Betty’s Bay House

WORDS Graham Wood PRODUCTION Natalie Boruvka/Vignette PHOTOS Karl Rogers/Vignette

A sleek Betty’s Bay home suspended among the treetops never loses its sense of whimsy, despite its sophistication.

A “meander through the treetops” is how architect David Talbot of Platform describes the idea behind the beautiful wavy edge of Kloof House in Betty’s Bay. Right from the start, the owners wanted a treehouse on the site they’d found backing up onto the kloof right next to the Harold Porter National Botanical Garden. Quite unusually for an area known for its windy conditions, this part of the kloof was sheltered by a dense boekenhout forest.

These factors, as well as the steep slope of the site – plus a desire to build in a way that would disturb the ground as little as possible – led to the idea of a house on stilts. “The structure was always going to have to have a light touch, in every sense of the word,” says David. Not one tree was touched while the foundations were going into the ground, and the team employed advanced building methods such as cross-laminated timber and a new foundation technology that involved drilling steel piles into the ground at opposing angles and capping them with a steel plate.

While these were serious ambitions, the owners never wanted to forget the fact that it was, after all, a treehouse, and that it needed to have a sense of whimsy and adventure about it. Entering via a “pretty magical” footbridge through the treetops, you’re barely even aware of the house as you approach. The “arrival sequence”, as David describes it, is a journey of discoveries and surprises, from the bridge itself to the front door, the interiors and the views. Inside, the path continues along the “curvilinear” south-facing edge.

As whimsical as it might seem, David’s architectural form for the house was specifically motivated by the position of the existing tree canopy. He conceptualised it as a stroll through the branches. More practically, the winding interior pathway functions as the main circulation space through the house. Doors lead off it into the bedrooms, each with its own spectacular mountain view to the north.

David says that while the curves push in and out to create interesting nooks along the southern edge, the north- facing part of the house is more straight-lined and “rectilinear”. At one point, where the two wings meet – rather poetically, right above a long-dry riverbed – there’s a complete break in form where, from below, you can look right through the house to the waterfall behind it.

The owners acted as project managers – a challenging undertaking that meant negotiating devastating fires as well as the pandemic. Fortunately, the habit of building runs in the family, and relatives stepped in to help get the project over the finish line. As a result of this intensely hands-on experience, the owners say it “was incredibly eye-opening to see the level of craftsmanship that goes into building a house”. It completely changed their perspective; from then on, there was “absolutely no way we were bringing in anything that hadn’t been made by hand”. Apart from the timber interior finishes, for example, the terrazzo tiles in the bathrooms were locally made in the oldest terrazzo factory in Cape Town.

While the owners’ aesthetic preferences have an undeniably Mid-century Modern flavour, local furniture makers slotted in perfectly, too. The interiors were kept deliberately neutral, in the tonal range of the outside forest. “With the large windows, the interior of the house is actually part of the exterior,” say the owners. Nevertheless, they point out that they were careful not to lose the sense of lightness and fun at the heart of this sleek, curvaceous treehouse. They didn’t want it to become one of those highly “architectural buildings that take themselves too seriously”. Elements such as the sofa they commissioned for the master bedroom, “which looks like a big, puffy cloud”, add further whimsy.

Now that new trees have been planted in place of those lost to the fire, and other areas have been rewilded, the house is disappearing into its surroundings once again. It’s like a magical hide, where you can be among the branches with the birdlife. The cross-laminated timber construction might be light, but it brings a sense of solidity and tranquillity to the interiors: a centre of calm when the wind blows wildly outside, adding to the sense of magic and adventure a modern treehouse needs. |

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