Pockets of Paradise

Under the African Sun at Atrium House

The story of Atrium House began with an invitation from a well-known client to view their newly-purchased land, after having left their home in a gated community for something bigger and better—the kind of dream that grows as each family does. Eager to assess a potential new challenge, the team at Drew Architects headed to the site in Benoni to find a stretch of opportunity that would be awarded the PIA 2023 Award for Architecture. Dating back to the 90s, the building and its property had caught the eyes of their new owners and now needed to be renovated, or so they thought…

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Pieces of a puzzle

The site itself was beautiful, fairly level with a few mature trees around the perimeter. Unfortunately, the featured home – a Tuscan-style building in the very centre of a roughly 3 000 m² site – was a poor example of Tuscan architecture, and the magnitude of the site’s scale was disturbed by the small pockets of landscaping around the perimeter of the house that remained. The home had been built against an existing swimming pool that seemed to have existed for much longer than the house itself and which was designed in a contrasting shape. All the pieces of the puzzle didn’t quite fit together cohesively, and the client wanted to renovate the existing house to make place for a spacious garden. However, once the team had done an evaluation of the site and measured up the existing house, it was clear that the building’s positioning right in the middle of the site undermined the client’s ability to leverage the scale of the garden.

The family who now called this property home were looking for more space and freedom in the form of a ‘contemporary dream home’; a simple but striking, modern, family-orientated home intimately connected to nature. Wanting nothing radical nor conventional, Drew Architects listened to the client’s needs by opting for a measured approach that still pushed the boundaries where possible.

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With the focus largely on the land that surrounded the house, a key requirement for the garden was to cater for the children, making it a vast open space not dominated by play equipment. It also had to be appealing to the adults by providing a manicured green oasis. Inside, the living space needed to be unique and special but not at the expense of practicality or delivering a warm family home. The relationship between building and property that followed was organised into four distinctly proportioned spaces: entrance, vehicle area, the children’s garden, and the adult’s garden. The transitions between these external spaces are carefully considered and orchestrated seamlessly by the unified approach to architecture and landscaping. The green rooms/ atriums/ courtyards incorporated into the plan provide more intimate encounters with nature whilst moving through the home, contrasting the vast experience of nature as a result of the size of site. These atriums also provide relief and soften the architecture, create opportunities for feature trees, provide visual separation as required, or act as sun traps during morning coffee sessions.

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A complete composition
At the request for a comparatively small first versus ground floor, the ‘mushroom’ feature column was designed to support the proportions. Similarly, the request for a home cinema was used creatively as an
opportunity to introduce a curved and textured off-shutter concrete, ‘geared concrete’, feature wall, which together with the feature column and the bold first floor building form complete the composition on arrival. The home demonstrates a balanced approach to creatively meeting client needs with aspirational but also approachable architecture, implementing a clever organisation of the site, honesty, consistency and restraint in materiality, and a series of architectural features born out of constraints. The interior design, together with the landscape design, intentionally reinforce the architectural vision and successfully achieve a family sanctuary under the African sun.

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