SOSSUSVLEI DESERT LODGE, NAMIBIA
Originally built almost 25 years ago, Sossusvlei Desert Lodge has been transformed into an environmentally friendly oasis in the heart of the Namib Desert. Talking about the inspiration behind the design and the necessity for more sustainable projects within the hospitality sector, the team at Fox Browne Creative tells us what makes Sossusvlei so special.
The original &Beyond Sossusvlei Desert Lodge was built in the mid-1990s. Although avant-garde in its own way, it had a very heavy footprint and was constructed without the consciousness and understanding of the natural environment that we have today. With this redesign we wanted to take the opportunity to extensively refurbish the lodge, update the look and use the same footprint to give it a new lease of life for another 25 years or hopefully even more. With only one lodge in Namibia, &Beyond wants to position Sossusvlei Desert Lodge among the best desert escapes in the world, catering to the demands of today’s luxury adventure traveller.
While we sought to transform and totally reinvigorate the guest experience through the addition of many unique and luxurious features, we simultaneously wanted to reduce the human impact on the landscape. This has been achieved by integrating a layer of sophisticated environmental technology into the buildings, whilst concurrently making far better use of the existing spaces. For example, the new roofs (which are made using a composite, high-density insulation) are designed not only for optimal internal shading, but also to maximise the number of solar panels we could utilise per room. In turn, this means each guest suite is almost completely self-powered. The architecture and the technology are working hand-in hand to reduce the lodge’s impact on the natural environment. While there will still be recognisable elements of the original lodge, we have endeavoured to transform the way the lodge works, ultimately transforming the guest experience.
Designed to capture the splendour and solitude of the desert, beautifully appointed rooms spread out along the curve of the escarpment, allowing absolute privacy. Each air-conditioned glass-fronted suite is designed to complement the expansive views of the different habitats, perfectly framed from the spacious internal areas. Featuring a private veranda, bedroom with retractable skylights for in-bed stargazing, a living room with a fireplace, an ensuite bathroom with a glass-encased rain shower offering 180-degree views, and a perfectly positioned private plunge pool for some sublime respite after a long day in the desert heat. All suites include star-viewing skylights, discrete music systems and customised personal bars.
The interesting silhouette of the lodge nestled against the mountainside is the first thing you see as you enter the reserve or arrive at the airstrip. Thereafter the design focusses on the ever-changing views that guests will experience from within the lodge. The design of the lodge takes its inspiration directly from the landscape from which it emerges. There is an intense, almost overwhelming feeling when standing in the Namib Desert that is difficult to describe. It feels as if one is suspended at the exact point on the horizon where the earth curves away from view and the sky reaches down to touch the sand. We wanted our lodge to resemble a series of simple, yet elegant steel, rock and glass pavilions poised at this exact moment between heaven and earth.
We started by researching the area, looking at maps and aerial photos of the surrounding NamibRand Nature Reserve and the patterns formed by the mountains and dunes in the Sossusvlei region. We became fascinated with using Google Earth to fly around the area in a type of virtual aerial exploration, mostly because, unlike any other place viewed on Google Earth, there are no obstructions, trees, rocks or buildings between the satellite and the Earth. There are only the light and shadows cast by the shapes of the desert sand. This enticed and mesmerised us, encouraging us to zoom in and out of these static satellite images of the desert. We began to wonder if we could transform the existing lodge buildings in a way that was so delicate and so simple that they would allow the guest to feel this same sense of place, not from a satellite image but from their dining table, their bed or even their outdoor shower.
The natural landscape and the context is always the most important aspect in our approach to architecture – and it’s also the reason this particular lodge was built on this site in the first place. In a place like Sossusvlei, it would be impossible for the architecture to attempt to compete with the dramatic desert landscapes. Instead, we sought to create a series of simple, yet elegant platforms for immersing oneself in this place. Careful attention has been paid to the movement of the sun in order for guests to maximise use of their outdoor spaces and with the incredible night skies in mind.
The interiors are tactile and organic, with layered natural textures for maximum comfort. Natural luxury is the &Beyond brand and we create this sense of luxury across all our lodges through the use of comfortable spaces, with deep seating, good lighting and considered acoustics, beautiful views, appropriate furnishings and styling that speak to a sense of place. The design is all about the guest, what they will experience and how they will feel when they stay in these spaces.
The colour palette is inspired by the natural landscape, in particular the mountainside that the lodge is built on. Desert shades of slate grey, stone and sun-bleached timber, with accents of tanned leather, are a subtle nod to the desert dunes. The overall colour palette is a deliberate contrast to the bright, clay-coloured dunes, creating a cool and calming escape from the harsh environment for guests.
Finishes are textured paints, walnut timbers and cool, natural soft honey toned travertine tiles. Fabrics are all natural thick-weave cottons and linens.
The interiors reflect a chic desert-inspired minimalism, with careful attention paid to fundamental guest comfort. Architecturally, we do not design with a specific style in mind for any building or project. Rather, the architecture is conceived in relation to – and as a product of – its place. It is not stylistic, but rather contextually relevant.
Architecturally there are very few new walls that aren’t glass but where we have added privacy screening walls, we have used the local rock to do so. Our hope in this regard is to also make use of local artisans and stonemasons who have the experience and knowledge of working with this material to craft these walls in their own signature way.
For the interiors we chose 100% natural materials wherever possible, balancing aesthetics with longevity and practicality. Raw materials, combined with quirky accents and local flavours that harken back to the reserve’s past as a working farm, also feature.
We believe we have managed to showcase Namibian craft in a simple and unpretentious manner. We have chosen to partner with the best in the region and have scoured markets and commissioned and partnered with Namibian artisans to create one-off basketware for the lodge. Karukulia weavers, a Namibian based craft initiative, have created bespoke wool wall hangings and rugs. Locally sourced and designed ostrich leather products also feature in the lodge. At the heart of the guest area is a massive island bar built from giant slabs of locally sourced granite.
Judging from our experience here and from the aerial photos of the lodge, we were conscious that any human intervention on this landscape leaves an exceptionally long-lasting, almost permanent impression. A single footpath or cable trench in the wrong place would be like a scar on the desert, visible for decades to come. So we made the architectural gesture as simple and as sensitive as possible by using the form of the buildings to draw a single, straight line in the sand, forming a counterpoint to the organic, sweeping curves and natural shapes of the desert. Through this juxtaposition, we could make tangible the notion that the experience from inside the rooms or the main guest areas looking out is far more important than that of being outside, looking in.
Often the most sustainable architectural gesture is to build something that lasts, rather than something that needs to be rebuilt again and again, using more energy and more resources from the Earth to do so very time. In so far as has been possible, given the heavy nature of the existing buildings, we have tried not to add any concrete or wet-trade elements to the buildings. All the new areas have been designed using prefabricated steel sections and components, as well as lightweight materials, meaning that, while they are made to last, they have a much lighter footprint on the Earth. More than $600,000 USD has been invested in state-of-the-art sustainability initiatives at the lodge.
Sustainable design solutions allow for state-of-the-art water saving mechanisms, water harvesting and recycling systems and photovoltaic power generation in every room. The water recycling system throughout the lodge generates more than 100,000 litres (26,400 gallons) of grey water a month, which more than offsets the evaporation from the pool surfaces.
By bottling water on site and using recycled glass bottles, the lodge saves a significant amount of CO² per month, including the carbon footprint of the water delivery truck. At 100% occupancy, the lodge would have consumed thousands of plastic water bottles per month. The southern dune field extends into the NamibRand Nature Reserve and it is here that we conduct our expeditions on all-terrain vehicles (ATVs), which follow sensitively planned routes. All cleaning products used at &Beyond Sossusvlei are environmentally friendly and 100% biodegradable. All energy use at &Beyond Sossusvlei is stringently tracked and reported on a monthly and quarterly basis. This includes the use of wood, petrol, diesel, electricity, gas and paraffin.
The most innovative aspect is how the guest suites have been designed to harness the very harsh natural environment and use it to create energy and recycle waste water. The efficiency of solar power here is so much greater than in a typical urban or bush setting that we were able to go far beyond just heating water for the showers or powering a few lightbulbs. As a result, these buildings are like their own solar power plants, producing enough energy to not only power the air conditioning and all the typical niceties of a luxury lodge but also the water treatment and recycling systems. This, in turn, allows us to justify unique elements like the private pools and outdoor showers.
A key factor in the design of the guest areas was to create spaces that allow a number of small, intimate groups to be taken care of at the same time without ever impacting on one another. Differentiated dining spaces will ensure that guests never dine in the same place twice – on the terrace, in the wine cellar, upstairs under the stars, outside near the reflection pond or on an excursion to the fairy circles. The bar creates a central area for guests to connect, share their stories and then, if needed, retreat for privacy. The interactive kitchen will allow guests to be immersed in the creation of their own dishes and menus, if they so choose.
In conceptualising the new spa and gym, we sought not to scar the landscape or increase the footprint by adding new foundations and footprints to what is a very sensitive site. Instead, we chose to use the heavy, concrete nature of the existing buildings to support a new gym and spa on the existing roof. The design concept here is much the same as with the guest suites – with one unique, distinctive element, the addition of the giant steel shades. We chose to make an architectural gesture that spoke more literally to the shapes of the mountains and the colours of the surrounding desert by using perforated steel shades to create a series of peaks and valleys playing with the desert light by casting our own shadows onto the existing spaces. These giant screens not only provide more shading for the internal and external spaces below, but they also serve to create privacy gradients and visually divide the more private spaces like the spa from the more interactive spaces like the dining and sitting areas. At night, the role of the sails is reversed, shielding the night sky from any light pollution caused by the internal lighting of the lodge.
Because this is an existing lodge, our goal was to harness the best of what was already there and to remove anything that was wasteful or unnecessary. A key change in the re-design is lowering the bedroom level to create a single, unified open plan suite. By doing so, we eliminated all the awkward, wasted space of the previous design and simultaneously drastically increased the floor to ceiling height of the rooms. Thanks to our awareness of the land, we’ve created a bigger, much more luxurious space while taking care to cause as little impact as possible. We’re proud of that approach.
DESIGN: Fox Browne Creative
SUPPLIERS: Construction: Andre and Ockie Oosthuizen of OJC Construction glazing: Dems Aluminium for OJC Construction Corten and structural steel: Ingo Ahrens for OJC Construction Lighting: Streamlight Lighting, DARK Lighting and Mud Studio Bathroom fittings: Hans Grohe Custom design vanity in Sandstone: AJ Group Sandstone: Roel Jansen Tiles: Artmar Natural Stone Ironmongery: Ed Raubenheimer