The House of the Big Arch: A place for man, animal and nature

Frankie Pappas took on the task of bridging the landscape between a riverine forest and a sandstone cliff while raising a rare living space among animals and nature in South Africa.

by Meghna Mehta Published on : May 01, 2020

Architects and designers have often attempted to respect nature and there have been many examples across the world where architecture incorporates, borrows from, and subtly exists in its ubiquitous environment. However, rare is a building that takes nature into consideration with such prominence, care and inclusivity. In times such as these, while mankind has been put under quarantine due to the coronavirus pandemic, architecture as mindful as this may be a guiding light for how we must build and create responsibly.

02 mins watch House of the Big Arch in the Riverine forest of South Africa designed by Frankie Pappas collaborative – a step by step explanation  | House of the big arch | Frankie pappas | STIRworld
House of the Big Arch in the Riverine forest of South Africa designed by Frankie Pappas collaborative – a step by step explanation Video Credit: Courtesy of Frankie Pappas

The House of the Big Arch has been designed by a South African collaborative design firm named Frankie Pappas. The designer had the intent clear from the day they put made the first sketch down for this project. The journey started with the clients, an elderly couple, who are avid nature lovers and knew exactly what they wanted:

a home that disappears into the landscape;
that sits amongst the rocks, trees and birds;
that offers animals, plants and humans equal opportunity to find shelter;
that treats the bush veld with its deserved respect.

With a deep knowledge of natural beings - every tree, bush, insect, bird and mammal - as their personal friends, they also welcomed the local underprivileged kids and shared their farm with them. “There is too much beauty here for us to use up all by ourselves,” explained the clients.

  • The narrow sloped entrance to the House of the Big Arch in South Africa | House of the Big Arch | Frankie pappas | STIRworld
    The narrow sloped entrance to the House of the Big Arch in South Africa Image Credit: Courtesy of Frankie Pappas
  • Aerial view of the house shyly appearing from the forest | House of the Big Arch | Frankie Pappas | STIRworld
    Aerial view of the house shyly appearing from the forest Image Credit: Courtesy of Frankie Pappas

Situated in the Waterberg mountains of South Africa, the House of the Big Arch occupies an almost unseen presence in the wilderness of the existing natural reserve. The site is surrounded by a landscape of significant plants, inspiring cliffs and a flourishing wildlife.

Keeping the intentions of the patrons at the forefront of the design process, the designers pursued these relentlessly. The entire site was thoroughly laser scanned and converted into a 3D model: “In order to ensure that no tree would be harmed, we made sure we could see every tree and branch when making critical design decisions. We were, in essence, designing this building in a digital forest.” This resulted in the procurement of an incredibly thin built form of 3300 mm width which passed through the tree scape. The form of various bulges and protrusions gave rise to the building.

We wanted the trees to dictate where we build. – Frankie Pappas collaborative
  • The visual perspective of the house which shows its existence in the landscape of the forest | House of the big arch | Frankie pappas | STIRworld
    The visual perspective of the house which shows its existence in the landscape of the forest Image Credit: Courtesy of Frankie Pappas
  • Trees growing and existing with the building | House of the big arch | Frankie pappas | STIRworld
    Trees growing and existing with the building Image Credit: Courtesy of Frankie Pappas

Making sure not even a single tree was demolished during the construction of this home, the structure was organised as one long thin building which regulated itself among the forest greens. This was one of the challenges the designers faced, however it was used as an advantage. The form of the additions to the building were dictated by the position and reach of the surrounding landscape. The team explains, “The underlying concept was to bridge and marry the landscape between the Riverine forest and sandstone cliff, while raising the living space into the tree canopy, amongst the abundant arboreal life.”

01 mins watch A rotational explanation of the House of the Big Arch | House of the Big Arch | Frankie Pappas | STIRworld
A rotational explanation of the House of the Big Arch Video Credit: Courtesy of Frankie Pappas

The building has been designed on a sloped contour of land with the lounge and courtyard at the top-most level and the cellar at the bottom most level of the steep slope. Above the cellar appears the library and further up, the kitchen and the pantry. In front of these floors is the Big Arch, after which the house has been named. A narrow ramped entrance with stairs lies on the east side of the kitchen.

  • The bridge and the deck connecting the Big Arch and the kitchen | House of the big arch | Frankie pappas | STIRworld
    The bridge and the deck connecting the Big Arch and the kitchen Image Credit: Courtesy of Frankie Pappas
  • The tree-shaded deck with the fireplace | House of the big arch | Frankie pappas | STIRworld
    The tree-shaded deck with the fireplace Image Credit: Courtesy of Frankie Pappas

Further, the space between the kitchen and the lounge has been connected using a wooden and glass bridge, which becomes the dining area. Similarly, the area between the Big Arch and the kitchen creates a suspended deck on the first floor. One each side of the deck lies a circular, small swimming pool with a fireplace in the centre. The idea of suspending these decks was conceptualised such that wild animals can move from below the space, making them feel welcome in their own habitat.

  • Plan of the House of the Big Arch | House of the big arch | Frankie pappas | STIRworld
    Plan of the House of the Big Arch – Level +00 Image Credit: Courtesy of Frankie Pappas
  • Plan of the House of the Big Arch | House of the big arch | Frankie pappas | STIRworld
    Plan of the House of the Big Arch – Level +01 Image Credit: Courtesy of Frankie Pappas
  • Plan of the House of the Big Arch | House of the big arch | Frankie pappas | STIRworld
    Plan of the House of the Big Arch – Level +02 Image Credit: Courtesy of Frankie Pappas

The form of the house gives its inhabitants a planted courtyard, a reclusive lounge, a sunlit dining room, a farmhouse kitchen, a scullery and a tree-cover shaded deck. The layout and an unimpeded free-flowing spatial layout provides the house with multiple courtyards, a study and a small swing bench under the Big Arch. Wind, light, animals and trees easily make way through the structure like it is one with them.

We cannot ever divide architecture, landscape and gardening: they are one. – Frankie Pappas collaborative
  • The Big Arch with the deck above and the swing below | House of the Big Arch | Frankie pappas | STIRworld
    The Big Arch with the deck above and the swing below Image Credit: Courtesy of Frankie Pappas
  • The unimpeded view through the structure | House of the Big Arch | Frankie Pappas | STIRworld
    The unimpeded view through the structure Image Credit: Courtesy of Frankie Pappas

Simple materials have created this nature sensitive abode. Abundantly available rough stock brick was selected to match the site’s weathered sandstone appearance. All the bridged sections have been constructed from sustainably-grown timber, while glass and aluminium fill in the non-structural wall. Keeping in tandem with the idea of preserving nature in every possible way, water from the roofs is collected and returned to the forest while the black and grey water is stored and processed. The architecture works effectively with the natural environs to provide breeze, shade and comfort, while the rest of the energy is harvested by the 16sqm solar panels.

The bridged area between the lounge and the kitchen - the dining room | House of the big arch | Frankie pappas | STIRworld
The bridged area between the lounge and the kitchen - the dining room Image Credit: Courtesy of Frankie Pappas

“This building is a careful and direct response to this particular portion of this particular riverine forest of this particular portion of the Waterberg of this particular portion of the bush veld. This architecture could exist nowhere else in the world,” sums up the designer.

Project Details

Name of the project: House of the Big Arch
Location: Nature Reserve, Waterberg, South Africa
Project area: 120 sqm
Site area: 55000000 sqm
Completion date: 2020
Building levels: 3
Time taken from conception to construction: 3.5 years
time taken for construction: 3.5 years
Architectural firm: Frankie Pappas International
Design team: Frankie Pappas collaborative team includes architects, engineers, quantity surveyors and any required consultants

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