Architect Lee de Wit and his relatives work together to create a getaway where nearly everything in sight tells a story.
More than a decade ago, Lee and Lauren de Wit moved to a rural hamlet northwest of Johannesburg with their son, Leo. Lee’s family had long cultivated this land—in fact, the original farmhouse had been inhabited by his grandfather—but the structure had been torn apart by the years.
“It’s a beautiful, lush area with a stream running through it,” Lee says. “It’s set within the Cradle of Humankind, a UNESCO World Heritage site.”
As an architect, Lee is used to thinking about how a project relates to its location, and balancing a building’s form with its surroundings in a delicate dance of materials and light. When he considered this dilapidated farmhouse, it felt as if those stakes of give-and-take were somehow higher. This was his family’s home, a place where relatives lived and worked together for a century—and it rested on soil where humanity’s ancestors once stood.
If he were to update the farmhouse, he decided that he would aim for it to speak for the past and present on a personal yet universal level. That’s a lot to ask—so for years, the farmhouse stayed untouched.
It wasn’t until 2016 that Lee and his family decided to move ahead with a renovation—only they were going to do it under specific terms. “We gave ourselves the task of reusing every available material possible,” he says. “Through the process of making something new out of an existing fabric, we sought to root the property in history against the backdrop of indigenous wilderness.”
The bulk of the floor plan was present, he says, as were most of the materials. It was just a matter of figuring out what should go where. Lee imagined that the farmhouse would be converted into an oversized kitchen and living space overlooking an expansive garden, where family and guests could grow vegetables and source herbs without needing to go into the city.
There would be necessities like a bedroom and two bathrooms, as well as luxuries like an outdoor shower and a lounge. “I wasn’t thinking that this would be a house for anyone in particular,” he says. “I wanted it to have a wider purpose of connecting its occupants to nature and history.”
Over the course of four years, whenever he, his family, and their relatives had time, they would build the farmhouse together. “My father taught me how to build a house,” Lee says. “The words ‘food’ and ‘kitchen’ are basically interchangeable with my mother to me, while my brother Wesley taught me what a garden is.”
The original barn became the footprint for the kitchen and living space, which they reinforced with a concrete skeleton, while the garage became a bedroom. The family filled out the rest using whatever materials they could find on-site.
Lee and his family cleaned up old bricks and repurposed them in walls, and they cut the existing rafters to cast a steeper structural pitch. The roof was riddled with holes, but Lee discovered that a lightweight concrete could repair and insulate it.
His father, meanwhile, cut planks from fallen oak and eucalyptus trees nearby, and then let them dry out for a year. Then they installed the eucalyptus as floorboards, used the oak to cover the walls and ceilings, and added the offcuts to the kitchen counter. That’s just a small part of all the ways the family found solutions in their surroundings.
“The problem of discarded waste became a solution,” Lee says. “We had to think creatively on how to reinvent different approaches to conventional norms—the biggest difficulty was how to make a homogenous whole.”
Nearly every inch of the home and garden is a patchwork of repurposed souvenirs—and if there’s something new, it has a story. For instance, the bathroom is enclosed in pink vinyl sheets to provide privacy, and it also resembles the horizon at sunrise and sunset. The kitchen backsplash reflects the shades of the recycled trees, and the bedroom overlooks the retaining walls that the family built for pastures long ago.
“Time wasn’t the determining factor of this project,” Lee says, noting that it was finished in 2020. “We focused on the concept of sustainability, and four years gives an indication of that commitment.”
Architect of Record: Lee de Wit
Builder: Q-bic Construction