This heritage renovation is getting our heart rate up

Balancing the scales with subtle intervention and respectful conservation, this Cape farmhouse restoration by a rockstar architecture duo has scooped an international award.

Scrolling through our Insta feeds the other day we stopped to hover over images of Buffelsdrift, a droolworthy heritage restoration outside of Ladismith in the Western Cape that showcases the level of talent in our local design industry. When we read that the project had just won gold at the seventh edition of the international Domus Restoration and Conservation Awards in Italy we were filled with a sense of pride. The award is a major credit to the project and recognizes excellence in the field of restoration, redevelopment and architectural and landscape recovery at an international level.

What you’ll notice first about the series of buildings that make up Buffelsdrift Farm (Vyversrus) is their architectural heritage, a Cape vernacular that we have become accustomed to seeing, and celebrating, in this country which manifests in barn style buildings, thatched roofs, limewashed walls and the handsome curvature of often elaborate gable ends. 

Restoration is one thing, but few have managed to marry the humbling history that these buildings convey with a sense of the here and the now, a true match of old and new that excites and moves the viewer while staying true to context and history. It’s safe to say Buffelsdrift is exactly that. 

The wizards behind this alchemy include SAOTA and Robertson based Jaco Booyens Architect with interiors by ARRCC. The collaboration between the two architects scored them one of only two Domus gold medals, the other of which was for the restoration of the façade of the church of Santa Maria Di Nazareth (Vulgo Degli Scalzi) in Venice by Giorgio and Ilaria Forti.

The buildings restored include a main house which dates back to 1852, its two barns and a store, together with a flat-roofed wine store. Barring a handful of unsatisfactory 1970s alterations that had to be removed in order to bring the buildings back to their original language, they were generally in good shape and ripe for a project of this scale.  An entirely new addition in the form of a pump house has been added for irrigation purposes which departs from the style of the other buildings entirely.

A considerable amount of heritage studies and archival research went into the planning of Buffelsdrift. Discoveries were made, such as the door lock of the main house which is French and dates back to the 1700’s. The most decorative gable on the property was curiously discovered at the rear of the main house and is a fine example of a holbol (concavo-convex) style gable with circular capping and a string-moulded bottom chord. 

In the old wine store – now a dwelling that has us wanting to move in – the floors have been replaced with stone sourced from site while the ceiling is finished with rietdak divided by poplar beams, all of them honest materials that promote a sense of authenticity. The new living area and kitchen on the ground floor are connected to the mezzanine bedroom and bathroom by an entirely new staircase. Concerned with how to best “insert new fabric into old fabric” as SAOTA director Greg Truen who bought the property in 2016 put it, the team opted for a staircase that sits apart from the building in all but two places. In this way, the steel structure is a distinctly new addition, rather than an attempt at heritage mimicry and sits mostly behind a light timber screen. 

With the same modern approach, the narrow bathroom upstairs features a laser-cut steel ceiling and bold terrazzo floors and walls. A handsome poplar bench runs the length of the bathroom hugging the tall windows and connecting the aesthetic back to a more historic language through its use of solid timber. The bathroom steals glorious views over the orchard beyond and as such, the architects chose not to separate bedroom and bathroom with a door but a wide opening instead.

The interiors in both the old wine store and the main house are a beguiling mix of historic furniture and overtly contemporary pieces; with the latter providing something of an electric pulse to the scene, the two styles sit comfortably side by side. Many of the items of furniture were designed by OKHA, whilst the terrazzo floors and cladding in the kitchen and bathrooms were crafted by Cannata.

Completely concealed from the street and built into the ground with an earth roof is the pump house. Here, the team leaned in to their bent for modern architecture with a refined mud structure that marries traditional building techniques and materials with an obviously contemporary and slick language. Thanks to its unpainted, poured mud walls, the building harmoniously settles into its surroundings despite the departure in architectural language. Jaco Booyens, who specializes in green architecture and mud building techniques in particular notes: “you could almost say it’s a primitive form of working with concrete, but instead of concrete, we worked with mud.” Thanks to its one-metre-thick walls and steel waterspouts that sit well clear of the walls, the building can handle just about anything the local climate throws at it.

Where the team have departed from the predominant Cape vernacular, they’ve done so with intention and careful thought around how the new would tie in with the old. Sensitively, but not without some bold moves, the architects have laid out a visual narrative that charts the farm’s history right up until this moment in time.

WORDS: Mila-Crewe Brown
IMAGES: Adam Letch

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