Our Brobdingnagian venture!….


What is Brobdingnagian?

Good question! I myself had no idea until a short while ago when I was searching the web for some more exciting sounding synonyms for the word ‘big’ (http://www.synonym.com/synonyms/big/). I’m trying to use more eye-catching terminology to lure you into reading further (i.e. to get you to read my blog people!:)…

Apparently ‘Brobdingnagian’ is a synonym for a fictional land in ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ and has “come to describe anything of colossal size” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brobdingnag). As unpronounceable as the term might be (to me anyway) – the link to the name of a fictional land is certainly apt in this case as you shall see…

So what colossally humongous venture have Graham, Fynn and I embarked on?

Well, if you are reading this and you are a fellow Mst student @ Cambridge – you might recall me somewhat prematurely (it turned out) celebrating at our workshop in March about the fact that Graham’s and my offer on a new home had been accepted! Fast forward some 8 months, and we can now say that the property is indeed ours, but we are not yet living in it – despite having moved out of our (much much smaller but completely lovely) townhouse in July (a couple of days before our August workshop!)…

Why are we not yet living in it?

Well, because we bought what you might term a ‘project’ (read ‘a very big fixer-upper endeavour’). Being parents in South Africa we (read: ‘I’) worry a lot about a lot of things that I won’t get into here, but what we do have is the privilege of offering Fynn the opportunity to grow up in a home with space, a garden to play in (as a teenager to throw parties in, and as a ‘young adult’ to have his own ‘space’ in:)) and our own swimming pool – just down the road from the primary school that we hope Fynn will attend (and in close distance of some good senior schools).

Our new home is a fictional land in the sense that we hope it will be a magical place for Fynn to grow and for us to spend time together in as a family. It is also fictional in the sense that (as you may have gathered already) it will still be quite a while before Fynn and our muppets (of the canine variety – Buddy and Gabby) will be playing ‘hide and seek’ in between the plants.

So, what’s the hold-up, why is it ‘brobdingnagian’ and how does this at all relate to sustainability?

The hold-up is that the home is (very) old for Johannesburg having been built around 1910 (which we love), but having suffered a series of mutilations (very bad renovations), it does require some substantial ‘re-work’ before we can move in. These renovations (and the time it will take to plan, get approval for and execute them) is what makes the venture ‘brobdingnagian’. And the sustainability angle? Our bank balance after the renovations are done (gulp)? Our soundness of mind?

Well… that too. But also issues around the sustainability of the build portion of the project, and the operation and maintenance of our home thereafter.

Questions like:

– how are we going to respect and integrate the historical portion of the house
– what kind of finishings are we going to use in the house and where are we going to source these from and how are we going to care for them?
– how are we going to light, heat and cool the house, and provide energy for household usage generally?
– how are we going to deal with issues of water usage given our growing family and the garden that also needs to be cared for. What kinds of plants are we going to have in the garden and what water demands will they make? Are they indigenous? What about all the non-indigenous plants that we already have (and which I quite like)?
-what service providers are we going to use to do the renovations and how sustainable are their operations?

These are not all easy issues to deal with. Particularly with a financial budget, and a need to respect the oldness of the house while making it a space that we will be happy to live in, and that takes account of concerns relevant to today (such as rising water and energy costs and concerns around insecurity of electricity supply from the grid).

But we are going to do our best. And here starts a chronicle of this journey.

We have selected an architect that we believe is skilled in working with old homes, and one that has worked on other ‘green projects’.

This is an extract of the brief that we gave him at the outset:

“Dear …

What follows is a our vision for our place in the sun. Some of the points are repeated and they are not in any particular order of importance but we hope that they will give you a guide as to what it is we want our new home to be.

We are a young family that love to entertain and be at home, and as our family grows – we would like our children, their friends and our friends and family to spend lots of time at our home…

It is also very important to us that our home must be as energy and water efficient as possible. This is both because of our wanting to minimize our negative impact on the environment, and us recognizing that the costs of electricity and water will likely escalate greatly in the coming years…

Some thoughts on what we want our new home to be:
– …bringing back to life and enhancing the grandeur of an old dame – while also being our home – warm, light and happy environment for us to be in…
– …
– lots of windows…
– open up and simplify the house while not making it a cold place…
– easy to clean and maintain
– rooms for the children that are light and as spacious as possible – spaces that will be appropriate for them as babies and children but that will also be comfortable for a teenager and young adult
– …
– …
– …
– child friendly…”

So where are we at the moment? We have just submitted initial plans for heritage approval (a requirement before we can get municipal building approval and go out to tender for contractors for the build).

These initial plans take account of the following:

– how we intend to respect and restore the historical portion of the home and integrate this with our requirements as a family;
– lots of windows for natural light and warmth in winter;
– an area where we would like to put heat pumps and fans to heat and cool the house, with an outlet in the roof for excess heat;
– a proposed screen in front of windows to keep the house from overheating in summer (this will require more exploration – not sure I like the look of this at the moment);
– an overview of the plants and trees in the garden – those that we will seek to protect, and those that we will seek to remove (2 palm trees and some other trees which have now been classified as alien species in South Africa).

We do need to spend some more time considering how we are going to provide for the energy requirements. We will need to consult an expert regarding the heat pumps, cooling fans and alternative energy supply generally before we finalise the plans. We do have access to gas, but would like to explore how we might make use of alternative energy (such as solar) that can further reduce our need for electricity from the grid (currently mainly generated by coal-fired power stations) while securing our energy supply.

Well, that’s it! My fingers are hurting from typing and I’m sure (if you’re still awake) that your eyes have gone all dry from staring at the screen for so long. Will sign off now and keep you posted as to our progress….


One thought on “Our Brobdingnagian venture!….

  1. hoppinggreen

    Your new home sounds like it is going to be marvelous. It is always stressful transforming a home from a weary old place into something new and exciting. My partner and I did a full house renovation, 8 years ago. We did all the work ourselves and took things back to bare brickwork. We did an extension, new bathroom, upstairs on suite, plumbing, kitchen, windows – basically the lot. We used builders and plumbers only if we really had to – as we were on an impossibly tight budget.

    This year we have started to renovate our current house. Although it is only superficial, taking down a couple of walls, a new kitchen, boiler and bathroom but it has come with its own stresses. We are relying on contractors for this rather than doing it ourselves. One the most sensible things we have done with the current project is to break it down into phases:

    – Phase 1: new boiler, kitchen and bathroom
    – Phase 2: Shelving installation, downstairs bathroom and front door (to be completed)

    And phase 3… Phase 3 is my dream – we are trying to buy some land from the council next to our house (on-going saga). This might allow us to extend our property (subject to permission) but would give me a bigger garden. (Horray!). Plus I would like to have some solar panels too!

    And phase 4… well I am really dreaming now – but I would love to have a sauna in the garden. Not sure of the sustainability credentials on this – but it would tick a few boxes for my wellbeing.

    So what does all of this have to do with sustainability?

    We have made sustainability considerations along the way. For example our toilets and very water efficient, we went for the best boiler available (heat pump was a little pricey for us), we ensured that our kitchen was FSC certified (most of them are), and we went for high efficiency appliances.

    There are plenty of books to consult on sustainability and housing. I would also have a look at the CAT center (Center of Alternative Technology). They sometimes have some good fact sheets around housing.

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