Serene-estate Building Process

The remarkable story of the development of a small boutique hotel in Hippo-Town St Lucia.

Context

The owners of Serene-estate, Hans and Olga have started their discovery of South Africa in 1995, one year after the big transformation and have spent several holidays in this country. From the beginning, we had a special relationship with this remarkable country referring to its complex history and the variety in climate, landscape, and culture. We have discussed the backgrounds of these experiences frequently, we believe the ‘synergy’ between the western influence/culture and the African culture is generating a specific dynamic atmosphere, not always in a positive way; it needs much more time to develop. On the long run, we think it will create a certain balance between the cultures. But South Africa is still a laboratory with no guarantee on success.

We have been discussed the classic question for many years, what to do when you are getting older, how to find an alternative interpretation of life after many years of being trapped in the western ‘rat race’. For decades living and working in big cities, what challenges do we want to face? We have travelled to most of the continents after looking intensively in Europe, but we finally found in this country the right answers, of course, it is a compromise. Decisive are the sub-tropical climate with the wet summer (moderate temperature/green environment) and the dry winter with the highest night temperature of the country, the extreme potentials of nature conservation including trans frontier co-operation, the experience of marine and terrestrial nature around you and the African context (this area is much more Africa than e.g. Western Cape).

During our seventh journey in 2003, we have visited KwaZulu-Natal for the first time and by accident, we discovered St Lucia as a small and charming village on a peninsula ‘at the end of the world’, surrounded completely by water and nature. The specific location as a gateway to a big variety of world-class nature, surrounded by iSimangaliso Wetlands Park (first UNESCO World Heritage Site of South Africa) makes St Lucia very attractive for tourists and residents as well.

We have bought the property in the winter of 2003 during our second visit of St Lucia. The idea to start a tourism business was in discussion but needed much more time to mature.

FROM IDEAS TILL CONCEPT

While looking for properties, it was clear this stand was perfectly orientated, a corner stand with only 300 meter real nature till the beach at the edge of the village, the best place in town. The difference in height between the front and back side was also a potential asset for the design of a new building. It was obvious, the existing buildings were not capable to be used for new functions. The first idea was to use the framework of the buildings, foundations and main walls as part of a new concept and to extend horizontally and vertically. The second idea was to maintain the Forest Mahogany tree (huge umbrella) at the front side. The third idea was to use optimally the difference in height to create privacy and free view into the adjacent park. The fourth idea was to integrate the gardens with the park. Of course we had to deal with the current Town Planning Scheme.

As foreigners, we needed 2 years to think about what exactly to do with the property, to design the plan ready to start with and all other ‘home work’ necessary to live and work in a new country.

After investigation of the tourism market, we have chosen for a small scaled upmarket accommodation using modern minimalistic architecture in an African context. It was necessary to distinguish from all other competitors in St Lucia, adding a new top segment.

Using the original ideas, we have designed a concept together with a young architect from The Netherlands. The program for the design was an accommodation for 4-5 guests rooms, a separate own house and sufficient facilities for both. It started with a more cubic architecture, later on much more shaped into (bent) New Forms (Nouvelles formes). As references we have used examples e.g. from the Bauhaus period, Le Corbusier (chapel in Ronchamps, France) etc. Finally we had to look for the right ensemble of 3 buildings, a one storey base at park side/level and two unequal 2 storeys buildings at the front side. We have used the maximum capacity in m2 and m3 to accommodate our program, the introduction of roof gardens was a logical move to achieve a high quality if the landscape. After a long time of design, the provisional result was a 3D simulation (see below).

In this model the 3 elements are in a spatial balance:

  • the big house and the small one in the first line at the street side, the bent and angled shaped roofs respecting the presence of the big mahogany tree
  • lower side of these buildings faces to the village, the big windows focused on park and ocean
  • the guests rooms at park level under the roof gardens with ‘sun catchers’ to bring day light in the rear of the rooms
  • continuing Red Wall dividing property in 2 parts, accommodation and more private (residence)

TRANSFORMATION FROM CONCEPT INTO PROJECT PLAN

The 3D design was leading during the whole design process. After acceptance of the concept, the following step was the production / design of the detailed drawings, the challenge of thousands of small and bigger decisions as agreements as input for the project plan. As Dutch designers we had the handicap of lack of knowledge of the South African building scene: suppliers, products, principles, regulations, costs, risks etcetera. We have found a South African contractor, who we have requested to think and calculate during the whole design process. The only adviser we have hired for the whole period was a high qualified structural engineer, who was responsible for all constructions. We have tried to detail as much as possible, but there were a lot of questions unanswered. One of the most difficult issues was the discussion with the regional planner, operating as adviser of the municipality. Because the design is so unusual especially in this rural area, we had to invest a lot of time and energy to achieve total conformity with the regulations. We had to change our draft plan several times. The formal approval of the plan is finally issued when we already arrived in South Africa, the 1st of April 2006.

PREPARATION BUILDING PROCESS

It was clear; the draft plan needed a complete evaluation after entering South Africa especially the details, materials etcetera. From day 1, I started with design /detail all issues and after 3 months we were able to start the building process (August 2006). We have decided to phase the whole project in 3 parts for several reasons:

  • Problematic way of foundation (piling or compacting 2 meter deep)
  • Long building process, too difficult/risky to tender in one time, no skilled labourers, no network
  • Use existing residence as long as possible

Phase 1: 4 guests rooms at park level, back and roof gardens including the swimming pool; using the existing house as long as possible

Phase 2: demolishing old house and extension, erecting a big retaining wall, double garage, corridors, storage rooms, and laundry

Phase 3: building new house, central entrance, lounge and guest room first floor, side gardens, and parking areas

A tender procedure was not workable, our involved contractor pulled out, another one refused to start, finally, we started phase 1 with a local contractor, but after 5 months it was clear he couldn’t do the job properly. The project was simply too difficult for an average contractor, an alternative from e.g. Durban area was too expensive, the costs would get out of hand completely. In December 2006 we had to decide to take over the whole building process ourselves: play the combined roles of architect, supervisor, and contractor as well. There was no alternative available. The consequences for us were very radical: it meant a much longer and intensive process. Because of my wide experience in building process, constructions and design as well and last but not least the passion/drive to create an architectural gem in this specific context, we were able to succeed the whole project in less than 4.5 years instead of the planned 2 years, achieving more than 85% of the original concept.

PHASE 1

The new approach implicated to hire building staff directly, most of the people came from villages in the neighbourhood. The biggest problem was the lack of skills and experience in the building industry. Supervising comprised also educating of people. There was a large turnover of labor and finding an experienced carpenter was a real nightmare. The plumber and electrician were certified black people, the suppliers/installers of specific constructions like window frames, reinforcing (concrete), steel constructions etc. came from everywhere in the province mostly from the Durban area.

The first step was demolishing of the 3 garages + apartment to create room and access for the building of the 4 guestrooms at park level in the back garden bordering the wetlands park. We have chosen for compacting of the subsoil advised by our structural engineer. Everywhere under slabs, we have dug out 2 meters of sand with a TLB, restore in thin layers of 15 cm of sand and compacting with a heavy roller and using water. The result was fabulous, the load capacity of the compacted sand foundation was sufficient to carry heavy 2 or 3 stories buildings. The only problem of this method: where can we temporary store hundreds of m3 of sand? A spatial and logistic issue, the cause of many headaches.

After pouring the concrete slabs, next step was to erect the walls for the 4 rooms. The design of the roof slabs is very particular: to be used as underground of roof gardens, it needed a heavy construction for gardens with 60 cm subsoil and a fish pond. For architectural reasons, the concrete beams are not visible in the guest rooms; they are fully integrated in the roof gardens (beams are above slabs). The whole project has been built without a crane. A lot of manpower was needed for scaffolding, ladders and bridges/ramps to get access.

A remarkable element in the guests rooms are the ‘sun catchers’ to bring day light in the rear of the guest rooms, also using coloured tubes as extra theme at night. To build these elements was very difficult for the guys. Built at half circled rings of concrete, masonry in the same form but smaller to the top was ‘a bridge too far’, but after several attempts, they have succeeded and were very proud.

Finishing this phase especially the internal constructions of the guest’s rooms (plastering, sanitary, flooring, painting, furniture etc.) was decisive for the final visual and functional quality. All furniture has been designed by us. This was the most intensive part of the job also because of the lack of skilled people. The landscaping of the back gardens including the big pool was the finishing touch of this phase, all own design. Starting point was to integrate the adjacent park with the back gardens and to create more open space to spot animals (from birds, antelopes till hippos).

PHASE 2

We have moved into the just finished guest rooms including all our belongings including a grand piano and a study piano. At that moment we could start with phase 2: big retaining wall, double garage, central stair case, all storage rooms, laundry and internal corridor (main access to guest rooms). The first action was to demolish the old house, the materials have been donated to our labour force.

To create enough room for facilities (storage, garages, small work shop, laundry and ironing room), we had to dig out more sand and erect a huge 4 meter heavy reinforced concrete retaining wall to build the 2 big buildings at the front side at street level. To give an idea about the size of this construction: width foundation slab underneath the wall is 2.4 meter, thickness of the wall is 30 cm’.

Completion of phase 2 in 2008 was really important to us. Two guest rooms and later on a third room were available to start the guesthouse at a small scale to gain the necessary experience in the hospitality. We used the gazebo in the back garden as locality to serve our guests breakfast. A small kitchen behind the Red Room was available at a short distance. Till the completion of phase 3 including the new professional kitchen and the lounge / guest terrace in 2010, the breakfasts have been served in the gazebo.

At that time, we have looked for the right name for our new accommodation. Finally we have chosen for Serene-estate to express what we want to offer our guests, real serenity.

PHASE 3

Behind the big retaining wall, we have to start again the whole building process, it felt to start from scratch: first digging out 2 meter deep sand, hereafter compacting the sand to improve the load capacity of the subsoil. After 2 years of building, this was mentally a very difficult period to load our battery again. Another problem was the remaining space on the plot to accommodate building materials, equipment, hundreds of m3 sand during compacting. Only for the concrete slab of the first floor, we have hired the only concrete pump in the province (pouring 75 m3 concrete in only a few hours). The guesthouse with 3 rooms was just operating as if ‘the neighbours were not building’….

The last part of the process was for several reasons the most difficult one. ‘The sting was in the tail’, very much applicable for our case. To design in detail the complex roof construction of the 2 buildings was a real nightmare because of the combination: walls under several angles, roof in one direction bent, in the other direction under an angle, complete new roof construction with hidden gutters and besides the lack of a crane. First of all we had to manage to heighten the top of the walls following the lines of the roofs and pour 3 concrete beams in the right configuration. The ultimate challenge: how to pour a bent concrete beam above planned huge window frame somewhere in the ‘air’ and without a crane? In this part of the country, you have to be a creative guy, so make a plan. Starting a scheme for a scaffold / shuttering in steel elements (hired) with steel panels, within the shuttering woodwork in a bent form and finally the bent reinforcing. The logistic issue hasn’t to be underestimated, our guys have to work at a high level with own produced concrete to be poured with buckets and compacted with a needle (petrol engine). You need at least 6 -8 people to make and pour the concrete. Of course after removing the shuttering, you feel very proud.

Above the other big opening in the eastern elevation of our new house was extra complicated because our structural engineer insisted to build a concrete portal construction to resist heavy wind loads directly from the ocean (cyclone proofed), starting at the lowest  foundation. It meant to connect this portal with the retaining/ foundation and pour in parts till the highest point about 13 meters high.

The roof construction consists of a carrying structure of laminated beams (pine) and main bent laminated beams (saligna) and closed with a sandwich insulated roof construction with a finishing of successively waterproof and nature stone shingles. The big main saligna beams have been installed by hand (each about 700 kg) and needed 10 -12 people to put the beam in the brackets at the top of the walls.

The buildings were finished early 2010, the gardens and parking area at the street side was the finishing touch finalised the second half of 2010. We have chosen for an open parking area, the only remaining question how to protect cars of guests against the sun without blocking the overview of the guesthouse seen from the street. We have designed a huge shade sail under a specific angle (you only experience a thin line if you look at the guesthouse). The main gate refers to the colours used as a theme in the rooms and the composition is also a wink to the famous Dutch painter Piet Mondriaan.

The job was settled after 4.5 years, we thought.

After a couple of months of experience with the completed guesthouse, we have concluded the lounge and the open guests terrace are not performing well. The lounge is too small; no room for a dinner/reading table and the breakfast area is inside and too small as well. Conclusion: we need an extension of the lounge. With a lot of delays, the completion was beginning of 2012 and recently we have added professional adjustable louvers to achieve some protection against the rising sun, wind from the sea and rain. Finally ready, terminé, klaar ………

FINAL RESULT

Finally, we would like to complete this story by looking at the results. Comparing with the starting points and the concept, our conclusion has to be: we have achieved what we have planned and we are very proud. The specific architecture and the whole atmosphere are perfect conditions to run a successful up-market accommodation.

After reading this story, we hope you will be encouraged to experience your stay more intensively.

Please, if you want more information regarding this story, don’t hesitate to come back to us.