Wouter and Tanya's Retro-Victorian House

Designing and building a place to be us.

Note - January 2008

For various complicated reasons this housebuilding idea of ours has been scuppered. In other words, it is now a dream only. The information here is still, IMO, valid, so I'm not deleting it -- but it's static, don't expect updates.

The dream :

Lehrkind Mansion

I've always liked the Victorian look, and it turns out that Tanya does too. So once we decided that we're building instead of buying, there was only one way to go.

We found a Victorian house magazine which had this house on the front cover. It's the Lehrkind Mansion in Bozeman, Montana. We both think it is stunning :-)

So that forms the basis of our plans.

The inside of the house will be more modern, of course. We're planning to incorporate an open plan kitchen, games room, and a jacuzzi. The double garage will also form part of the main house (I originally wanted an outside "carriage house" type garage, but my architect convinced me that it's a much more expensive way of doing things.

So people tell me I'm crazy. Yes, I probably am. But I am also fascinated, or is that intrigued, by the retro-victorian look that is so popular in South Africa these days. People like this look. It's a pity that developers imitate "the look" so cheaply. The ultimate in cheap is probably where they screw the shutters to the wall next to the windows... urgh!

Townhouse complex in Benoni

This is an example of a recently built somewhat upmarket townhouse complex (This one is in Benoni). Note the balcony, trim, and pseudo-complex roofline. I could actually live in a place like this :-)

It all has to do with creating a place where it's nice to be. It mustn't only be nice to live in, it must also look nice. The sterile environment, form-follows-function, Brave New World movement has failed. In my opinion, of course :-)

James Howard Kunstler on New Urbanism.

A note on subdivision and bureaucracy in the new South Africa

Subtitled : The Waiting Game

Sub-subtitled : You're stuffed.

The surveyors came, did their thing, proposed a few subdivision schemes. The trust approved one of these, which was submitted.

This was early in 2005.

When the neighbours were informed, one neighbour lodged a complaint. 27 September 2005. He complained about ”the density of the proposed development”. Note that I’m not proposing any development yet!

In any case, that was handled, and the application lingered on the desks of the City of Cape Town for a few months. Then it went to Provincial Government, where it is currently lingering. Currently being January 2008.

Apparently it has to be signed by the Minister, Tasneem Essop, herself.

Bureaucracy in the New South Africa.

Planning: Victorian

I've been looking at Victorian house plans on the internet since the mid 90s. Sites like the Old House Web, new Urbanist Design, eplans.com and Archway Press, to name a few.

I also talked to David Taylor, trying to find out what exactly "makes" a Victorian house, or at least the style. In the end, I think that the answer lies in the total lack of symmetry. Lots of balance, no symmetry. Look at the Lehrkind example above. The wing on the left hand side has angled sides tucked under the eaves. The wing on the right hand side has square corners and a balcony. The windows at the top are different too. Note: This ties in directly with pattern #221, Natural Doors and Windows.

Victorian houses have steeply pitched roofs. Which basically implies that the house should be narrow and long, or L or T shaped. A square floor plan leads to a really tall roof, which upsets the neighbors who have to live in the shade. An alternative is to shape the roof into an upside down W shape, with a box gutter in the middle. There are at least three examples of this around my part of the world. But box gutters are a potential source of much trouble, I'm not going there.

In the end, it looks as if one should design the house from the bottom up and from the top down at the same time. This is not easy. I'm struggling. My architect is struggling. We're having fun! :-)

Planning: General

There are very few books or web sites available on actual house design. A lot of interior decorating information, sure, which makes sense, since most people already have a house that they want to transform. People wanting to build a house either start with a predrawn plan, or they hire an architect. But I would prefer to be able to talk to my architect in such a way that we both know what the issues are.

A lot of browsing and reading up lead me to The Not So Big House, which draws inspiration from A Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander, which I bought from Amazon. There's a very good website on Alexander's Pattern Language at www.jacana.org. If you find it interesting (and you should), buy the book, it has a lot of information.


We are in the fortunate situation that we have can subdivide the property I currently live on (2100 square meters in Bellville) and build a house on the lower half. And since I've lived there since 1967, I have a pretty good idea of where the sunny spots are and where the sun sets in summer and in winter. Alternatively one can use the University of Oregon online Sun chart program, which plots the Hassel chart for your area.

I also found this guide to house orientation from the Australian government helpful.

Ideas we like, which may be incorporated

A "wet room" open plan shower with a seat built in. This article on www.thisoldhouse.com shows the kind of look I'm going for, with a curved glass wall separating the shower from the main area.

Open plan kitchen, like this plan from Taunton combined with this breakfast bar.

The little boy's room in the tower in Cheaper by the Dozen (2003) -- a low roof with thick beams, almost a dungeon...



Think of the following as my bookmarks, unsorted, and not necessarily useful.

Pattern Language


Victorian Hardware

Colonial Castings, Paarden Eiland, Cape Town.