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.
“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.
“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.
- 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.