Before and After: The School

INTERVIEWED BY Cheri Morris IMAGES Colin Stephenson (After)

What was once a farm school that stood vacant for more than two decades in Rheenendal, near Knysna, is now the rustic, homely residence of Janet Meintjes.

Janet, together with builder Richard Isaacs and architect Philip Nel of Inizio Homes, have created a space, aptly named The School, that honours the old, embraces the new and functions as a host space with accommodation for creative/healing workshops and retreats. We chatted to Janet to find out more about the renovation process.

What was the original structure comprised of and what was your vision for the renovation?

The original structure was an old farm school built around 1935 for the children of farm labourers and forestry workers in the area. The building was a typical school building of that time: two simple oblong buildings of brick and mortar with high-pitched roofs, sash windows and oregon pine floors. The vision was then to figure out how to partition the large, open spaces without sacrificing or altering the age and integrity of the building, seamlessly marrying the old and new.

The building is now complete (since July 2019) and the result is really fabulous. We added wrap-around verandahs that are ± 2.5 metres wide with steps leading up to the front of the house and one large, deep step at the back. We removed the ceilings to expose the original oregon trusses. The main structural change was to raise the level of the original school toilets (which were at the back of the one building) and to build up the space to the same level as the rest of the building. This addition became my kitchen and scullery.

What was the inspiration behind the interiors?

My source of inspiration is always colour. I spend a lot of time in the mountains and forests and knew I wanted my home to reflect those colours: the blue-greys of rock and lichen and all the tones of green.

I was also inspired by the original exterior walls that were painted in two different colours. I carried this idea into the interior of the main open-plan living area, consisting of the kitchen/scullery, living/dining room and main bedroom. Various shades of green and sage dominate the living/kitchen and bedroom spaces, while the bathrooms feature klompie brick floors, Cemcrete walls, exposed copper pipes and old brass fittings.

Do you have a favourite spot within the new space?

My favourite space is my studio – it was one of the original schoolrooms. We removed the ceilings and stripped the plaster off the upper half of the walls to expose the beautiful old red bricks. A huge sliding barn door made from Japanese Cedar opens up almost the entire front wall, which looks out onto the garden and open fields. The studio is filled with fresh air, gentle light and the calls of so many birds, including the Knysna turaco (lourie).

This is the room that lives up to the The School’s name. Apart from serving as my own painting studio, it is also used as a workshop space – a space for learning and growth.  We have hosted a Memoir Writing course with writer Dawn Garisch, an Art Workshop with Master Printer John Moore and more recently an Alignment Therapy course with Jen Rorrison. I hope to do many more.

Tell us about the original rammed earth and dung methods of construction.

A short distance away from the main building is a cottage that must be close to 100 years old.  It was originally built with a combination of mud, straw and dung and we continued to restore it in this fashion. Underneath ± 1 metre of topsoil, we have pure clay in this area. This was used back then and we continue to use it presently, together with cow dung and hay used for fodder, which is readily available from surrounding farms. These materials have proven to stand the test of time remarkably well.

We also reconstituted old bricks by wetting them, as well as made new ones using a mould and a specific mixture of the three ingredients. The floor features a stronger mix of dung and straw and we are almost at the stage where the final layer of a thinner slurry will be laid before being dried and finished with several layers of a linseed oil, beeswax and turps. There is another cottage on the property that used to be the headmaster’s home – I hope to restore it using the same methods.

Tell us how you upcycled items.

We used old lintels from the school chapel for a kitchen surface and found an old church window in Calitzdorp that we put into a bedroom that was once the school’s chapel. We also used old doors for surfaces and old antique cabinets for bathroom vanities – one of these is an antique wooden ice chest.

Where do you see the space going in the future?

The garden will need many years of work and planning. I would love to have large, caged vegetable gardens – this is a necessity because of the baboons and monkeys in the area. I already have a fairly well-established fruit orchard, but the main drawback is that there is no municipal water supply. We rely on rain tanks only, so indigenous, water-savvy plants are the way forward. I am constantly taking cuttings and growing trees from seeds but I may consider getting help with a team of volunteers in the winter months to plot out a ground plan.

Loved this before and after project? Find more here.