An architect’s weekend getaway on an ancient meteorite crater south of Johannesburg reprises traditional building techniques to create a sleek, sustainable house that provides a glimpse of a possible future.
Architect Xavier Huyberechts has a wonderfully poetic way of describing the way he designed the weekend getaway he and his brother, Damien, built on their farm in the Vredefort Dome – the oldest and biggest meteorite impact site on the planet. He wanted to “gently lift the carpet at the bottom of the hill and slide the house underneath”.
And that’s exactly what he’s done. A green roof runs seamlessly from the hillside and over the house, like a blanket of earth that renders it almost invisible from many angles. In fact, the way it has been designed and built means it can – and will, at the end of its life – disintegrate and become reabsorbed into the earth. It’s made almost entirely from the earth, and emphatically for the earth.
Xavier runs a commercial architectural practice in Johannesburg known for pioneering sustainable architecture. With Damien taking on the role of building contractor, they set about creating an earth house using local materials. It may be built of stacked stone, rammed earth, handmade compacted earth bricks and earth bags, but this is no Hobbit burrow. Beneath that green roof is a clean-lined, low-slung, modernist-inspired villa, with lofty volumes and floor-to- ceiling glass doors that slide away into wall cavities and open the house completely to the surrounding landscape.
It’s impossible to take in the whole of the house at once. Rather than having a “long flat façade” of glass facing the view, Xavier and Damien have broken down the front of the building into a series of blocks, making it appear much smaller than it is, and knitting it into the surroundings rather than perching it on top to survey them. Once you’re inside, the house opens up – from the entrance hall, the high-volume living area draws in the view. As you head towards the bedroom wing, however, the volumes shrink. The roof is on one plane, explains Xavier, but the floor follows the natural slope of the land, creating cosier, more intimate spaces closer to the hillside.
Just as the architecture becomes part of the landscape, so the furniture becomes an extension of the architecture, and the brothers designed the built-in sofas and cabinets in a way that makes you feel as if you’re sitting on the ground. The granite floors, too, seem of the earth itself – and are a key part of the way the house functions in harmony with nature. Xavier explains the “thermal amplitude” of the climate here: the huge temperature variations, particularly in winter, can be harnessed to make artificial heating and cooling unnecessary. The massive granite floor slabs soak up the sun all day, and radiate warmth into the rooms at night. “Often, when guests walk barefoot at night, and go from the kitchen area, which is cold stone, towards the windows, they ask, ‘Did you put underfloor heating in?’” says Xavier.
At the heart of the home, among all the straight lines, is a sunken dome with no windows – only a skylight at its apex. Apart from serving as an organically shaped counterpoint to all the sleek lines, the dome was an experiment using earth-bag construction. Like a lot of what the building tries to achieve, it’s both simple and advanced. Xavier hopes the house will change perceptions of earth houses more broadly. As much as he wanted to demonstrate that the techniques and materials he’s built with can look sleek and modern, he also wanted to prove to locals that the vernacular techniques they were familiar with have value. “The reason they were building with earth was because it was the right thing to do,” says Xavier. “Those techniques evolved over millennia.” He speaks of the science and “climatic integration” of earth houses. Of course, as is the case with this home, old techniques and natural materials can be taken in new directions. “You can do it in a far more modern way,” he says. “And we hope that, by adding a grain of sand to the pile, we can slowly shift perceptions.”