A Minimalist Retreat at the Edge of South Africa's Karoo Desert

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By Aileen Kwun
Using local materials and building methods, a London-based firm crafts a serene home in South Africa.

Varied conditions mark the Great Karoo, a semi-desert region in South Africa where climates are dry, rainfall is sparse, and temperatures range from extremes of heat and cold—but the sky is always clear. 

These factors were of utmost importance for London-based firm Openstudio Architects, who designed a retreat on the outskirts of Prince Albert, a town that sits near a pass of the Swartberg mountain range. The owners, David Jenkins, a publisher, and Jennifer Beningfield, a founder of Openstudio, desired a structure that could stand up to the area's significant changes in light, heat, and wind throughout the seasons, all the while connecting to the surrounding natural landscape, which was previously the site of a sheep farm.

A Minimalist Retreat at the Edge of South Africa's Karoo Desert - Photo 1 of 6 - London-based firm Openstudio Architects designed a retreat on the outskirts of Prince Albert, a town that sits near a pass of the Swartberg mountain range in South Africa. 

London-based firm Openstudio Architects designed a retreat on the outskirts of Prince Albert, a town that sits near a pass of the Swartberg mountain range in South Africa. 

Working with local builders and materials, the architects designed using a minimal but robust palette of brick, ash, local roughcast lime-washed plaster, and white ceramic tiles, all of which "connect the home with the traditional building style in the Karoo," the architects said. 

A Minimalist Retreat at the Edge of South Africa's Karoo Desert - Photo 2 of 6 - Soaring ceilings and a fireplace mark the home's main living area.

Soaring ceilings and a fireplace mark the home's main living area.

A Minimalist Retreat at the Edge of South Africa's Karoo Desert - Photo 3 of 6 - Openstudio worked with local builders, using a palette of regional materials: patterned brick, white ceramic tiles, and roughcast lime-washed plaster. Custom built-ins accentuate the linear light and shadow cast by the elongated windows.

Openstudio worked with local builders, using a palette of regional materials: patterned brick, white ceramic tiles, and roughcast lime-washed plaster. Custom built-ins accentuate the linear light and shadow cast by the elongated windows.

A consistent application of materials and colors blurs boundaries between inside and out. Patterned brick-on-edge floors extend into the outdoor courtyard, and plaster walls line interior and exterior surfaces alike. In tandem with double-glazed windows and large wooden sliding doors that can be completely shuttered or opened as needed, all work to optimize the home's passive solar gains.

A Minimalist Retreat at the Edge of South Africa's Karoo Desert - Photo 4 of 6 - A series of narrow, vertical window openings punctuate the thick-walled facade of the structure, which is optimized for passive solar gains (left). A consistent application of surface materials throughout the interior and courtyard bridge the connection between indoors and out (right).

A series of narrow, vertical window openings punctuate the thick-walled facade of the structure, which is optimized for passive solar gains (left). A consistent application of surface materials throughout the interior and courtyard bridge the connection between indoors and out (right).

Clusters of elongated, double-glazed windows punctuate the thick and hardy, opaque walls. "A harvester of light and air," as the architects describe it, the home is a testament to traditional building techniques tailored to weather the the region's mutable climate. By day, it's bathed with artful, linear compositions of shadow and light; and by evening, atop the upper roof terraces, the residents can enjoy a view of the star-lit night, dependent on nothing else but the clear desert sky.

A Minimalist Retreat at the Edge of South Africa's Karoo Desert - Photo 5 of 6 - By day, the home's rectilinear windows cast an artful composition of linear shadow and light.

By day, the home's rectilinear windows cast an artful composition of linear shadow and light.

A Minimalist Retreat at the Edge of South Africa's Karoo Desert - Photo 6 of 6 - A view of the home by night, beneath the clear and starry desert sky.

A view of the home by night, beneath the clear and starry desert sky.

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