The guesthouse with a light touch

2011-12-03 11:58

When Christine Richter arrived in South Africa 20 years ago from her native Germany, she found it hard to believe that people cared so little about the environment.

“I would take my Zulu basket to the Checkers to buy groceries and the other people in the shop would fall over laughing at me because it looked so ridiculous,” Christine (53) recalls sitting in her garden in Cowies Hill, a leafy suburb in Durban.

Coming from a country where thinking green has become part of the culture, Durban in the early 1990s seemed stuck in the an environmental stone age. Wastage of water and electricity was plain for all to see, and even now Christine can’t help noticing how the trees lining the streets in Umhlanga keep their Christmas lights switched on throughout the day.

Back in 1991, water and electricity were plentiful and cheap, and South Africans – consumed by the thorny political transition from apartheid to the country’s historic democratic elections – had different priorities.

“There were many people who needed electricity and water, so that came first – before conservation,” she says.

Christine lives with three of her four adult children on a 13 000m² property. The Richter family made the move to South Africa after Christine married her husband, Karl, who was 30 years her senior and already retired.

“We first lived in Italy, but that was too close to everyone else. Then a friend recommended South Africa – specifically Durban – because the climate was good for my husband’s health.”

After Karl’s death 14 years ago, Christine turned their five-bedroom house into a five-star guesthouse. Today Summerhill guesthouse spans three adjacent properties and boasts 17 guest rooms, a tennis court and two swimming pools. A third pool was filled in to create a parking lot.

Christine shrugs. “Every house in Durban has a pool, what can you do?”

Despite arriving to live a comfortable life in a country not yet switched on to environmental issues, Christine dutifully stuck to what she had learnt back home in Frankfurt.

Rubbish was separated into glass, plastic and paper. Once the kitchen was redone, four chutes were fitted to make the separation of garbage easier and more hygienic.

In the kitchen, the cooking hub is fuelled by gas and there is no microwave.

Two fridges and two freezers are used for chilling food, but for the most part, the family buys food as fresh as possible.

Says Christine: “We have to get bread, and fruit and vegetables, fresh every day, and we do the same with meat and fish.”

Showers were fitted with special heads to ensure the water comes down “as a mist not a waterfall”.

Security is important to the Richter family. Top-of-the-range electric fences were installed around the property, along with an electric gate so that guests feel safe enough to refrain from locking their doors at night. Indeed, Christine feels so safe behind her gates that she leaves her keys in the car.

Selected outside lights are kept switched on all night to illuminate the pathways between the properties for guests.

But then 2009 came and, with it, massive increases in electricity prices. Suddenly the game changed for the Richters, whose electricity bill shot up by two-thirds to an average R17 000 a month.

“I’ve always talked to the kids about switching off lights when they are not in the room, but now it became crucial,” says Christine. “Do you know how many bums I have to get into these beds to pay that
electricity bill?”

The swimming pool pumps were now only used during the day and more laundry lines were put up under roofed verandas to cut back on tumble dryer time. One by one, Christine is replacing all the property’s electric geysers with solar ones, and the staff know to switch off television sets and not leave them on standby mode.

But for a competitive guesthouse, marrying environmental concerns with professional standards is not as easy as swopping ordinary light bulbs for low-energy ones.

In order to keep her five-star rating, all the rooms at Summerhill are required to have bar fridges and air conditioning.

But such energy-sapping luxuries are for paying guests only.
“We don’t have aircon in our rooms? That is why we live in Africa. If you want cold, you can move back to Germany.”

Despite living with three children, all with driver’s licences, the Richters own just one car – a Golf 5 GTI.

For the first time in our interview, this sassy businesswoman can’t justify one of her lifestyle choices in terms of low-energy consumption. Christine loves her gas-guzzling speed machine.

“I wanted a black Volkswagen and the Golf 5 GTI was the only one they had,” she says with a guilty smile.

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