Swartberg Holiday Home

PHOTOS Richard Davies PRODUCTION Mercedes Jaen WORDS Tracy Greenwood


London-based Jennifer Beningfield, the owner and architect of A Karoo Gem, shares her love of the Swartberg and the house she built.

Swartberg is extraordinary. It is time-consuming to get to Prince Albert, which has, to an extent, protected the things that make the area special. The light on the mountains changes from hour to hour and day to day. There is very little light pollution, so the night sky is profoundly beautiful.

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I love Prince Albert. I was offered the land in a private sale through a friend and could not resist the site with its dramatic views of the mountains. It is within walking distance of Prince Albert, but also has the sense of being remote and connected to the Karoo landscape.

There was nothing on the site to begin with. A goal of the project was to make a truly contemporary building that had something of the texture and depth of an old building and reflected the agricultural history of the site.

I believe we need to build in a contemporary way that reflects the time we are living in and not an inappropriate nostalgia for time past or remote locations. I design from first principles, from appropriate materials, the qualities of the site and the details of everyday life.

This house was created by spending time in the town and on site, feeling the sun and the wind, and then associating the functional spaces with the landscape.

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Space and volume are important. The living space is a 5,7m-high perfect cube, which allows cooling winds to blow in through the high-level shutters. Most of the ceilings are relatively high at 3,1m, and the library bedroom is 4,2m high, so spaces are differentiated and expand and contract as you move through the house.

I like to work with natural materials – stone, brick, glass, concrete, wood. These tend to last longer than the alternatives, weather gracefully and look better over time. They are also more environmentally sustainable.

I wanted a single flooring material used throughout to create an ambiguity about what is inside and what is outside. Dark paving bricks are laid in patterns to introduce variety and texture, as well as to define different spaces.

In several historical agricultural buildings in Prince Albert, similar slot windows to the ones in my home appear as ventilation gaps. I have always been intrigued by the light patterns they cast, so it seemed appropriate to position the slot windows according to the constellation patterns visible from the house. I placed LED lighting strips within the window framing, so these slot windows are also light sources at night.

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My most treasured item in this house is the large cardboard box my daughter has been drawing on and decorating since we moved in.

The house was not designed as a perfectly balanced architectural object, but has a loose structure (like a landscape that can be added to). Because the spaces and volumes are layered and inflected relative to one another, it is easy to imagine adding more spaces over time.

This house shows it is possible to build an elegant, contemporary, environmentally responsive house on a limited budget in a climate that has extremes of heat and cold, a house that offers its inhabitants a poetic connection with the landscape.

Visit openstudioarchitects.com for more information.