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DESIGNING A DREAM Nico van der Meulen Architects chevron-square-right phone-square +27 (0) 11 789 5242

36 years ago, Nico van der Meulen walked away from a career in civil engineering to take the risk of a more creative dream. With his wife, Santa, they established what would become Nico van der Meulen Architects, working out of an office at their home. Today, Nico van der Meulen Architects designs luxury housing for clients around the world, giving people their dream homes as they continue to live out their own dream.

Written by Alice Instone-Brewer


eaving a guaranteed career to start your own company takes courage, but Nico had a passion for design, and in 1984, he decided to pursue it. “I was bored with civil engineering. I wanted to do something more creative than calculations on other people’s designs.” Based out of Johannesburg, South Africa, Nico van der Meulen Architects is an internationally successful architectural firm, well known for its luxurious super houses, as well as turning its hand to commercial buildings of a similar style. The firm has produced traditionallooking buildings on demand and has been very successful in it, but its true style shows in its contemporary work. Embracing the modern indoor-outdoor, open-plan living that is iconic in California but popular around the world, Nico van der Meulen Architects has a striking portfolio of unconventional, high-end houses that put their own stamp on the trend. When it comes to design, Nico told us that he was originally inspired by Richard Meier, a world-famous American architect who is best known for geometric, predominantly white, designs. However, this of course evolved into a style that was his own. “Most of it is inspired by the structure and functionalism more than


anything else,” Nico told us, referring to both the structural layout of the building, and the site it will be built on. Nico’s designs play heavily with levels and the way these interact with the building site. “We don’t just slap buildings on sites. We do a proper site investigation before we start, and we try to make our buildings as sitespecific as possible. This approach works with the natural beauty and the natural challenges of a site in order to inspire unique choices, including internal gardens to incorporate striking existing elements: “We quite often use atriums in the middle of buildings to retain trees or water features, which again create that indoor-outdoor feel.” That sought-after indooroutdoor feel is also created by a heavy use of glass, including large sliding glass panels that literally allow indoor rooms to flow out onto the outdoor spaces. Well-designed open plan rooms also create a natural flow around the home that adds to this feeling, as does the way

in which Nico’s designs, and those of his team, seek to complement the views around them. Today, the company hires 25 staff. The designers amongst these include two of Nico and Santa’s sons and their wives, all architects, whilst their third son is a renowned sculptor and some of his work can be seen in the buildings designed by Nico van der Meulen Architects. All in all, it’s a creative family with a good visual and structural eye. Whilst the company has a general unifying aesthetic, Nico doesn’t try to tether his designers, instead letting them find their own signature: “We try to encourage as much diversity as possible, because we don’t want to run into that rut where everything is exactly the same. We encourage them to come up with new ideas and original perspectives.” Nico tends to be hired by homeowners rather than property development companies, as he says that the latter are looking to save money on design in order to maximise their profits. Clients who love and are invested in their future home, though, come to him. So, when a design is commissioned, how does the process typically work? Nico broke it down for us: “Normally, what we get from a client is a brief – what rooms they want and what size rooms they want, so we get an idea of the size of the house. We try to deliver a house within 5% of that size we were briefed by the client. We start with the floor plans and show them, to make sure they’re happy with it, and then the next phase is playing with the elevations. There, we try to totally surprise people and come up with our own ideas.” Nico mentioned Kloof Road House as a recent example of these elevations at play. “From the floor plans, you would never have thought that it would look like it does. When the clients started seeing the 3Ds, they were amazed. They hadn’t visualised anything like that.” Kloof Road House is a stunning example of not only van der Meulen’s style, but also of the other service they offer – renovation and alteration of pre-existing houses, as well as the interior design and furniture. In the Kloof Road House, the building began life as a bungalow, and Werner van der Meulen took it through


DHR Apartments

Kloof Road House

NICO VAN DER MEULEN ARCHITECTS a remarkable transformation. “We got a lot of international work from that house. People see that and want similar buildings.” “What is really important to us is functionalism. The building must function properly for that type of building – whether it’s an office or a commercial building or a house, it must be properly thought through to function properly.” Part of this functionalism includes a greener way of operating: Nico explained to us that his company has designed with green ideas in mind for the past 30 years, through considerations such as orientation of buildings to get the winter sun but cut out the summer sun, and other details such as the materials used and shading devices. It took the company four to five years to take off, with business picking up once its first designs had been fully constructed. “People could see what we could do. When we started, most of the people in South Africa were building these low, single-storey bungalows. People were very dubious about the flat-roofed

Forrest Road

modern structures with huge sheets of glass, gardens in the middle of the house etc. They had to see it to realise, ‘Oh, this is nice, we like it. We’d like one like that.’ We were lucky that around that period, we picked up some large projects that immediately put us on the map.” Nico’s company also does interior design of most of the buildings they design and often even furnish the buildings, using established links to international furniture manufacturers to create a contemporary, luxurious ambience. However, the focus remains on the architectural design. To date, Nico van der Meulen Architects has designed approximately 4000 buildings, and has an average of 50+ active projects at any given time. Some of the countries its clients have hailed from include the USA, the UK, Cypress, Italy, Saudi Arabia, Russia and, increasingly, many African countries. 20% of its business is still in South Africa, whilst the DRC, Zambia and Côte d’Ivoire emerge as leading markets. In most countries, Nico and his team of designers get very similar briefs; whilst the

Kloof Road House


buildings themselves vary and bring in fresh ideas from project to project, clients come to them with the same requirements, from South Africa to Ireland to Russia. “The work we pick up is from people who like our style – the openplan, indoor-outdoor living. They come to us looking to get something like that, something fresh, whereas if they don’t like that type of building, they go to a more traditional architect.” The exception to this rule is the Middle East: whilst clients from this region come to Nico and his team because they admire their style, their briefs vary due to culture and religion: “They’ve got the idea of separate lounge areas for men and women, and don’t want women to be visible to male visitors, so you design in a different way to our normal open plan, very exposed houses,” Nico explained. “We’ve been working in the Middle East a good 25 years now. Also, in South Africa, we’ve got quite a reasonablesized Muslim population where you pick the

Moscow Residence

same sort of requirements for more separate, private areas.” With business taking place the world over, we asked Nico which markets were the most exciting for luxury housing and contemporary architecture right now. “In South Africa, business is quite depressed, but globally, we are optimistic. The developed world is stabilising: there’s not that much growth anymore, and if you look at a country like Italy, where we live 50% of the time, the young people are all moving out of the smaller towns and into the cities, living in apartments. However, in developing countries, there’s a lot of potential.” Whilst business is far from drying up in the developed world, there isn’t the same demand as there used to be, as the market is well catered for, and often there is a good stock of existing houses, whilst the younger generation choose apartment living. However, in terms of economy, developing world markets are on the rise at the same time as more established markets are plateauing


out, and like many companies who are in the position to do so, Nico is turning his attention to this frontier: “I would say the big markets are in Africa. The Ivory Coast, Zambia, the DRC – these countries, we do a lot of work in. There’s a lot of movement there. We’re also doing a bit of work in Australia, and as I say, the States at the moment, but in the DRC and the Ivory Coast, people are feeling quite confident with their money, so we’re getting a lot of projects from there. We’re doing one in the DRC at the moment that’s on the riverbank, and that’s going to be quite a spectacular residence.” As well as developing its African markets, as Nico’s company looks to the future, it intends to expand its currently growing work in the commercial sector. One such current potential project is a 1000-bedroom six-star hotel, although Nico wasn’t able to tell us where this is being built. “However, really, we’ve found our niche doing luxury housing. It is our main

market, and I think it will remain that way. But we are also working on a large mixed-use development in Nigeria, which we hope will come to fruition.” Nico and Santa took a dream and made it a reality, and now they do the same for every client who comes to them looking for their ultimate home or building. We asked Nico for his advice on staying relevant in a creative, competitive industry for over three decades, and his answer was to never be complacent, no matter your current success. “The key is hard work, and always trying to improve; never resting on your laurels; staying up to date with technology and being paranoid. There is always someone better than you out there, so keep on improving and doing original, creative work.” He has a belief in himself, his company, his staff, and the integrity and originality in their work, and this belief reflects a standard and reputation that they have earnt in their sector, and continuously work to maintain.


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Nico van der Meulen Architects  

Nico van der Meulen Architects