From Drab to Fab
Words: Carola Koblitz Photography: David Balkind Portrait: Ruvan Boshoff

KwaZulu-Natal born and bred David Balkind and his Slovakian partner Palo Patus were living in the trendy Cape Town suburb of Vredehoek when David’s mother decided to move to Franschhoek. When she ran into problems with the builder renovating her home, they stepped in to oversee the project, at the same time taking a look at the winelands as an option for themselves. A change of pace from a city to a country lifestyle seemed an attractive proposition.

Looking for the best investment they could find within a tightly controlled budget, they settled on a rather unusual property built in what they

(Top: David (left) and Palo in the main driveway with the completed cottage behind. Middle: The plans of the new house with broken lines indicating old walls which were demolished or moved. Left: Before).

describe as ‘Spanish Suburbia’, with a multi-levelled mono-pitched roof, a lot of arches and strange passageways. It also had three bedrooms and a granny flat.

David explains why they took on the challenge. ‘First, it was relatively well-priced, probably because other people were too scared to touch it as it needed a lot of work. Second, it was a good size with a variety of accommodation.’

Rule number one: buy the worst house in the best area you can afford.

David continues: ‘The other houses on the street were already very pretty – the typical kind of dorpshuisie that you find in Franschhoek. And it had nice mountain views.’ As Palo adds: ‘It was the best thing that our money could buy. And it was tucked away from the busy main drag.’

Rule number two position, position, position.

Deciding to live in one section while the other sections were being renovated, the brave twosome aimed to turn the three-bedroomed house with one bathroom into a two-bedroomed cottage with two bathrooms (main en suite) and, at the same time, give the flat and garden a facelift.

‘Usually one would say that taking away a bedroom decreases the value of a property,’ says David. However, the pair had done their research: ‘That kind of house in Franschhoek is really just used as a holiday home – buyers don’t want masses of rooms. But they do want en suite bathrooms.’

It took three months for the construction work to be completed, with another month for the final touches; fairly fast work, which they believe they owe entirely to their being on site. Of course, it helped that David is a qualified architect (he studied at the University of Cape Town), while Palo studied engineering in Slovakia.

And they found a good builder. ‘He was working as a carpenter on my mother’s site and when the builder ran away, he basically took over,’ explains David. ‘We did get a few quotes from building contractors but they were way too high for our budget. So we just decided we’d take a more hands-on approach and use the same guy. He would, in turn, find the bricklayers, labourers and so on and we’d pay them at the end of each week for their time.

‘It does mean that you’ve really got to be there constantly – supervising, buying the materials, making sure everything’s there on time, making sure everyone’s working, organising the cash to pay them… it’s very intense, but it worked out a whole lot cheaper.’

Rule number three: be prepared to spend time on the building site.

Besides changing the exterior from fake Spanish to fabulous Franschhoek, the entire interior had to be reconfigured. ‘It had a strange layout probably because it was done by a draughtsperson and not an architect,’ believes David. ‘It had very weird quirks and peculiarities.’

It also had a large number of arches, strange window shapes, acute unusable angles, view-blocking walls and space-wasting walkways. ‘And absolutely no symmetry!’ exclaims Palo.

The main tasks included changing the roof from a multi-levelled mono-pitch into a single, steep double-pitch to make it less suburban and give it more of a cottage-like feel. To enhance the symmetry, the odd-sized windows needed to be replaced with a uniform size, and exterior doors had to be replaced with ones more in keeping with a Cape Dutch style.

The out-of-character picket fence around the property was to be replaced with a brick stoep complemented by low walls with built-in benches and lavender hedges. A revamp of the back garden would see the addition of a pool and a pergola and the overall patio area increased.

The roof, which had to be removed and replaced in sections while the pair continued to live on site, was the biggest job. Explains David: ‘We tried to save the existing ceiling and we did this by cutting off the top of the existing trusses and leaving the bottom tie-beams to hold up the ceiling.’ The new trusses were then slotted into place between the existing beams. ‘It was done like this both from a cost perspective as well as for security reasons because we were living in it.’

He admits that although this saved both money and time, it was a once-only lifetime experience: ‘I’ll never go through the leaking again, the banging and everything. Living on a building site is not my cup of tea!’

There was also a blocked-up fireplace that took up a quarter of the kitchen space. This was to be removed and a new fireplace was to be built in the living room.

The town authorities, it appears, were pleased to see the back of the Spanish façade. ‘Everything in Franschhoek has to go to the Aesthetics Committee to make sure this kind of thing doesn’t happen again,’ explains David. ‘Basically, as long as you fit in with either a Georgian, Victorian or Cape Dutch look, the Aesthetics Committee is happy with it and passes it, but you still obviously have to adhere to all the standard building regulations.’

Rule number four: always check local building regulations and heritage requirements.

Along with the Aesthetics Committee, the neighbours were also thrilled by what they saw. ‘People used to stop outside in their cars,’ says Palo, ‘roll down their windows and shout "You’re doing such a nice job!" and "I can’t believe what you’ve done with this house!" They were constantly making comments. This house was just waiting for somebody to come and make it nice.’

Not only were they able to find a property within their budget (and at the lower end of the market), but they were also able to stick within their renovation budget, of which the roof cost about 20 per cent and the walls, doors and windows 30 per cent of the total build. Had they employed the services of an architect this would have added about 15 per cent to the overall costs and a contractor about 30 per cent.

Rule number five: stick to your budget.

Over the next few months, we’ll bring you information on exactly how this transformation was achieved. And this carries no warning label: you too can try this at home.

To read more every month register now to receive the monthly Property Magazine newsletter. To register is easy just visit and click on newsletter.

Article by: The Property Magazine