A monochrome pirate flag flutters in the breeze at the water’s edge, reminiscent of Michell Ransome’s book Swallows and Amazons, and hinting at a carefree existence for children.
‘We had absolutely no desire to live here: it felt too far from everything,’ recalls Matthew Buckland wryly, reflecting on his and wife Bridget’s move early in 2010 from Joburg to Lake Michelle in Noordhoek, in the Western Cape. The couple first spotted the slate-roofed residential estate from afar while visiting friends in the valley, and curiosity won. ‘It was the image of our girls running down the boardwalk and disappearing from sight that did it for us,’ says Matthew.
Nine visits later, they were sold on the idea, and began to plan the building of their home, initially with Rohan Young of Young Architecture. Both journalists in a previous life, it was a natural step to create a blog during the year-long building process. This evolved into a useful networking tool and they soon became skilled at micromanagement, choosing their own contractors and eventually taking on the project themselves.
On entering the house, it is the sweeping views of the valley and surrounding peaks, along with the placid, kilometre-long lake stretching out beyond that set the supremely peaceful ambience. Every room provides an equally rewarding panorama.
What might not be so obvious about this home are the low running costs and high comfort levels year round. High, double-volume glass windows, and skylights in the living and working areas capture the sun to warm and illuminate the house.
An environmentally friendly MorsØ combustion fireplace, fuelled by alien wood, heats the house in winter. Being an open plan house, the warmth reaches even the mezzanine level, and renders their old heaters useless in the garage. Electricity bills are less than half of what they used to be.
In summer, cross-ventilation and the ubiquitous south-easter cool down the house. A wind-protected courtyard lends itself to entertaining on windy days, and is a standard requirement for all the houses in the estate.
‘We wanted a modern, light, airy house, one that felt integrated and family-friendly.’ – Matthew Buckland
Integration is what it’s all about: the estate houses’ colouring, down to satellite dishes and downpipes, all fall within a range of earthy colours that give an illusion of disappearing into the environment.
Lake Michelle is a perfect example of responsible development, carefully guided into becoming an environmental asset for the area. It is a collection point for natural runoff from the surrounding mountains, and has a reed-bed wetland system that is home to freshwater fish, birdlife, Cape clawless otters and small buck.
The ecosystem is monitored regularly in many ways: all vegetation, including the grass, is chosen by residents from a list of species indigenous to the Noordhoek valley, and fertilisers used are organic. Bulrushes are left undisturbed to prevent erosion, and continue the natural water-filtering process.
The sheltered system for water birds is maintained through measures such as not feeding the ducks, to avoid overbreeding, and cats are kitted out with collar bells. (Soon after they moved in, Edie the Weimaraner landed in the dog box for fowl play, but settled in quickly.)
Recycling is collected weekly, and builders are required to use sustainably produced, approved hardwood (such as garapa or jarrah – even balau has now been red-listed).
Lake Michelle residents make a conscious contribution to the surrounding biodiversity, meeting regularly at the boathouse to discuss aspects of the environment within the estate (samples are taken and monitored to keep the ecosystem in balance and reports are sent out monthly). Environmental walks and talks are often on the agenda, especially for the children.
A social committee arranges fundraisers towards conservation initiatives such as the protection of the local Western leopard toads. The amphibians congregate at a busy Noordhoek roadside at a certain time each year to access their breeding grounds at Lake Michelle. ‘Some nights we’ll be coming home and be flagged down, thinking it’s a police roadblock, but actually it’s the guys shepherding the toads across the road,’ laughs Bridget.
And visions for the future? The couple plans to harvest rainwater in tanks and look at a grey-water system, and possibly connect the lighting to solar panels. They have plans to expand their little veggie garden and make their own compost, and the complex already sells mulch on site from estate clippings.
The fervour of the Bucklands for sustainable community living at Lake Michelle is evidently contagious, with a number of their friends following suit. ‘Now we just cross the water to visit their homes,’ says Bridget. And that’s what floats their boat.
This article originally appeared in October 2014