Restoring Karoo Architecture

Architecture
Architecture
An old Karoo farmhouse, waiting to be loved back to life.

Words by Julienne du Toit

Photographs by Chris Marais

In this dry land with its scorching summers and frozen winters, houses that were built by hand a hundred years ago with simple mud, reeds and stone are often still standing.

More than that: they breathe and flex like living things. The dry environment, extreme as it is, has shaped them, tempered them and mostly preserved them.

In the Karoo you will still find houses with peach pip floors, sash windows, mud plaster, sun-baked clay bricks, cross- and Bible doors, broekie lace fretwork and real shutters. Veranda roofs are distinctively curved into shapes that resemble billowing canvas, in styles called bell-cast, bull-nose and regency.

Architecture
A beautifully restored old house in Prince Albert, with bull-nose verandah roof.

“Karoo houses are aesthetically pleasing. They’re good investments, people are nostalgic about them and, quite honestly, they’re just nicer houses to live in,” says Graaff-Reinet architect Peter Whitlock.

He ascribes the ‘niceness’ to the high ceilings, pleasing proportions and natural materials.

Port Elizabeth-based architect, artist and Karoo lover Theresa Hardman also admired the proportions when she was doing her Master’s thesis on Karoo farmhouses in the Eastern Cape.

“These are handcrafted old buildings. They have a simplicity, an elegance, a sense of space and internal volume from high ceilings, and thermal efficiency.

Architecture
An old house in Murraysburg, before it was restored.

“One of the worst mistakes new owners can make is to change the proportions of the original openings – using big sliding windows, for example, or unbalancing the building by adding on thoughtlessly. Or even by cutting off the house from the road by high walls or palisades.”

TIPS ON RENOVATING KAROO HOUSES

  • Don’t over-restore. Keep it simple.
    Restoration
    Ask advice before restoring a Karoo house.
  • Ask for advice from local people who know about Karoo houses.
  • Your biggest expense is time, since building materials of the older Karoo houses (mud, sand, whitewash) are very cheap.
  • Don’t try for perfect finishes. Don’t remove old mouldings or cornices.
  • In most cases you can plaster (or re-plaster) with mud, sand and cover with whitewash.
  • Brakdak roofs consist of a thick layer of dry mud containing alkaline salts atop a wooden ceiling or if even older, atop poplar beams and Spanish reed. The hardened mud shrugs off moisture and provides superb insulation. Removal of this ‘dirt’ only leads to ceilings curling up and leaking heat, cold and rain.
  • For a generation of handymen raised on Polyfilla, the mud plaster is hard to fathom. Don’t even attempt to put cement plaster onto a mud wall. The two materials repel one another.
  • For more information, consult the Prince Albert Cultural Foundation on paculturalfoundation@gmail.com.

16 thoughts on “Restoring Karoo Architecture

  1. Graham says:

    We recently visited the Karoo and were astounded at the number of abandoned farm houses. I’m a photographer and artist so was in my seventh heaven taking dozens of shots for painting – two of which I’ve since completed. Old shacks fascinate me so please don’t restore too many as the delapadated ones are the most beautiful 🙂

  2. Marika Bell says:

    I would also like to be on your mailing list. Have learnt a lot restoring and old farm house in the Karoo. Still struggling with some aspects. The Laingsburg flood reached to top of doors in 1981. Someone before us restored with cement and it is pulling away 🙁

  3. Chris Serfontein says:

    We purchased a sandstone house in Oudtshoorn build app 1900. Unfortunately it has been painted. Can the paint be removed cost effectively without damaging the sandstone profiles.
    We will appreciate your advice. Alternatively must we paint again.

  4. Alex Hill says:

    Interesting, and important, article. I was lucky enough to meet Gawie and Gwen Fagan when I collected my copy of Brakdak: Flatroofs in the Karoo. In the many Karoo towns I have visited, the decay is, sadly, noticeable. Graaff-Reinet impressed me the most. Nevertheless, each town has its own charm, and snapping away at old buildings is a highlight. I admire the conservation projects, eg undertaken by Prof Walter Peters & others at the University of the Free State, which cover towns such as Richmond, Hanover and Victoria West.

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