House of Steel: A Modern Farmhouse in South Africa

Half-an-hour outside of Cape Town, a South African farmhouse with a distinctively modern aesthetic.

Photography by Stephen Coetzee

After stints in Cape Town and San Francisco, Jakoba (Koba) and Cornelis Dumas — a “part-time accountant, part-time mother,” 34, and an industrial designer specializing in furniture, 35, respectively — decided it was time to settle down. Their dream? To build a house at Jacobsdal, the wine farm on the edge of Stellenbosch, South Africa, where Cornelis grew up. Longtime friend and architect Francois du Toit of FD/A was the obvious man for the job.

Marking the divide between the industrial sprawl of South Africa’s second largest city, Cape Town, and the scenic winelands of Stellenbosch a half an hour away, Jacobsdal has been in the same family for more than a century.

The shape of the house talks to a farm aesthetic while being utterly modern. “It’s not a glass and steel house that doesn’t belong on a farm. It’s meant to look like a barn,” says du Toit. “They were up for something new, different, offbeat.”

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Sliding doors open onto a back barbecue area and a front porch, highlighting the importance of indoor-outdoor living in this region. When required, this main room is used for wine tastings.

Furniture throughout is an eclectic selection from the generations linked through form and color: a chair designed by Cornelis, a baby grand piano that Koba learned on, a Rhodesian teak dining room table and chairs from her grandparents.

Cornelis’ grandmother started a garden decades ago — her house, where Cornelis’ parents now live, is just on the other side of her plantings — and they tried to push the house as far into the existing garden as possible. The house piggybacks on the established oaks, pines and palm trees, some of them right on the edge of the new construction. A new series of pecan trees planted by the driveway will provide shade in years to come.

Koba spent her childhood in the suburbs of Johannesburg and Pretoria, and her 20s in urban centers, and is still adjusting to farm life, but readily sees the advantages for her two young children growing up with extended family and a healthy lifestyle. “Instead of having to watch for cars, you have to watch out he doesn’t get caught in a stampede,” she says with a laugh.

Living on a working farm means that they don’t think twice about piling into the pickup truck when it’s time to corral animals. Their older son helps hand-rear baby animals with a bottle. Koba uses her background to help out with administrative tasks.

While Cornelius does not consider himself a farmer — it’s his father and brother who make their livings from working the land — he appreciates the benefits of building on the spacious property now all the more so for having lived in small apartments.

“I’m more impressed with it than I thought I would be,” says Cornelis, pointing at the house’s textured shades of gray. “When the sun changes, the textures of the walls change all the time.”

The first story contains the dining/living room with bay window and kitchen; another double story one has three bedrooms, baths, a large study upstairs, and a TV room.

A small glass section, which is also the central foyer, links the public and private spaces.

Du Toit more typically works on industrial buildings, such as a vast cold store warehouse for apples and pears for Shoprite, a major supermarket chain in Africa. He applied the same technology on a much smaller scale for the Dumases. An engineer helped determine the best length for steel beams that would create an elongated farmhouse.

The house is essentially two simple structures, with everything organized linearly. (A freestanding garage is seen on the left.)

All the materials used were “value engineered” — that is, super cheap — with the exception of the hardwood floors for the wow factor.

Locally, corrugated iron is a ubiquitous building material. But it’s most commonly seen to build shacks in squatter camps and townships — housing for the poorest of the poor in South Africa. To see it as an intentional material on a well-conceived home is both unusual and arresting.

Originally, timber cladding was a possibility, but the price put it squarely out of reach. Instead, they opted for a zinc-aluminum sheeting, commonly used in warehouses and in township shacks, that is just a tenth the price of the timber.

Du Toit gamely admits that for some, a stigma may be attached to using corrugated zinc. “It reminds them of shacks. They have to get over that.”

Borne of efficiency, the Dumas house’s success lies in its simplicity, and is neither corny nor cliché.

“It’s free of style and ornaments. No funny business. The biggest luxury you can have is space,” says du Toit. “No golden bath taps or air conditioning. Farmers don’t waste. They figure things out.”

After the concrete base was poured, the prefab steel portal frames arrived on site. Steel cladding, floor structures, insulation, dry walls, and the final flooring followed.

In theory, prefab construction is the height of efficiency, but it does presume a skill set associated with big contractors rather than ones who build farm houses. The house took about a year to complete, rather than the estimated four months.

Cornelius’ father (also named Cornelius) was still studying at the nearby university when his own father died, leaving him to take over the farm in his early 20s. Apartheid-era sanctions curtailed the farm’s exports to Europe. He persevered with traditional methods, focusing instead on the local market.

After the country’s transition to democratic rule and the end of economic sanctions in the 1990s, wine exports began to take off again.

Jacobsdal wines have won a number of awards in South Africa and the United States. When Nelson Mandela and F.W. de Klerk won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993, Jacobsdal Pinotage was one of the wines served at the ceremony.

“The older family-owned vineyards are dwindling; they’re going corporate,” says Koba. “A lot of those smaller guys diversify.”

Many of the family farms in the area have opened guesthouses and eateries. The Dumas family also feels the need to extend their offerings beyond Pinotage, but have tried to keep their privacy by raising livestock for meat and wool.

Jacobsdal is situated on the geographic transition between the Cape Flats, known for its very sandy soil, to a more loamy soil on the property’s higher regions that is the gateway to wine country. Since the bottom part of the farm can’t be used for vineyards due to poor water retention, it’s used for grazing. Sheep eat the short grass and cattle eat the longer grass.

Recently the farm expanded its herd of Hereford cattle.

Meat prices are at a low point at auction in the region at the moment — not that anybody at the grocery store would know — prompting farmers who can to hold off on slaughter for another year.

In one of the wettest corners of the continent, August is nearly always the rainiest month. This year has been no exception, with some of the heaviest rainfalls on record.

Guinea fowl and peacocks roam the grounds freely. Cattle and sheep need to be locked up at night — one of the challenges of having a farm so close to the city.

“The big lights of the city were really far off, and now they’re on our doorstep,” says Cornelis of his childhood. “I recall hearing jackals. Development, especially in the last 15 years, has crept up.”

Photos by Stephen Coetzee
(except 5 & 9 by Francois du Toit)

House of Steel: A Modern Farmhouse in South Africa