Renovated Karoo Farmhouse

PHOTOS Jan Ras PRODUCTION Sumien Brink WORDS Laurian Brown


A renovated 1820s farmhouse near Klaarstroom in the folds of the Swartberg provides a textbook example of how to marry old and new. For architect Marielise van der Merwe, it’s been a dream project.

Marielise van der Merwe’s husband Adriaan bought Gideonshoop four years ago: “somewhere to have a bit of peace and do a bit of farming”, she explains. The farm lies just west of Meiringspoort, deep in the folds of the Swartberg, where the Aapsrivier has carved its own, more modest way down the north slopes. The road to the farm winds with the river through grey Karoo scrub and the occasional sliver of floodplain, greened with pasture, seed onion and lucerne.

“When he saw the house, my husband knew I would be happy because I would have plenty to do!” Indeed. The old farmhouse, a simple T-shaped structure with straight-end gables and tacked-on additions, was derelict. But within its cottage-like exterior there were treasures: yellowwood floors and ceilings, handcrafted doors, and classic fanlights and wall cupboards.

“A lot of people told us to just flatten it and do something from scratch, but I love old things as well as new, and my first thought was that I absolutely wanted to keep the soul and the feel of the house. But I also wanted to make it comfortable to live in and add something modern to it.”

So began a painstaking process of restoration and redesign. The house faced east and needed more sun as well as shelter from the prevailing south wind. Adding a replica of the original north-facing bedroom wing achieved both, and the space between the two wings created an attractive entrance courtyard. The roof was simplified to create a single continuous line along the main axis, and the height was raised to allow for the necessary slope over a new stoep, where the original double door and sash windows were left in place.

To the materials and patterns of the original structure Marielise added a completely modern theme. At its north end, the rustic lines of the old house have been boldly redrawn to create a new living, dining and kitchen area in an airy extension of glass and aluminium that celebrates the space and light of the setting. It is strikingly contemporary, and shows the subconscious influence of Australian architect Glenn Murcutt – Marielise practised as an architect in Sydney for years.

Painted a soft, warm grey, the house blends quietly into the landscape. And the harmony is not merely visual. It’s also designed to “touch the earth lightly” and be as energy-efficient as possible. Double glazing, and cross ventilation via large sliding doors are among of the measures Marielise has used for temperature control. Water heating is via solar energy and slow combustion fires warm the living area in winter.

Architects spend their working lives interpreting the wants of clients. “It was nice to do something for myself for a change,” Marielise says. But the Van der Merwes are not keeping this stylish retreat to themselves. The house now serves as a farm lodge for the newly established De Aap Private Nature Reserve, a perfect place to enjoy and explore this as-yet-little-known corner of the Karoo.