A brief interview with architect Heini van Niekerk on his thoughts when he were designing the Paternoster Volunteer Project.
Was the architectural brief precise or did you have latitude for creativity? How did the design of the house evolve?
The brief has always been that of a house for the volunteers from day one but the novelty of our age is that the space in our homes is continually evolving. And, as we transform these spaces, they transform us…which is exactly what happened as more layers of new functionality and complexity were introduced to the project. These new layers of community based functionality resulted in a multi layered program driven by the constant question as to how we can better evolve the house based on feedback from the community and various workshops. The results was translated with the use of an additional community coffee shop, community boardroom, teacher administration spaces, educational equipment storage areas, public ablution areas, private living areas and private bedrooms in addition to creating areas of escape and serenity for one to escape to after a busy day.
How does it reflect local heritage/materials/culture?
As a local architect I’ve always been familiar with our West Coast vernacular architecture but decided to follow a path of researching historic photographs from archives dating back more than 110 years with the hope to find something we might’ve lost over the years. Through historic research a lost gable form normally associated with thatched mansard roofs of the time in Paternoster was discovered true to our local heritage. This form of gable, contradictory to the pitched/pointed gable is not that common anymore in the area and the lost element was incorporated into the new design as a tribute to our lost architectural heritage. Another interesting finding was that buildings were placed quite close to one another in groups which resulted in small alleys between the built massing and gable forms. This historical relationship between built massing was also incorporated at the main entrance of the building acting as the core path through the built form as a reminder and monument to our local culture. The house will be built of locally earthed materials like stone and fit the surrounding urban landscape in order to maintain a personal balance and harmony with large chimneys, thatch roofs and white walls embedded in the very grain of the Paternoster culture. The historical context and architectural principles formed though research resulted in a set of evolved core principles that still resonates today as much as they did 110 years ago.
What is unique about the project team of the Volunteer House?
The uniqueness is driven and deeply linked to the projects functionality plus the extraordinary commitment found within a growing team ambition and daily input from everyone involved from day one. A team whom has always been very passionate about the area and design as a means for social progression where funding might frequently become a challenge, but a team and client that believes that their decisions and actions will have an even greater impact on the children of Paternoster looking towards their futures. An amazing team that remains local but also international.
What are some of the architectural challenges regarding the site/house?
The extreme sloping site topography in addition to the very limited permissible roof heights we had to adhere to in addition to the existing rock formations which posed a significant design challenge in the beginning where costs are always crucial on a project and the need for excavation and fill – as well as increasing costs, large-scale earthworks indicates an increased risk of soil stability and water run-off patterns but we did it.
Although we had the perfect location for the project the site had a residential dwelling on the one side with what I call the “Holy Hill “on the adjacent side. The Holy Hill is a small hill located opposite the Paternoster Hotel along St. Augustine Road but has been used since my childhood days as a lookout point by fisherman where they have a clear view of the bay for when their small fishing boats comes into the shore. The hill and the local fisherman still use it as such till this very day. As a result the constraints were tough but I wouldn’t prefer it any other way as the constraints shaped the solutions.
How do you envisage the house being used/lived in?
The house should actually function quite well in terms of the various layers of functionality which is unique in its own right of use. The floor plan functions simply as three controlled zones which integrate seamlessly with their own unique externally landscaped environment where the inside and outside works together to enhance one another. The three zones are simply the public zone, semi private zone and the private zone. The further one moves within the building the more defined yet less controlled the user space becomes.
Are you surprised at all the attention the house is getting?
Off course I am but when you I think about it for a little longer it makes perfect sense. When certain things in life gets done for the right reasons and people come together as one entity then the results be it a house or any other act of kindness becomes a testament towards their human integrity and character…only then should it come as no surprise…as it stand now.
Do you only work locally?
Yes and yes as it allows less chance of things being “lost in translation,” which can often occur when working far away. I have been a local for many years and went to school in Vredenburg, studied architecture in Cape Town and in London after which I came back to the West Coast. Working locally really means that I can stay focused on my designs, our local office and other building sites which is where the action happens.
How is the house personal to you?
Sure, each successful building requires hard work but no building is ever the same as the constraints and requirements always varies but architecture becomes great when one truly understands the human condition and need in its totality. However it becomes more personal when you realise that the need has been met and that the end results can actually makes a difference to the lives of others. It also becomes better when you realise that the overall team ambition has been a very passionate one throughout where design as a means for social progression makes a difference to the extend where small lives will one day have an even greater impact on the world.
What is special for you about working on the West Coast?
Can we just step back for a moment and take in just how simply beautiful the ocean along the West Coast is? Not only are we in the most picturesque of natural environments but this with our unique west coast culture, the people, our history and down to earth straight talking ethics brings it all together in a single heartbeat when you have your feet in the beach sand and the sun setting ready for new challenges.