WORDS Graham Wood PHOTOS Elsa Young/Bureaux PRODUCTION Sven Alberding
In the oldest desert in the world, entrepreneur and conservationist Swen Bachran has built a fantastical house inspired by the sociable weaver nests that dot the landscape.
In the vast ancient desert of Namibia, nature is the greatest architect. Millions of years have refined the shapes of the shelters that birds and animals create for themselves here. The gigantic nests built by sociable weaver birds in camelthorn trees – vast domed structures of twigs and grass often 3m wide – are one of the most striking examples. “They’re architectural masterpieces,” says Swen Bachran, the entrepreneur and conservationist who established the Namib Tsaris Conservancy with his neighbours in the desert, not far from the famous red dunes at Sossusvlei and the haunting 700-year-old skeletons of dead camelthorn trees at Deadvlei.
Before he owned any land in the region, he and his designer and artist friend Porky Hefer visited a spot nearby the site of The Nest, as they dubbed this fantastical house modelled on these weavers’ nests, which they created over the next eight years. At that stage, Swen was still scouting around for a potential conservation project. “Porky came to the farm and we camped on this land together,” says Swen. They sat under the camelthorn trees and marvelled at the communal nests, their perfect efficiency suggesting countless lessons in biomimicry and possibilities for vernacular design.
“He went back after that weekend with impressions and later presented me with doodles of what we called the Love Nest,” Swen recalls. “It was really a one-bedroom nest with a little lookout deck, a library and a shower.” At that stage, Swen had in mind an idiosyncratic “little retreat for family and friends with a token giraffe”. As the idea incubated, Swen ended up acquiring not just one, but three adjacent farms adjacent to an existing conservation area and as he gained neighbours, they banded together to drop fences and create a 100 000-hectare nature reserve with grander plans than just that “token giraffe”.
The conservancy now has a constitution and a 100-year plan to sustain it in perpetuity. “Whatever there was 100 years ago, from a rodent to a rhino, we will reintroduce,” says Swen. Alongside the ballooning scale of Swen’s conservation efforts, the “love nest” morphed into a four-bedroom, double-storey villa. Porky’s conceptual drawings became more detailed and refined. Although they started taking in practicalities ranging from workable floor plans to an underground wine cellar, they began approaching architects to collaborate with.
“They all thought we were nuts,” says Swen. So they forged on alone, gradually assembling a construction team and recruiting craftsmen and artisans. It was a mammoth task: it took a year alone to weld the rebar frame that forms the structure. In keeping with the ethos of the place, the idea was to use local materials and skills, including manufacturing bricks on site and using local artisans to thatch the structure outside and in, reversing the usual approach for the interiors. Using Zambezi river grass from northern Namibia, they also incorporated lessons from the design of the weavers’ nests. The gaps between the inside and outside layers of thatch served as insulation – they’re further apart where the sun is harshest, so a wider pocket of air is sandwiched between them and can act as insulation.
The lessons in biomimicry extend to beautiful aesthetic touches sustained throughout the design. In a novel change from the usual horizontal stone stacking, for example, Porky stacked them vertically. “It directly mimics the trees,” he says, referring to the pattern of the bark on the camelthorns. Beautiful kiaat timber finishes on floors and wall panelling (all certified) introduce the sense that you are indeed in a treehouse. The furnishings and interiors were the work of Maybe Corpaci, who at one point spent a biblical 40 days alone at The Nest, seeing it through to completion. “Because of the nature of The Nest, there is not a single straight wall, so it was quite difficult to find furniture,” she says. On the one hand, she found herself bringing imported Italian furniture into the wilderness on the back of a cattle truck, and, on the other, working on-site with artisans to design and manufacture bespoke pieces.
Like all true vernacular design, The Nest has grown from its context – from its inspiration, its materials, the skills that went into its creation. As a result, it belongs to the desert in a way no other dwelling could hope to. It also has the transformative power Porky wished to achieve – it envelops and immerses visitors in a way that allows them the chance to truly alter their perspectives and relate to the desert in profound ways.
For more information, visit ultimatesafaris.na.