Feature

Solar system

Most people scour real estate websites in search of the perfect property, but Jennifer Beningfield has designed and built her own piece of paradise. She talks to Well Home editor, Liz Terry


Read on turning pages | Download PDF | sign up to CLAD

Juggling a busy global architectural practice in London with family life, South African Jennifer Beningfield finds balance on regular trips to her holiday home in the Great Karoo desert – one of the most ancient places on earth.

Called the Swartberg House, the property looks out over the wild desert, where mongoose, tortoise, hares and aardvark roam free. It’s a 24 journey from London and a four and a half hour drive from Cape Town, so the family blocks out time and goes for eight weeks each year.

The magic of the vast landscape and soaring backdrop of the Swartberg Mountains was central to the decision by Jennifer to buy the land – previously a remote sheep farm – and to build a family home there.

“It’s important for people to be rooted in place,” she says. “This is a very special house, with powerful connections to nature and we go there to de-stress, to de-clutter and to tune in to the natural environment.”

Equal priorities on these precious visits are resting and recharging and spending time with friends and family, as Jennifer explains: “We lack time in London to connect with people over a period of a few days, just to be able to relax and be together. We often have guests while we’re in South Africa and that’s very special.

“The house has been designed with lots of spaces to retreat to, as well as spaces to socialise,” she says, “So it’s a place that really reaches out to people.”

Recharging is also a big part of the family’s time in Africa. A lap pool – an ‘oasis in the desert’ – is perfect for both daily exercise and cooling off in the heat, which can reach 40°C in summer, while a nearby yoga studio in the small town of Prince Albert offers regular classes.

The pool is enclosed by a stone wall which was chosen to match the colour of the mountains behind. It also recalls the dry stone enclosures which are used for livestock in the local area and is intended to provide a secluded world for contemplation by blocking out all distractions.

HIKING AND HORSE RIDING
“We get out into the environment,” says Jennifer. “There are beautiful walks. We climb and go hiking in the mountains, and our daughter loves to go horse riding.

“The garden is also very important. We wanted to use the landscaping to heal the land, as it had been over-farmed and needed to be regenerated.

“The new planting has been really successful,” she says with a smile. “It’s attracting lots of bees. We also created an orchard and have started to pick our first fruit – pomegranates, plums, peaches, figs, grapefruit, lemons, oranges and kumquats, and we enjoy this fresh-grown food.”

An outdoor seating snug is a focus for social time, with the area screened from the harsh west light in the summer and from the wind which blows on hot afternoons. A fire circle warms on cooler days and into the evenings.

SUSTAINABLE BUILDING
The location meant building sustainably was always going to be the best option, but Jennifer says it was also the right thing to do and a fundamental part of the philosophy of the project: “The house is very remote,” she says. “Being self-sufficient was an important part of the plan, so we created a solar house which is cooled by natural ventilation.”

A low-tech emphasis meant using ancient cooling methods to keep the house from overheating in the fierce summers.

The building has been designed to trap the cold desert air at night to avoid the use of air conditioning, as she explains: “The fabric of the house is the means by which we regulate the temperature inside. The ‘ventilation system’ is operated by us manually opening and closing huge shutters and doors in different parts of the house at different times of the day.

“We open the roof at night and let the cold night air fill the house – it’s a precious resource in the desert – and then we keep the cool night air trapped inside during the day.”

Half meter thick walls protect against the fierce sun and bitter cold and the huge extremes of temperature which can go from a blistering 40°C to minus -6°C between seasons.

In winter, the large windows act as sun-catchers, allowing the dark brick floors to radiate the stored warmth of the sun in the cool evenings. “I grew up in South Africa and understand the climate here well,” she says.

“To design this way, you have to know the angles of the sun and direction of the winds at different times of year and use these to create shade and to ventilate. We effectively made the building so it responds to the environment.”

RHYTHMS OF NATURE
This low-tech approach has other benefits in terms of life at the Swartberg House. “The technology is manual,” explains Jennifer, “We have to adjust the house ourselves throughout the day and be aware of the environment around us.

“This connects our body’s rhythms to the rhythms of nature – the house brings the two into harmony and so to live here, you need to stop and breathe and connect.

“While technology can be helpful, the consequences of relying on it as a society to heat and cool our buildings means we’re not taking responsibility for our actions,” she says. “In choosing this very manual cooling process, we’ve removed the separation which is caused by technology.”

The outcome is a more calm and mindful way of living. “This house is about embedding people in the world and connecting them to nature,” she says.

“The design also connects the building to the place,” she explains. “It was laid out to give views of the landscape, with the huge picture windows facing the mountains.”

PLAYING WITH LIGHT
Many people take a view of ‘the more the better’ when it comes to deciding on lighting sources in their homes, and many modern homes are extremely bright, but the Swartberg house takes a more subtle approach, with shadow and shade being valued just as much as brightness.

“Sometimes we roll back the shutters and open the huge windows and flood the house with light,” says Jennifer, “But at other times, we long for shade and a rest from the sun.”

The house has a series of small scattered openings, which allow shafts of light to penetrate into the shadows, and these have been carefully configured according to the positions of stars in constellations which are visible from the upper roof terraces.

At night, concealed LED strips integrated into both the external and internal openings illuminate the interior, while from outside, the house is lit with an irregular pattern that’s also in sympathy with the scattering of stars in the dark skies.

The series of large elevated roof terraces embrace an openness to the sky and are used as gathering places on warm summer evenings. They give far views of the mountains and bring people closer to the clear, star-filled skies.

“The Great Karoo has no light pollution,” says Jennifer. “The house is so remote and the humidity levels are so low that the air is clear and the night sky is dramatic – you can see the Milky Way without a telescope.

BUILDING FOR HEALTH
As an architect, Jennifer knew the health of the family would be defined by the quality of the building, so natural materials were used throughout the process and volatile organic compounds were eliminated from the construction.

The 230sq m house was created by local builders for less than £200k. It uses a limited number of robust materials, including brick floors made from local Western Cape clay.

Local crafts were also used – “The house is limewashed inside and outside on roughcast plaster – an ancient material which was applied by hand,” explains Jennifer.

“The house is organically stable, so we get good air quality,” she says, “And the external doors are all double glazed, which is unusual in South African domestic architecture.

“The only material which isn’t local is the wood. Due to sustainability certifications, we couldn’t get FSA certified timber locally, so we used American White Ash from the US.”

The house is ‘geometrically loose’ – not linear. “It bends and flexes to the landscape,” says Jennifer. “I like the idea of change in buildings – they should alter if people’s lives change, and not be so fixed that they inhibit the way they want to live.

“I believe in architecture that’s resolutely contemporary, but also feels ancient and timeless,” she says. “Timelessness is important – we need to find a balance, so the house still works for the people who live there in 200 years’ time.

“When I think about buildings, I imagine the lives which have been lived in them and appreciate how they have a resonance with a particular place and time. Viewing things this way opens up a world which is bigger than you.”

LONDON LIFE
Back in the real world, Jennifer is working on a wide range of projects, including a residential development at Westminster Fire Station in London. Her practice also recently won a RIBA competition to design new mass-market homes for Taylor Wimpey: “I told them they need to put joy into house building,” she says with a smile, “And they listened.

“The idea of generosity is very important to me,” she concludes. “We must design spaces which bring people joy.”

It seems that although the Swartberg House in South Africa is very much a one-off, the spirit which created it will touch and bring joy to many more lives in future years.

The Swartberg House

Floor area: 230sq m

Budget: £200k (2015)

Architects: Openstudio/Jennifer Beningfield

Joiner: Woodgrain

Main contractor: Hendrik De Villiers

Gallery
Click on an image to open the image gallery
company profile
Company profile: Fabio Alemanno Design Ltd
Based on ancient knowledge – and confirmed by scientific research – warmth is one of the most important sources of healing and preventative therapy available.
Try cladmag for free!
Sign up with CLAD to receive our regular ezine, instant news alerts, free digital subscriptions to CLADweek, CLADmag and CLADbook and to request a free sample of the next issue of CLADmag.
sign up
features
Alexandra Champalimaud
Bakos joined Champalimaud in December 2012. He previously worked for the Rockwell Group
"Construction is one of the largest generators of landfill waste, so it is important to create spaces that transcend trends"

It’s time for a new approach to sustainability, argues Champalimaud’s managing director

CLAD people: Kanye West
West announced the donation to the Roden Crater after a recent visit
"We will all live in Turrell spaces one day"

Musician Kanye West to help fund the still unfinished Roden Crater, designed by American artist James Turrell

UNStudio are designing a cultural centre as part of BIG’s EuropaCity development
"I like art that is against the mainstream, slightly off, with a twist"

UNStudio’s co-founder on the unexpected challenges of designing Australia’s tallest skyscraper

Catalogue Gallery
Click on a catalogue to view it online
To advertise in our catalogue gallery: call +44(0)1462 431385
features
Sustainable projects include the University of Washington’s Life Sciences building and the Philips Academy, Snyder Centre
Din has worked on a range of sustainability-focused projects
"It’s imperative the architecture profession takes a proactive approach to tackling the realities of climate change"

Perkins+Will’s new sustainability director

CLAD people: Hannah Beachler
"I fell in love with Zaha Hadid"

Black Panther set designer Hannah Beachler

MVVA are leading the design of the Ralph C. Wilson Jr Centennial Park
Van Valkenburgh studied landscape architecture and fine arts at Cornell University and the University of Illinois
"Building a park is the ultimate act of democracy"

The US landscape architect on why the Obamas are his kind of clients

features
David Polzin is executive director of design at CannonDesign. He studied at Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture
"We were able to create an ‘acoustic shadow’ cutting decibel levels nearly in half"

How to design the perfect community leisure centre 100 13th century pilgrimage The Vietnamese village being created using historic methods

The facility features green terraces and plant-covered villas
"It’s about tracing the evolution of thermal practices"

Eco architect Vincent Callebaut has won a competition to redesign ancient thermal baths in the Savoyard town of Aix-les-Bains, France

cladkit product news
Mater partners with Ditzel family to create eco-friendly furniture using reclaimed plastic
The furniture uses plastic from recycled fishing nets
Lauren Heath-Jones
Mater, an ethical design brand based in Denmark, has launched a furniture collection made from plastic reclaimed from the ocean. ...
Water inspires Zaha Hadid Design x Rosenthal collaboration
The collection consists of three smaller collections: Weave, Strip and Lapp. Weave was inspired by 'the fluid lines of Zaha Hadid's sketching hand'
Lauren Heath-Jones
Zaha Hadid Design has partnered with porcelain manufacturer Rosenthal to create a new collection of vases. Called the Lapp collection, ...
Paul Kelley pushes 'technical boundaries' with modular furniture cube system
The system is designed to enable users to create multifunctional, adaptable pieces, where they are in complete control of the design and function of their furniture
Lauren Heath-Jones
British designer Paul Kelley has created a modular magnetic cube furniture system that enables users to create multifunctional, adaptable pieces, ...
cladkit product news
Baux creates plant-based acoustic panels
Baux has worked with scientists from the Royal Institute of Technology to create Baux Acoustic Pulp, a plant-derived acoustic solution
Lauren Heath-Jones
Baux, an acoustic products brand based in Sweden, has developed a line of biodegradable acoustic panels, using a plant-based material ...
David Rockwell partners with Jim Thompson for dream-inspired fabric collection
Rockwell has designed 12 multi-use fabrics inspired by dreams with long-time collaborator Jim Thompson
Lauren Heath-Jones
Renowned architect David Rockwell has created a collection of fabrics with long-time collaborator Jim Thompson. Called Dreams, the collection was ...
Alusid's Sequel collection combines craftsmanship and sustainability says founder
The Sequel collection is billed as the 'most waste-efficient and sustainable' on the market
Lauren Heath-Jones
Alusid, a creator of eco-friendly surfaces, has partnered with Parkside to launch the Sequel range, the brand's first collection of ...
cladkit product news
BD Barcelona Design reveals Cristallo by the late Alessandro Mendini
Cristallo was the last design from acclaimed designer and architect Alessandro Mendini
Lauren Heath-Jones
Design Studio BD Barcelona Design has released Cristallo, a limited-edition cabinet designed by the late architect and designer Alessandro Mendini, ...
Tom Dixon Studio to relaunch iconic Pylon chair
Pylon was first designed more than 20 years ago
Lauren Heath-Jones
Originally conceived in his metal workshop in the early 90's, the Pylon chair was Dixon's attempt to create the world's ...
Volvo partners with Reef Lab Designs to encourage ocean biodiversity
The tiles are made from marine-grade concrete and recycled plastic fibres
Lauren Heath-Jones
Car manufacturer Volvo has partnered with the Sydney Institute of Marine Science and Reef Design Lab to create an environmentally-friendly ...