The open volumetric air receiver (OVAR)-based central solar thermal systems provide air at a temperature > 1000 K. Such a receiver is comprised of porous absorbers, which are exposed to a high heat-flux > 800 Suns (1 Sun = 1 kW/m2). A reliable assessment of heat transfer in an OVAR is necessary to operate such a receiver under transient conditions. Based on a literature review, the need for developing a comprehensive, unsteady, heat transfer model is realized. In this paper, a seven-equations based, one-dimensional, zonal model is deduced. This includes heat transfer in porous absorber, primary-air, return-air, receiver casing, and their detailed interaction. The zonal model is validated with an inhouse experiment showing its predictive capability, for unsteady and steady conditions, within the reported uncertainty of ±7%. The validated model is used for investigating the effect of operating conditions and absorber geometry on the thermal performance of an absorber. Some of the salient observations are (a) the maximum absorber porosity of 70–90% may be preferred for non-volumetric and volumetric-heating conditions, (b) the minimum air-return ratio should be 0.7, and (c) the smallest gap to absorber-length ratio of 0.2 should suffice. Finally, suggestions are provided for extending the model.