Waterberg Home

WORDS Mila Crewe-Brown PHOTOS Dook PRODUCTION Annemarie Meintjes


With a rare vantage point on the natural world, this distinctive Waterberg home’s design was dictated by its sylvan surrounds.

In a private reserve in the Waterberg, three hours north of Johannesburg, a series of buildings crouches camouflaged in a forest. You’d struggle to see them among the dense foliage, even from above. Two of those buildings – House of the Big Arch and House of the Tall Chimneys – constitute the home of a pair of veterinary scientists, a husband and wife whose passion for nature and the great outdoors drew them to this wild corner of the country.

Owing to its location on a 5 000-hectare farm-turned nature reserve, it’s not uncommon to see giraffe, leopard or genet, and an abundance of birds, from the paradise flycatcher to the yellow-bellied greenbul. It was during a ramble here that the owners came across a sandstone promontory that plunges into the riverine forest below, and decided that this very spot was to be their home.

As if contending with a steep gradient in a forest in the middle of the bushveld wasn’t enough to challenge their architect, their brief to him was “simply” to construct a tree house, without removing a single tree from the site. The young architect, who collaborates with a host of brilliant minds under the collective pseudonym Frankie Pappas, had the site Lidar-scanned to map the all-important trees.

For the homeowners, the Frankie Pappas ethos of forgoing ego and working mutually for a greater purpose struck a chord. The land should suffer minimal interference, they agreed, with the notion that one day, having served its purpose, the building will hopefully be swallowed up by the environment altogether. By “connecting the back end of the building to the sandstone as though it were a boulder”, the architect explains, the cliff becomes part of the home’s narrative. The initial stock-brick structure – and others that follow in front of it – are linked by enclosed timber “bridges”, leaving the ground free for animals to make their passage underneath.

“You enter at the back of the home, at the cliff, and by the time you’ve reached the arch at the front end, you’re five metres up in the forest canopy,” the architect explains. Due to the limitations of finding a straight run between the trees, the main house (House of the Big Arch) is 3.3 metres wide and 22 metres at its full length. This long, skinny structure is wedged among trunks and branches, occasionally bulging out here or there to accommodate a dombeya or a monkey orange tree.

In an unconventional move, the bedroom is located some 50 metres away along a cliff path in the House of the Tall Chimneys. Here, bedroom and bathroom share an intimate connection with the trees.

Not only is the home completely off the grid, it also requires very little energy to run. It is positioned on a north-south axis, with its length facing east and west, and is designed to facilitate natural flows of cool air into and through the interior. Frankie Pappas also devised a series of chimneys that use an evaporative cooling system to further regulate the temperature.

The building’s language is neither contemporary nor old. The entrance is a narrow shaft that towers nine metres above ground, its arch emerging through the foliage; a dome is seen here, a column there. It’s a meeting of basic forms that delights the eye – a man-made creation sculpted by the land.

Frankie Pappas was recently included in the annual Wallpaper* Architects Directory as one of the Top 20 emerging architectural talents from across the globe.