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

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...

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...

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