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Naturally cooled, this desert eco home has a poetic connection to the landscape

Environmentally responsive and able to withstand intense heat, this architect-designed home in the Great Karoo is an oasis of calm

south african eco home november issue 2018
Elsa Young/Frank Features

Dubbed one of the quietest places on earth, the Great Karoo is a vast semi-desert region in South Africa where heat, frost, drought and floods are experienced in almost biblical proportions. And yet, when London-based, South African-born Jennifer Beningfield, founder of Openstudio Architects, and her husband, publisher David Jenkins, were shown an available piece of land here a couple of years ago, they didn’t hesitate to buy.

‘We have holidayed in the Karoo for the last ten to fifteen years,’ says Jennifer, who travels here at least three times a year with her husband and six-year-old daughter. ‘It’s a remote, ancient place, where the light on the mountains changes from hour to hour. With very little light pollution, the night sky is profoundly beautiful.’

eco home desert s africa november 2018
Elsa Young/Frank Features

Set against the dramatic Swartberg mountains, the house has a sense of remoteness, despite being within walking distance of the arty town of Prince Albert. Jennifer’s vision was for a contemporary structure that would mimic the texture and depth of much older buildings. ‘As part of my design process, I spent a lot of time on the site, feeling the sun and wind in an attempt to associate spaces with the terrain,’ she says.

Essentially a 5.7-metre-high square cube, the living space has windows and shutters located near the ceiling that allow heat to escape and cool breezes to enter. Orientated east to west, the principal rooms in the house all face north, and therefore soak up the full force of the sun. Limewashed, rough-cast render on the brick walls remains cool even in extreme temperatures, while dark brick floors are an important part of the house’s thermal strategy, absorbing the heat of the day and releasing it at night.

eco home desert s africa november 2018
Elsa Young/Frank Features

The property is laid out over two floors, with the entrance located off a front courtyard planted with acacia trees – in the future, the greenery will provide much-needed shade for visitors. Step inside, and you are welcomed by a large, open-plan living, dining and kitchen area that leads out onto another courtyard. This more informal outdoor space links to the pool and the surrounding thorn trees and scrub. In order to blend in with the landscape, the garden has been planted with bushes and plants which attract the local birds, butterflies and bees. There are also two bedrooms on the ground floor, with a further two small guest rooms and a roof terrace on the upper level. The terrace is the ideal spot for stargazing at night.

eco home desert s africa november 2018
Elsa Young/Frank Features

‘My favourite room in the house is undoubtedly the main living space,’ says Jennifer. ‘It looks north towards the acacia trees and south towards the Swartberg mountains.’ The sliding doors that lead to the front and rear courtyards align perfectly with one another, so that you can look straight through the house from one end to the other and out across the Karoo. ‘The last time we were here, both doors were open and two large birds flew right through the living room,’ adds Jennifer. ‘I like that our home has become so much a part of the landscape.’ openstudioarchitects.com

For the full house tour see ELLE Decoration November 2018

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