Architecture, Garden, Gardens, Green Living, sustainability

sustainable character: an eco-conscious house in joburg

Sarah de Pina

When Kevin and Lucille Davie shopped around for a property in 2007, they took the road less travelled and chose to buy a derelict, run-down plot of land in Richmond, Johannesburg. When they bought it, the bare-boned ‘shell of a house’ was home to vagrants and piles of rubble. ‘The previous owners had begun an ambitious building project but hadn’t finished, and what wasn’t nailed down had been stolen,’ explains Kevin. The couple set out to create a green home that would enhance their quality of living while being easy on the environment.

‘Green design and architecture is all about finding a balance between the natural environment and your home.’

All you need to know about sustainable building

‘Green design and architecture is all about finding a balance between the natural environment and your home,’ says Katie Truscott, creative/marketing director at Bobtons Construction, who is involved in a number of green building projects. She gives the following pointers:

Team effort

Cooperation between the architect, contractor and client is vital in order to achieve a sustainable result.


Energy efficiency, water efficiency, the home’s environmental surroundings, air quality and low maintenance costs are all important factors to consider when choosing technology to suit your needs.

The ethos: Rediscovering and reimagining

The Davies saw this as the ideal opportunity to build a home with a focus on function and quality of living. ‘We wanted a loft-style home, where we could enjoy the design, space and light,’ Kevin notes. Plus, it had to be as environmentally friendly and energy efficient as possible. ‘The building had no plumbing, geysers, electricity and only half a roof, so there was no need to get rid of legacy systems,’ he explains.

As the plot of land is rather small, the owners decided on a tall, skinny design that made the most of the property’s slope. Also, the design of the house was half-inherited, with half a pitched timber roof in place. ‘The new portion of the roof was done in steel to maximise the sense of double-volume space,’ explains Kevin.

Sourcing environmentally friendly material proved to be a mammoth task. ‘When we built our house, the eco movement hadn’t gained momentum in Gauteng and almost everything had to be sourced from Cape Town. If I could redo the house, I would include a rainwater reticulation system for flushing the toilets and showering, and a hybrid solar PV system,’ he notes.


Most of the building materials used for the house were recycled. Steel girders, railway tracks, Oregon floors, beams and windows, pressed-steel ceilings, rocks, bricks and pavers were all repurposed in unexpected ways.

• Rubble was put into the foundations to add thermal mass. • Oregon was built into the windows. • I-beams and wooden beams that were on-site were incorporated into the design. • Parquet floors were sourced from junkyards. • Many of the materials and fittings used during the construction were sourced locally, or were upcycled from scrap on the site. • The fibreglass sheets for the windows came in single units and were assembled on site. • A four-metre-tall stone wall was built from rocks that were sourced from all over. • Recycled wood was used for the ceiling.

The plan: Striking a balance between form and function

While most people focus more on aesthetics, the owners set out to balance function and form. ‘The home’s design was informed by practicality, without compromising liveability,’ explains Kevin. This sensible approach is something that reverberates throughout.

Part sky-lit factory loft, part verdant greenhouse, the free-flowing design is geared towards easy living. ‘One of our main aims was to blur the distinction between inside and outside,’ says Kevin.

The layout: Seamless integration

The front door leads to a double-volume open-plan living area, which forms the heart of the home. Effectively the house’s second floor, the sunken living room, dining area and kitchen radiate from a central staircase that links the three levels. ‘Parts of a railway track were repurposed to build the staircase,’ says Kevin.

The top floor, which includes a study/landing zone, bedroom and bath zone, offers a bird’s eye view of the living area, while an adjoining terrace provides an unexpected view of Jozi’s diverse urban architecture. Thanks to the expansive windows, rays of sunlight create a comfortable spot where Lucille spends her days writing books. From here, a repurposed industrial corrugated-iron wall leads to the main bedroom and bath nook.

‘The house was designed to include areas of clutter and no clutter. The balance between these two contrasting elements is what creates a sense of calm,’ explains Kevin.

TIP: Go green with gas. Whether heating a room or a pan on the stove, gas has the edge over electricity in supplying instant heat. Switching from electricity to gas cuts the carbon footprint of appliances that use it by about half.

Treading lightly

Ever wondered what going off the grid entails? A truly ‘green’ house is not connected to any grid. It collects its own water and generates its own energy. It also disposes of its own waste. It may even be carbon neutral or positive, selling excess clean energy into the central grid. ‘Except in deep rural circumstances, it is more efficient and environmentally friendly to share the grid, to be connected to it and supply excess energy into it. Our current set-up in SA does not make this possible for most people,’ explains Kevin.


The house is designed to reduce both inputs and outputs – this helps lower running costs and wastage.

• To reduce electricity consumption, every appliance in the house was tested to determine the wattage and energy consumption. • The couple is on the gas grid, which forms their core energy supply. The outside gas geyser pumps 30 litres per minute. • Low-wattage compact fluorescent light (CFL) bulbs are used throughout, with task lighting in certain areas. • Concrete floors enhance the home’s thermal mass, which helps keep the home cool in summer and warm in winter.

The vision: Using nature as a guiding principle


Large, double-volume windows give the eclectic design a light, airy feel. Aesthetics aside, they play a key role in passive heating and natural ventilation. Careful planning has resulted in a home that achieves an excellent solar orientation and outlook. Working with nature, most of the windows are north-facing, ensuring that the sun’s rays filter into the living areas. In winter, the couple uses the rustic fireplace to heat up the space.


The couple went to great lengths to make the most of what was at their disposal. Rather than kitting out the entire house with new fittings, they found inventive ways to reuse and recycle a magpie collection of materials throughout. Large areas of glass, textured wooden sleepers, stone cladding and corrugated iron were all repurposed in unexpected ways.


The lofty proportions gave the Davies scope to play around with visual contrast. The interplay between organic finishes and the South African design narrative fills the home with character.

Along with the indoor plants that fill the home, a palette of warm metallics and natural materials creates a lived-in look. Adding to this aesthetic, environmentally friendly cement-based paint was used to add splashes of colour.

It is this juxtaposition of seemingly fractal elements that Lucille finds most compelling. Despite its lofty proportions and cross-pollination of materials, furniture and finishes, there is a unified aesthetic. ‘There’s a perfect flow of materials and everything enhances and complements each other. The beauty of the design lies in the fact that you can decorate it any way you like,’ she notes.

A holistic approach

These systems are advised in a new build:

• Solar PV system (this includes solar panels, batteries and an inverter) • Solar geyser • Grey-water recycling system • Rainwater harvesting system and back-up tank • Efficient space heating (energy-efficient air conditioners and underfloor heating) • LED lights • A building automation system to integrate the systems and maximise efficiency

Building materials

There is always an eco-friendly option for almost any material in the building process, from the concrete in the foundation to the paint choice. The materials chosen at the design stage will influence its long-term sustainability. For example, concrete can help regulate a home’s temperature.


It’s much easier to build a green home from scratch but there are options to retrofit your home to help save energy, water and the environment. A solar geyser can cut your monthly water heating bill by up to 80 per cent. Another great system for retrofits is a solar PV system. Also, install a rainwater tank to water your garden.