BASIC DESIGN PRINCIPLES FOR FIRST TIME BUILDERS
INTRODUCTION - BASIC PRINCIPLES
Before setting your mind on a particular choice of plan or architectural
design, take the time to read through the following pointers as set out
below, subsequently you will be able to make a more knowledgeable decision
in plan design & style choice.
The size of the proposed house will often be determined by budget for most 1st
time builders in South Africa but other factors will also play a big role.
Local municipalities will always stipulate a certain coverage and height
restriction for a site in a particular area. Read through your title deed
for possible servitudes (areas as set out by the municipality for other uses
eg. Electrical or sewerage services) or other restrictions before planning
is started as these might also greatly reduce buildable area on your erf.
Take a look at the following typical example:
You have just bought a lovely stand at the coast with a great view towards
the sea. The size of the stand is 600sqm (20m X 30m) with a 3m building line
all around. You contact the local authority or estate architect and find out
that only a 40% coverage is allowed for this stand and that the 1st
floor may only be 30% of the groudfloor area to not restrict sea views for
the neighbouring houses.
You might be surprised how limited your building area has become with the
above parameters: The stand’s building area is reduced to 336sqm by the
building line alone, furthermore the coverage only allows for a 240sqm max.
building footprint with a 72sqm upper floor. Therefore the building limit
for this stand would be 312sqm.
The above example might seem irrelevant, but often other factors eg.
Orientation of the site might further difficult the situation.
Are you planning to have more children? Do you have ageing parents that
might require a living unit on your property? You might be retiring in a
couple of years and may feel the need to provide space for a hobby area /
workshop / library that you envisage for the future. You could also be
planning to start your own home based business in the future and might need
extension space to your home at that time.
According to statistics, South Africans typically stay in a house for apprx.
7 years and might move around more that other established countries, but
often families become comfortable with their current accommodation and find
it less troublesome to extend to their existing house than moving to a new
bigger house. With the above in mind, you might want to plan your new
proposed house to be able to accommodate possible future extension.
SIZE OF YOUR EXISTING FURNITURE
Make sure that the planned room sizes will be able to accommodate your
existing furniture. You might own huge antiques or double beds for all the
bedrooms. With the always rising building costs secondary bedrooms are often
designed to only accommodate a single bed.
You might also want to take time to carefully consider the size of the
garage. A standard double garage is considered to be 6x6m but doesn’t leave
any space for storage or perhaps a DIY-corner especially if you own large
Often the shape of the site and/or possible views has a huge effect on the
placement of the building, but keep the following in mind before before
putting pen to paper:
Minimize west facing window openings as far as possible , rooms facing west
can really become uninhabitable during the late afternoon until early
evening. Also western sun can be very destructive for curtains, furniture
Try to minimize east facing bedrooms also unless you are an early riser, as
the sun can wake one up a lot sooner than was planned. Often residences on
the eastern coast of the country have views toward the east thus too many
east facing bedrooms has to be considered carefully.
The perfect orientation in SA for all habitable rooms in a house is 10
degrees east of north to minimize the heat in summer and in the cold winter
months when the sun is lower creates less shadows and more heat radiation in
the habitable rooms.
When planning the positioning of your house on the site, the position of
sewer connection should be kept in mind – Try to keep sewer line lengths to
a minimum. The garages should also be planned close to the site entrance to
keep the driveway area to a minimum to keep paving costs down. (Most local
authorities do however require a minimum of 6m driveway for visitor vehicle
SHAPE OF HOUSE
Shape of house – Take into account that the more complex (many corners) the
plan the more the cost, also a square shape is more cost effective than a
long rectangle, for example if you build a square house of 10x10m (100sqm)
the total brick perimeter would be 40m, however if you build a 100sqm
rectangular house of say 5x20m, the external envelope will be 50m in
perimeter. The above is exaggerated, but illustrates the idea.
Try to keep away from excessive curves in the design of the external
envelope, in particular when building a conventional roof and not a thatch
or concrete roof, as this might require building unnecessary extra roof
ridges and breaking up of roof tiles to accommodate this. It will often be a
nightmare to build you might have a lot of waterproofing issues.
If the plan of the design is very complex, it might also require building
unnecessary parapet walls to accommodate the roof structure which leads to
extra flashing (more potential for leakage)
If you live in very windy conditions eg. The False bay area in the Cape, you
should consider building the shape not to ‘catch’ the wind but with its back
Lot of themed estates have been rising up all over the country for a number
of reasons. If you have bought into one of these estates, you should obtain
a copy of the Aesthetic committee’s rules and regulations regarding the
allowed architectural styles as they often have a strict architectural theme
that owners must adhere to.
The architectural style of a house often bring about many variances of roof
design. Concrete roofs (Contemporary styles) typically has no eaves overhang
and is not optimal for our country’s generally sunny conditions and rooms
could often be very hot as the sun heats a larger portion of a room’s floor
area which is retained and make the home’s ambient temperature a lot warmer.
The ‘Tuscan’ look as adopted by South Africans around the country, also
characteristically features very small eaves roof overhangs, which again is
not favourable for sunny conditions for the same reason as mentioned above,
what makes it even worse than that of a concrete roof is the weather
proofing of this way of roof design. Driving rain can cause moisture to
easily, and do, creep in below the eaves and create moisture leakage into
the building. You might have a lot of stained ceilings within a years’ time.
If you are fond of this look, consider having larger overhangs which can be
done without compromising this ‘style’
Thatch roofing can be quite a bit more expensive that conventional roofing
but allows for a great cool atmosphere within such a building perfect for
South Africa’s sunny conditions.
Gable walled architecture where the gable extends past the roof are often
considered to be very attractive, but keep in mind that the roofs will have
to be flashed at all the gables and if not done properly has an increased
chance of water leakage into the house.
Windows & Doors
Consider the size of the window openings. Windows can be wood, steel,
aluminium, top-hung, side-hung, sliding etc. in the end the style of the
house will mostly influence the type of window but if unsure about sizing of
openings refer back to the orientation section earlier.
The NBR specifies a daylight opening of at least 10% of the floor area of a
Where possible always try to create as much cross ventilation to habitable
rooms as possible.
Where doors face towards the west, consider the maintenance and material of
In windy conditions, try to keep doors screened from the prevailing wind
side especially large leafed swing doors.
Folding & stacking doors are great to enhance the living towards the outdoor
feeling and for ventilation, but keep the width of these to a minimum as
problems with the sliding gear often arise when the spans are too vast.
When using sliding doors or folding & stacking doors in bedrooms, make sure
to include a window in the room no matter what the size of the door opening,
as you might want to lock these doors at night time for security or other
reasons and still have ventilation into the room. Often designers create
doors the whole length of the exterior wall of a room and this gets
Walls can be facebrick, plastered, stone walls, stone cladded, wooden logs,
tiled, aluminium panel cladded etc.
When considering the above always keep in mind the time and costs of
maintenance and the construction cost. For example: Plastered walls might
require painting every 3-6 years but could cost significantly less to
construct that a facebrick wall which requires virtually no maintenance.
Also keep in mind, that a plastered building could be livened up after a
couple of years by painting it another colour to give the house a fresh
look, with most other wall finishes you will not have the opportunity to
provide the house with a fresh look at the same low cost.
When deciding upon a particular architectural style, consider the materials
that typically accompany that style.
Factors that may influence your decision:
Availability in your area
If designing your own house plan, make sure to obtain a copy of the South
African building regulations (SABS) as many rules regarding typically:
sizes, heights, fire prevention, lighting, ventilation are required to be
incorporated into a design.
All our library designs were done by Architects or professional house
designers and all the plans conform to all the codes as set out in the SA
Compiled by JB, Architect & founder of