by means of a wide and straight ventilating corridor, is noticeable, as is also the depart-mentalising of the bedrooms and the distinct bedroom accommodation for the coloured servant, - this last to the detriment of the kitchen, which, if not top lighted, would be dark and lack ventilation. The foundation walls are of red brick, the walls above being roughcasted, with plain cement whitewashed verandah piers and walls. There is a slated roof with silver grey ridge and hip tiles. The half-timber work in gables is executed in jarrah.
The house shown generally in Fig. 283 (a large detail of the front being given in Fig. 284) was designed to fit the regulation 100 by 50 feet plot. The plan, although not altogether free from defects, is an improvement upon the type of house usually erected under such conditions. It was intended to be built of ordinary bricks with rough-cast tinted brown, and smooth plaster of a very light cream tint, and on a local hard roughly squared stone foundation. The stoep was to be paved with 3 inch local fine axed granite slabs, the half-timber work being of jarrah and the front door teak, with red English plain tiles for the roof covering.
Fig. 285 shows the plan of a house of a very usual size (mostly arranged semi-detached) on a plot of ground 40 by 80 feet, about the smallest subdivision made. In a house of this size and accommodation part of the passage-way is generally thrown into the dining-room, with access from the kitchen, etc., to the entrance door through it. This is strongly to be condemned, being a most inconvenient and uncomfortable arrangement, the extra space thrown into dining-room not compensating for the drawbacks. At the same time, neither is the ill lit and worse ventilated central passage way much to be commended; yet, as in Australia, it seems to be inevitable.
This is perhaps the smallest type of house the architect is called upon to design.
Owing to the scanty supply of good labour in the past, added to its expensiveness, and the lack of good material of almost every sort, the use of stock materials, such as doors, windows, architraves, skirtings, mouldings, etc., has become general, greatly to the hindrance of architectural development and style. In the past few years, however, a great improvement has taken place, and a more satisfactory standard attained, the result of more knowledge and better workmanship and materials; and consequently, particularly in the better class of houses, the architect's ideas are usually more satisfactorily and successfully carried out.