The Swartberg House: A Passive Solar House in South Africa

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This home on the edge of the Great Karoo in South Africa was brilliantly designed by Openstudio Architects. Its creative details and integration with the site make it truly special. I rarely see a project that responds as well to its site as this one does.

When you see the house, the first thing you notice is the broken-up appearance of the exterior; a hint at the flexibility inherent in the home. The spaces are arranged in such a way as to take advantage of the many views and to allow cooling breezes to flow using passive solar principles.

Passive solar: a way of heating and cooling a building by either rejecting or collecting, storing, and distributing warmth from the sun based on seasonal needs.

Key to the passive solar design of this house are the large sliding glass doors and shutters. In the heat of summer, the doors can be left open and the shutters closed to block the summer sun while still allowing a cooling breeze to flow through. In winter the doors are closed and the shutters opened to allow the sun to penetrate. The brick floor retains the heat from the sun and slowly releases it back into the house, warming it at night. Take a look at the animation showing how it works right here. It's quite clever; the versatility allows the owners to adjust the home to suit their comfort.

My favorite details are the small punctures in the outer walls that follow the paths of stars in constellations (visible from the roof at night) and allow light to enter during the day. The detail is brought inside as well: incorporated into the bookcases. There is also a fire pit on the roof that extends evening activities into the cool hours. Once the fire dies down this is a place for truly spectacular star gazing.

The materials chosen are particularly lovely. Rough-cast plaster walls set off the American White Ash sliding screens beautifully (incidentally, American White Ash was the only imported material used as no sustainable African timber was available in the quantities needed). And the stacked stone walls of the garden bridge the precise structure of the house with the wildness of the garden and landscape, transitioning you smoothly from indoor to outdoor.

This is a completely unique response to a fantastic location. Openstudio Architects took a creative approach to every detail, and the result is simply stunning.

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Design: Openstudio Architects | Photography: Richard Davies