Hidden amidst the dense trees of a private reserve in Waterberg, South Africa, is a long, narrow building that appears to grow from a steep cliff out into the treetops. Crafted from local brick that evokes the sandstone rock face and capped with a green roof, the House of the Tall Chimneys is a guesthouse by Johannesburg-based architecture studio Frankie Pappas that celebrates a visceral connection with nature.
"This building is a way of being amongst the trees and the life that inhabits these trees," says Frankie Pappas. "It’s about waking up to vervet monkeys playing two meters from your bed, chacma baboons sunning themselves on the roof in the afternoon, and leopards walking beneath the building in the morning. It’s about how light filters through a saligna tree in summer, and how the air smells during a thunderstorm—these are quintessential Bushveld things, and I wanted this building to be a place to experience them. The value of the building is in its capacity to get out of the way and ask you to be a part of something remarkable."
The clients are a couple, both veterinarians in their sixties, who are intimately involved with nature conservation. They are passionate about sharing the beauty of the land, and they often open up their farm for environmental education programs. They live in the main house—another residence by Frankie Pappas, known as House of the Big Arch—around 100 meters down the valley, and the House of the Tall Chimneys functions as a guesthouse, with nothing more than a bathroom and a bedroom/living space.
The site is in the Waterberg, a mountainous region of the Bushveld in the Limpopo province. The home is situated between a sandstone cliff and a riverine forest, so the main challenge was to create a building that spoke to both elements of the landscape. It was also essential that trees on the site were not damaged during the construction. The solution is a long, narrow building—3.3 meters wide and 20 meters long—that sits into the cliff face and is elevated out into the trees.
"The brief was for a bedroom that opened into the treescape to invite in the smells of the Bushveld and the rustle of the leaves; and a bathroom that was grounded into the landscape," says the firm. "In essence, we have the bedroom speaking of the trees, and the bathroom speaking of the cliff." The two parts of the guesthouse are separated by a wardrobe and changing area.
The narrow floor plan is supported by two brick chimneys, from which the house takes its name. They not only function structurally, but also work as passive cooling towers. The shorter chimney has a light fan in the top that blows air down past a pool of water to cool it. This cool air is circulated through the house and then siphoned out through the taller chimney as it heats up.
The boundary between interior and exterior space is blurred throughout the simple floor plan, with extensive glazing and spaces that open directly to the outdoors. "It would be one hell of a shame if we separated the inside of this building from the site," says Frankie Pappas. "So, instead of securing privacy with the building, we have secured privacy with the density of the forest."
The material palette is as simple and stripped back as the floor plan. It comprises bricks crafted using clay from a neighboring town that matches the sandstone cliff and boulders, Eucalyptus saligna timber, and powder-coated aluminum window frames.
"Often in today’s architecture, the use of materials in one building is far too vast, and it becomes about assembling materials that look good," says Frankie Pappas. "I think this is a bit of a cop out, and dilutes not only the creative process, but also the essence of the spaces we should be trying to create."
The essence of House of the Tall Chimneys is a living space at one with nature, and the building seemingly dissolves into the surrounding landscape—an approach partially inspired by the Great Zimbabwe ruins in the Masvingo province. "That image of a building being consumed by its surrounds is unforgettable," says Frankie Pappas. "I think European traditions of architecture have never quite comprehended that feeling, and I think that’s a missed opportunity. It’s a beautiful thing."
House of the Tall Chimneys cost around 14,000 rand per square meter (about $77.11 per square foot)—much of which was allocated to the cost of transport to the remote location. The budget was controlled by keeping the material palette, and therefore suppliers, to a minimum. It was also essential to work with highly skilled contractors to manage what the studio calls the "constructability" of the project.
"At Frankie Pappas, we celebrate a tighter budget," the studio says. "It focuses the design on the things that are important to creating great spaces. I believe the buildings that evoke the imagination the most are ruins, as all that is left is the bones—the logic that tied everything together. It’s evident in the Great Zimbabwe ruins, and you could say the same about the Parthenon—it’s probably a better building all buggered up than when it was new. Inherently, we try to strip a building down to its essence. In doing so, you remove a lot of the fat and excess, and it becomes a cheaper building."
"The building’s only a year old, and already it’s been subsumed by its surrounds—not only by the vegetation, but all manner of fauna too," says Frankie Pappas. "One of the early things we talked about was the fact that this was never meant to be a house for humans exclusively. It’s home for the Bushveld life too. We took a piece of this bush in order to build a home, and so it’s only right to give as much space back. I think we gave more back—we’ve created remarkable microclimes for all sorts of animals and plants to inhabit. That for me is the most beautiful and the most rewarding part of the job."
Structural Engineer: Frankie Pappas
Landscape Design: Frankie Pappas
Cabinetry Design: Frankie Pappas
Photography: Dook for Visi
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