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1st Floor Lona House
212 Upper Buitengracht
Bo Kaap, Cape Town, 8001

Jaime-Lee Gardner
072 171 1979

Louise Martin
073 335 4084

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No trees were harmed in the construction of this skinny house

Clever design preserves natural forest

By Images from

, |

No trees were harmed in the construction of this skinny house

Clever design preserves natural forest

By Images from

, |

2 min read

This spectacular, low-impact Frankie Pappas-designed home in the Waterberg sits lightly on the land, appearing to float among the trees.

The brief

The brief was to design a home that disappears into the landscape, that sits among the rocks and trees and birds, that offers animals and plants and humans equal opportunity to find shelter, and that treats the bushveld with the respect it deserves.

The site

The building occupies a unique place in a nature reserve in the Waterberg mountains of South Africa. A mere three hours from Joburg, the Waterberg is a malaria-free paradise of spectacular bushveld, game reserves and game lodges – a landscape of remarkable plants, inspiring cliffs, and prodigious wildlife. - House of the Big Arch

The clients

The clients are an elderly couple, whose love and knowledge of the bushveld is extraordinary and inspiring. They are enthusiastically involved in the environmental education of underprivileged youngsters from the surrounding areas, opening up their farm to and sharing their experiences with these kids. When asked why they are so involved, their answer is typically salt-of-and-down-to-earth: ‘There is too much beauty here for us to use up all by ourselves.’

The idea

The underlying concept was to bridge the landscape between riverine forest and sandstone cliff, while raising the living space into the tree canopy, among the abundant arboreal life.

The house consists of one long, thin building that slots between the forest trees, with additions dictated by the position and size of the surrounding trees. Not one tree was demolished during the construction of this home. - House of the Big Arch


The building makes use of a very simple set of materials, all of which play their part in making it part of its landscape. The most abundant material is a rough stock brick that was selected to match the site’s weathered sandstone; the ‘bridge’ portions are constructed from sustainably grown timbers, and glass and aluminium fill in the non-structural walls.

Layout - House of the Big Arch

On the first floor is a planted courtyard, a relaxing, secluded lounge, a sunlit dining room, a farmhouse kitchen and scullery, a tree-shaded deck, a small pool, and a fireplace around which most of the cooking and living occurs. The ground floor provides yet more courtyards, a study, a library and a small swing bench under the arch, while the cool cellar creates a climate conducive to curing meats, storing food supplies, and ageing wines.


In order to further ensure that no tree would be harmed, the architects laser-scanned the entire site, and then converted this information into a digital 3D model so that they could see every tree and every branch when making critical design decisions. They were, in essence, designing this building in a digital forest.

The resulting design was an incredibly thin building – a mere 3,300 millimetres wide – winding through the treescape. Any funky bulges and protrusions in the plan of the building were dictated by where the trees allowed them to build. - House of the Big Arch


The entire house is completely and utterly off the grid:

  • Water from the roofs is collected and filtered through the forest.
  • Black and grey water are stored and processed before being filtered by the undergrowth.
  • Energy is harvested by 16 square metres of solar panels.
  • More importantly, the building is designed to passively utilise sun, shade and breeze to facilitate minimal energy demands.

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