This thatched riverside holiday home in the surfer’s mecca of St Francis Bay puts a series of simple barn-like buildings in the service of the ultimate relaxing family holiday experience
The classic 1966 surf film The Endless Summer
followed two american surfers around the world in their quest to find every surfer’s holy grail: the perfect wave. They found it in Cape st Francis, peeling away endlessly along a deserted strip of beach in the eastern Cape.
since then, the town has grown to become more than just a surf destination, but it still retains that mythic charm.
south african-born Fiona Ferguson has the happiest memories of family holidays spent in the adjoining marina, st Francis Bay, on the Kromme river, as a child. Its idyllic setting with beautiful canals and wide river seems to represent nature at its best.
her parents still own a house there, and she and her husband, Mark, followed in their footsteps and bought a bungalow in the marina, too. With four boys, and an extended family, however, they soon found their modestly sized holiday home too small and cramped. after making a few upgrades, they eventually accepted that they’d need a bigger house.
They found one along the river. ‘We had friends who had a property nearby, so we had a sense of what the river lifestyle was like,’ says Fiona. The river is also somewhat safer than the ocean for children to play in, and offered its own host of water sports and fun.
Cape Town architect Bert Pepler, who Fiona and Mark brought on board to design their new house, has also been holidaying in Cape st Francis for years. he says his main idea was for the house to ‘make the connection from the land to the water. That’s what a holiday here is about – the whole river experience.’
Fiona says she’d seen a picture in a magazine of a wood-panelled house on the water, which acted as a starting point for her brief to Bert, which was otherwise fairly open.
The long, narrow stand the Fergusons found stretches between street and river. ‘What’s nice about it is that it’s the last of the old properties,’ Bert says. In fact, the house next door is what he calls an ‘old st Francis Bay bungalow’. The vernacular has its origins somewhere between a fisherman’s cottage and Cape farm architecture, and provided him with a useful reference point.
The local municipality also specifies certain architectural guidelines. ‘You have to build with white walls and pitched roofs in either thatch or slate,’ Bert explains.
The shape of the buildings, Bert says, was inspired by the ‘simple barn-like forms that you’d find on a farm. The intention was to create a series of “long fingers” that draw you into the property and eventually open up to the garden and provide views of the river.’
This series of parallel and perpendicular forms create what Bert calls ‘little werfs’, the local term for farm courtyards. These in turn create varying degrees of shelter and privacy, and integrate indoor and outdoor spaces. ‘Wherever you are in the house, I always want you to feel like you are connecting to the outside,’ he says. and then the longitudinal barns draw your eye towards the view, and, as Fiona puts it, ‘pull you outside’.
each barn serves a different function: the first is a service wing, one is for outdoor entertainment, one for living and dining space and two are sleeping quarters.
Bert departed from tradition in one significant way. ‘Thatch roofs normally rest on substantial brick walls providing stability and containment,’ he explains. ‘We wanted the material to do something it doesn’t normally do, by supporting very heavy thatch roofs on a series of columns, allowing the house to open up and feel light.’ he wanted sliding glass doors to predominate, creating a feeling of transparency.
‘so, the idea of thatched pavilions became the aesthetic,’ he says. ‘But you still need a sense of security – the feeling that the house
is robust and strong. When the weather changes, you want to be able to close it up.’ so Bert added wooden shutters that you can pull across, or slide away according to the weather and mood.
aj Bell and Carla de Fondaumiere of gdf design Lab worked with Fiona on the interiors. ‘I have very eclectic taste,’ says Fiona, who was travelling quite a lot during the time they were at work, and chose a good deal of the furniture herself. The guiding principle, however, was a comfortable atmosphere that could accommodate family and boisterous boys, and yet still be aesthetically pleasing.
‘It’s quite playful and fun,’ says Carla. ‘not over-designed.’ There are pops of bright colour, such as the vivid green of the Marcel Wanders ‘Cocktail’ chairs in the lounge, and statement designs by local and international designers alike, but overall the house remains unfussy. The emphasis, as it should be, is on the experience: stepping out of the bedroom in the morning for a first cup of coffee. ‘The river is absolutely magnificent, and constantly changing,’ says Fiona. ‘sometimes when you wake up, it’s choppy and the next time it’s as still as glass. It’s magical.’
‘We should just move there, really,’ laughs Fiona. ‘We live far too fussily. For all its beauty and comfort, the house is minimal, and it’s really liberating.’ Bert Pepler Architects 8 bertpepler@ n telkomsa.net; GDF Design Lab 8 gdfdesigns.com
The structure of mark and fiona ferguson’s st francis bay home is arranged as a series of pavilions, which breaks up The mass and makes it relatively unimposing in its setting. from The river, architect bert pepler points out The ‘very seductive undulating roofscape’ and The ‘gauzelike quality of The gables’, which become Transparent at night
opposite page the planting in the courtyard is designed to reinforce and extend the natural vegetation
clockwise, from above a traditional wooden cabinet that has been updated with glass inlays stands in the entrance; the swimming pool features low, gently curving white walls. ‘we wanted the pool to feel like an old reservoir,’ says bert; the kitchen features the same light oak that has been used for interior finishes throughout the house