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IN PICS | The humble semi-detached home gets a marvellous makeover

Friends, neighbours and architects Stephen Hitchcock and David Long’s Cape Town semis are a fresh and inspiring take on contemporary domestic design

27 February 2022 - 00:00 By ROBYN ALEXANDER/BUREAUX.CO.ZA
The view back towards the front door, through the living room, from the Longs’ kitchen-diner. The stairs and step-up in height to the living area serve to visually separate the spaces in spite of them being all part of one room, while the use of materials also adds visual interest: the white walls, cabinetry and staircase are all set off beautifully by the raw timber ceiling, which also forms the floor of the level above.
The view back towards the front door, through the living room, from the Longs’ kitchen-diner. The stairs and step-up in height to the living area serve to visually separate the spaces in spite of them being all part of one room, while the use of materials also adds visual interest: the white walls, cabinetry and staircase are all set off beautifully by the raw timber ceiling, which also forms the floor of the level above.
Image: Warren Heath/Bureaux

“Design decisions improve as a result of constraints,” says architect Stephen Hitchcock, as we sit chatting at his dining table with his neighbour, co-designer, practice partner and friend David Long.

The duo have certainly earned the right to say so with this project — a pair of semi-detached houses they share with their partners and, between them, three small children. Situated in the central Cape Town suburb of Vredehoek, on the slopes of Table Mountain, this eye-catching pair of homes is a super-smart model for 21st-century densification in domestic design.

Seen from the front, along a busy four-lane roadway, the contemporary lines and simple materials of the pair of semi-detached homes immediately draw the eye. Here, the families who live in the two homes – Stephen and Tanja Hitchcock with son Daniël (left), and David and Bonnie Long with their daughter, Frankie, and son Grayson (right) – are seen at the windows of their third and second floors, respectively.
Seen from the front, along a busy four-lane roadway, the contemporary lines and simple materials of the pair of semi-detached homes immediately draw the eye. Here, the families who live in the two homes – Stephen and Tanja Hitchcock with son Daniël (left), and David and Bonnie Long with their daughter, Frankie, and son Grayson (right) – are seen at the windows of their third and second floors, respectively.
Image: Warren Heath/Bureaux
As in the Longs’ house on the other side of the central wall, the ground-floor living area in Tanja and Stephen Hitchcock’s home includes a lounge space on the raised level closest to the front door, a kitchen on the lower level adjacent to the compact front courtyard, and a central steel staircase.
As in the Longs’ house on the other side of the central wall, the ground-floor living area in Tanja and Stephen Hitchcock’s home includes a lounge space on the raised level closest to the front door, a kitchen on the lower level adjacent to the compact front courtyard, and a central steel staircase.
Image: Warren Heath/Bureaux

The “constraints” Stephen is talking about included restrictions of space and situation — a plot fronting a busy four-lane road just 190m2 in size, into which two family houses had to be fitted — plus, of course, council regulations pertaining to how tall the building was permitted to be and where it could be placed. But also (and perhaps most importantly of all), they were constrained by their budget.

In fact, it was that restricted budget, when combined with a desire to live in central Cape Town in spite of the high premium on property prices in the City Bowl, that led to this building being created at all.

To realise their dream of living where they do while still young professionals with developing careers and growing families, David and Stephen knew they would have to pool their resources.

In late 2016, they purchased the plot together. It had had an existing house on it, but that had been condemned and (mostly) demolished, and David recalls them viewing the property and making an offer for it on the same day. A few cash- and bond-wrangling weeks later, it was theirs, and the new landowners convened on site for a celebratory beer.

The front door of the Longs’ home opens into a living and dining area that leads to a courtyard on the far side, and includes the compact staircase, elegantly fashioned from steel, that leads up to the floors above. The kitchen island doubles as a dining table, and there is plenty of storage to facilitate a clean-lined look. The open shelves keep regularly used pieces at arm’s reach, as well as creating a zone for lively display that includes plenty of indoor greenery – and Patsy the cat, of course. All the cabinetry and shelving was designed and built by David Long.
The front door of the Longs’ home opens into a living and dining area that leads to a courtyard on the far side, and includes the compact staircase, elegantly fashioned from steel, that leads up to the floors above. The kitchen island doubles as a dining table, and there is plenty of storage to facilitate a clean-lined look. The open shelves keep regularly used pieces at arm’s reach, as well as creating a zone for lively display that includes plenty of indoor greenery – and Patsy the cat, of course. All the cabinetry and shelving was designed and built by David Long.
Image: Warren Heath/Bureaux
A cluster of colourful artworks in the stairwell includes pieces by Danielle Hitchcock (daniellehitchcock.me), who is Stephen’s sister, and Nico Krijno (nicokrijno.com).
A cluster of colourful artworks in the stairwell includes pieces by Danielle Hitchcock (daniellehitchcock.me), who is Stephen’s sister, and Nico Krijno (nicokrijno.com).
Image: Warren Heath/Bureaux

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

They have since never doubted it was the right choice for them, say Stephen and David, in spite of all the obstacles that building their own homes on a minimal budget could throw at them.

From discovering bits of the foundations of the old house that had not been properly removed during its demolition, to regularly running out of money to continue the build and fit-out of the interiors, there was certainly a plethora of these.

Of course, there were some advantages too. The passing of a city bylaw aimed at encouraging urban densification in particular areas of Cape Town enabled the development of two dwellings on a plot of this size in this neighbourhood.

Another key plus: David and Stephen, both architects at their own practice, Stretch Architects, could design their future homes themselves and knowledgeably supervise their construction. The duo say they took their time with the design process, working through multiple iterations as they raised the cash needed to start building.

As with any other project, there’s “a leap of faith in concept, and then deadlines fix a design into place”, says Stephen. Their plan was to build “the shell first, then floor by floor as budget allowed”, says David.

And he says they soon found this to be an approach that demonstrated the design value of “getting the bones right”. Both designers fondly recall the loveliness of the triple-volume space that was to become these two dwellings when it was first completed.

That “shell” necessarily — due to building regulations — sits on a compact footprint, with the full final floor area of each house being 95m2. Each has three floors: a 35m2 ground-floor living, dining and kitchen space, plus two more private levels above that are each slightly smaller, and slightly smaller again.

A compact metal staircase at the centre of each takes one up through the houses, and as in the classic definition of a semi-detached build — two family homes that share a single central wall — the kitchen wall in one space is also the kitchen wall in the other, with the ground floors existing as mirror images of one another.

The Longs’ kitchen scullery area, complete with dishwasher and sink, is situated on the opposite side of the kitchen space. The tapware is by Tivoli (ctm.co.za/tivoli-taps). The abundance of indirect natural light makes it an ideal environment for indoor plants – the light comes in via the glass doors onto the courtyard, as well as from windows on the upper floors and strategically created gaps within the structure.
The Longs’ kitchen scullery area, complete with dishwasher and sink, is situated on the opposite side of the kitchen space. The tapware is by Tivoli (ctm.co.za/tivoli-taps). The abundance of indirect natural light makes it an ideal environment for indoor plants – the light comes in via the glass doors onto the courtyard, as well as from windows on the upper floors and strategically created gaps within the structure.
Image: Warren Heath/Bureaux
The striking open kitchen shelves in the Hitchcocks’ home were inspired by the handmade shelving designed and made by SA architecture icon Gawie Fagan (1925-2020), his wife Gwen, and their children in the 1960s at their home, Die Es (die-es.com) in Camps Bay, Cape Town.
The striking open kitchen shelves in the Hitchcocks’ home were inspired by the handmade shelving designed and made by SA architecture icon Gawie Fagan (1925-2020), his wife Gwen, and their children in the 1960s at their home, Die Es (die-es.com) in Camps Bay, Cape Town.
Image: Warren Heath/Bureaux

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Higher up in the houses, however, the two spaces are not mirrored at all — they differ quite substantially in layout, with each architect having decided how best to “fill in the space” created by the exterior shell, based on their own family’s needs.

What you’re always working with in architecture, says David, are “volume, light and materials”, and when it came to decision-making regarding the latter, budgetary constraint informed each call. For example, the upper floors and ceilings are made from timber, not cast concrete.

As David explains, the wood panels that in another build would have been used as shuttering for pouring the concrete — and then removed and discarded — have here been employed as a permanent element of the construction.

The top floor of the Hitchcocks’ home is more or less open plan, with divisions between the various spaces minimised, which creates a real feeling of spaciousness and enables light to move through the whole house from here downwards – as the luxuriantly happy indoor plants attest. An easygoing warmth is a key part of the feel of this house. Here it is derived from the abundant use of natural wood and bright yellow accents, including the mattress cover on Daniël’s bed, and the balustrade on the stairway.
The top floor of the Hitchcocks’ home is more or less open plan, with divisions between the various spaces minimised, which creates a real feeling of spaciousness and enables light to move through the whole house from here downwards – as the luxuriantly happy indoor plants attest. An easygoing warmth is a key part of the feel of this house. Here it is derived from the abundant use of natural wood and bright yellow accents, including the mattress cover on Daniël’s bed, and the balustrade on the stairway.
Image: Warren Heath/Bureaux
The Hitchcocks’ bedroom is on the opposite side of the building from the Longs’, which provides a beautiful view of Table Mountain. The Itawuli towels hanging from the hooks are by Mungo (mungo.co.za).
The Hitchcocks’ bedroom is on the opposite side of the building from the Longs’, which provides a beautiful view of Table Mountain. The Itawuli towels hanging from the hooks are by Mungo (mungo.co.za).
Image: Warren Heath/Bureaux

Likewise, the decision to use plain, unplastered clay brick for both exterior and interior walls, with the material simply painted white in the interiors, was guided by the budget — as was cladding the roof and third floor of the building in simple corrugated-steel panels.

But the care that has been put into its proportions and openings; that has gone into ensuring natural light floods into the spaces; and that guided the negotiation of the building’s key design relationship between Table Bay in front, and Table Mountain behind; all this demonstrates how considered design leads to results both aesthetically and practically pleasing. 

A key factor in this, too, is the generous use of volume, which helps make rooms with compact footprints feel larger.

David points out that the visual connections between the various floors are also a vital element of the overall design of each home. “For daily living, we are as a family able to be together, while not feeling on top of each other,” he says.

 “My daughter can play upstairs while I cook dinner — but I can see her and we can chat. If she feels like she needs some privacy, she can close the large sliding door.”

The two houses both thus have a lovely flexibility to them, despite their modest size.

Facilitating the free flow of fresh air and light throughout its spaces, this central “well” runs from the top floor of the Longs’ house all the way down to the ground level.
Facilitating the free flow of fresh air and light throughout its spaces, this central “well” runs from the top floor of the Longs’ house all the way down to the ground level.
Image: Warren Heath/Bureaux
Frankie (5) and Grayson (2) Long on a built-in bed in their bedroom on the first floor of their home. The simple bedside pedestal was made by David, and the pink table lamp was found at a local retailer.
Frankie (5) and Grayson (2) Long on a built-in bed in their bedroom on the first floor of their home. The simple bedside pedestal was made by David, and the pink table lamp was found at a local retailer.
Image: Warren Heath/Bureaux

 “Small moves make big effects in this sort of project,” adds Stephen. Such “small moves” here include the built-in planters at the exterior of the windows on the second and third floors.

Filled with hardy local species, these have nevertheless taken a few years to bed in because of heat build-up on the steel plates in summer.

But after a couple of cool, wet winters, the plants are now thriving — and form part of the on-the-spot experience noted as part of the “constant learning process” this design duo agree is essential to architectural practice.

A half-height section of wooden panelling, topped with built-in planters and including a long towel rail on the bathroom side, separates the Hitchcocks’ bedroom from the shower, basin and vanity sections of the main bathroom. There’s plenty of under-counter storage in the custom vanity unit, which also includes a basin by WOMAG (womag.co.za) and tapware by Gio Plumbing (gioplumbing.com), who also made the shower rose.
A half-height section of wooden panelling, topped with built-in planters and including a long towel rail on the bathroom side, separates the Hitchcocks’ bedroom from the shower, basin and vanity sections of the main bathroom. There’s plenty of under-counter storage in the custom vanity unit, which also includes a basin by WOMAG (womag.co.za) and tapware by Gio Plumbing (gioplumbing.com), who also made the shower rose.
Image: Warren Heath/Bureaux
The first floor of the Longs’ home is dedicated to the needs of its youngest inhabitants, Frankie (5) and Grayson (2).
The first floor of the Longs’ home is dedicated to the needs of its youngest inhabitants, Frankie (5) and Grayson (2).
Image: Warren Heath/Bureaux

Listening to David and Stephen talk about the process of conceptualising, building and living in their homes, it becomes evident that the importance they attach — as designers, colleagues and friends — to “honesty, community, collaboration and evolution in ideas” is encapsulated by what they have built here.

Says David of their design process, “threads collect and become distilled in buildings”, and the threads gathered together here have created something golden.

• See stretcharchitects.com


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