A Magical, Off-Grid Guesthouse Disappears Into the South African Bushveld

A Magical, Off-Grid Guesthouse Disappears Into the South African Bushveld

Inspired by ancient ruins, Frankie Pappas crafts a green-roofed, brick guesthouse that connects deeply with nature.

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.

The bedroom is elevated around five meters above the forest floor, and the space beneath has—like the green roof—been given back to the Bushveld. "Naturally, this space is shadier than the surrounding forest, so it creates a different microclimate for different species to flourish in that area," says Frankie Pappas. "It’s an area that we have cultivated."

"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 team lidar scanned around 40,000 square meters of the forested site to create a 3D model—including trees, branches, and roots—that would allow them to accurately determine how to position and design the building to have minimal impact on the surrounding trees. "We then designed a seriously thin building that could slot between the trees," says Frankie Pappas.

The aluminum windows are powder coated in a charcoal color, which is intended to match the shadows created by the forest and help the building further blend in.

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.

House of the Tall Chimneys is the guesthouse of House of the Big Arch, also by Frankie Pappas. The two buildings share the same material palette, and are linked by a long path through the forest. 

A long, timber deck extends through the tree canopy at House of the Big Arch. As House of the Tall Chimneys has only a bedroom/living space and a bathroom, all other activities, such as cooking and dining, takes place at House of the Big Arch.

The entrance to House of the Big Arch is a nine-meter-tall passage, which creates a high-pressure system that pulls cool air into the kitchen.

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.

A brick path leads through the forest to the entrance of House of the Tall Chimneys. "Bricks are a really cost effective way of creating space," says Frankie Pappas. "Over and above that, when used correctly, bricks create complex patterns that I don’t think it’s possible to mimic using other materials."

The bathroom opens to the cliff face and is enclosed in a brick envelope, while the bedroom and living area flies out into the forest canopy. 

"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 bedroom/living space is enclosed by large glass windows framing the treescape. "I think one of the most successful experiential aspects of a building is how intimately involved it is with the site," says Frankie Pappas. "An expensive view has the effect of divorcing one from the site. In House of the Tall Chimneys, the views are very close and intimate, which makes you part of the site." The timber used throughout is Eucalyptus saligna, which is native to Australia and sustainably grown and harvested in South Africa.

The bathroom has views to the bushland on the cliff. The space is entirely open, with privacy afforded by the remote location and dense vegetation. 

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 chimneys are in essence two big columns with some beams between them, and they look a bit like rugby posts," says Frankie Pappas. "The crossbars of the rugby posts hold up the timber beams." 

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 shower in the center of the bathroom room is also open, providing a connection to nature. 

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 green roof was designed to give back the space that was taken up by the building’s footprint to the Bushveld and the animals. It is planted with site-endemic grasses, aloes, and creepers. "What pleases me one hell of a lot is that the building is completely hidden when you’re more than 20 meters away from the structure," says Frankie Pappas. "It’s invisible, and I’m super proud of that. The most important aspect of this building was to revere the site. I use the word revere because we didn’t just respect it—we treated this site as if it were God. I think we should do that more as architects." 

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."

The guesthouse is located in a private reserve in the Waterberg, a mountainous region about three hours from Johannesburg.

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.

"We asked Frankie for a home, and they built us a fantasy," remarked the clients when House of the Tall Chimneys and House of the Big Arch were completed.

"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."

House of the Tall Chimneys is entirely off the grid. Power is generated with solar panels; black and gray water is contained and managed before it’s further filtered by the undergrowth; and potable water is collected from the nearby stream. "More important than these technological fixes, however, is the fact that the building requires very little in terms of resource input in order to function successfully," says Frankie Pappas. "Careful design is probably the most fundamental aspect in designing environmentally sustainable buildings."

"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."

"The clients are passionate about nature conservation,’ says Frankie Pappas. "They know how every plant, insect, and animal fits into the greater ecosystem—their curiosity about the Bushveld is insatiable and inspiring. It really is an amazing thing to be around them in the bush." 

Isometric drawing of House of the Tall Chimneys by Frankie Pappas.

Drawing of House of the Tall Chimneys by Frankie Pappas.

Ground-level floor plan of House of the Tall Chimneys by Frankie Pappas.

Upper-level floor plan of House of the Tall Chimneys by Frankie Pappas.

Roof plan of House of the Tall Chimneys by Frankie Pappas.

Related Reading:

An Earth-Friendly African Retreat That's Actually Made From Earth 

9 Stellar Homes That Venture Off-Grid

Project Credits:

Architect of Record: Frankie Pappas / @frankiepappasinternational

Builder: Lionhearted

Structural Engineer: Frankie Pappas

Landscape Design: Frankie Pappas

Cabinetry Design: Frankie Pappas

Photography: Dook for Visi


Last Updated


Get the Pro Newsletter

What’s new in the design world? Stay up to date with our essential dispatches for design professionals.