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houses, small spaces

Box Clever

The days when prefab buildings were associated with relief homes, extra classrooms and low-cost housing developments are all but over. Thanks to the design and materials advances made over the last decade or so, ready-to-go, off-the-shelf offerings are becoming increasingly popular, and with skilled architects turning their attention to making maximum space with minimum impact, would-be renovators, holiday-home owners or first-time house buyers are turning to ready-designed spaces as a solution. Wolf and Melanie of Wolf and Wolf Architects designed My First Home in response to interest in a small space they had been living in four years ago, back when they lived in the heart of the Cape Town CBD. ‘We had converted a tiny 40m2 office high up in an industrial building in the centre of the city into a compact and multifunctional work and living space, and we had quite a few people ask us whether we’d be able to do a similar thing for them,’ explains Wolf. He and Melanie are both passionate about exploring alternative building methods and materials, from creating Cob houses to using hemp insulation and alternative energy supplies. The seeds were planted and so began a lengthy design process that finally led to their minimum-impact prefab solution that’s a true reflection of the couple’s fascination with compact living. Since 2008 Wolf and Melanie have made the most of their prototype My First Home as a separate studio and guest suite a stone’s throw across their garden in Onrus in the Western Cape. ‘The great thing is that it’s completely self-contained and cosy, and you really do feel you’re in a completely private space that’s all your own,’ says Wolf, who explains that unlike in Europe and Australia, where pre-built homes are common, South Africans are not used to the concept despite the fact that it is a cost-effective solution to bricks-and-mortar construction. ‘The beauty of creating a home like this is that we’ve worked out the best formats already, so all the client has to do is add the items on their wish list and we’re ready to go,’ he says. Their own space is fitted in sustainable panasta pine giving it a light and bright ‘hut’ character, while the couple has kept the trims and details in the 22m2 space to the bare minimum, ensuring that visual clutter is reduced. Amazingly this version (3.6mx6m) of the My First Home design (there are four sizes) contains space for working, cooking and sleeping, has a (2mx6m) deck for outside living, and a bathroom with both a shower and a bath – a case of everything in its place and a place for everything. Here multifunctionalism is key. Bunks on the wall swing down to create a seating area and a ladder to the top bunk is also a generous bookshelf. The configurations are plentiful – from a work-only area to a bunk room for kids and their friends or a place to decamp to when family descends. My First Home works on many levels. ‘The average house build negatively impacts up to four times the area that surrounds it and our aim is to inspire our clients to move away from bigger spaces that are energy inefficient,’ says Wolf. The idea is that you can buy a functional and aesthetically pleasing off-the-shelf home that can be placed on that plot in the mountain, in your back garden or next to the sea, and that you can take with you when you move, with minimal environmental impact. And for those serious about sustainable living, a Power Tower solar and wind addition can help you to get off the grid. As space becomes increasingly scarce in South Africa, home loans difficult to secure and impact studies limiting building in sensitive areas, concepts such as My First Home will become more popular. And if this thoughtful design is anything to go by, their addition to the urban and rural landscape will be a welcome one. Wolf & Wolf Architects, 082-788-8834,


  • Our advice to people designing a small home is to rethink everything, decide what you really need and identify ways in which to reduce your consumption. Melanie and I have found we can easily live without clutter and cupboards full of stuff.
  • One of our necessary extravagances is generous access to outdoor living – this can make a small house appear big.
  • Our current favourite material to work with is wood, because it is warm and versatile, and can be reused easily.
  • A relatively level platform for your My First House helps, and accessibility is important, but most sites will be suitable.
  • We admire local architect Heinrich Wolff for his thorough and creative resolution of complex housing issues; Andy Horn for his unbending passion for green architecture; designer Heath Nash for his playful reuse of waste items; and Boyd Ferguson for his enviably exquisite lodge interiors.
  • Our mantra is ‘when we get too comfortable, we lose contact with our surroundings’.