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A South African treehouse

Branching out

How the architects behind this house in South Africa found inspiration in the forest

How the architects behind this house in South Africa found inspiration in the forest

Simon Willis | August/September 2017

The idea for this house in Constantia, in the wine country outside Cape Town, was born abroad. Its owner was travelling when he bought a book on the world’s treehouses, fell in love with them, and resolved to have one of his own. His first thought was to have something that hangs in the trees, but he decided against it for safety’s sake. So Malan Vorster, a firm of architects in Cape Town, devised a house which borrows from the structure of trees themselves.

The house, which sits on stilts two metres high in a forest clearing, consists of four cylinders, each with a trunk-like column running through its centre and branching at the top to hold up the ceiling. In the interests of delicacy, the trunks were made of corten steel: its strength allowed them to be as thin as possible, and broken into four slender parts so that light can pass through. Like tree trunks they contain the house’s circulatory system: all the plumbing and electrics run, invisibly, through these columns so that the arboreal look isn’t interrupted by pipes and cables.

Top of the tree
The trunks running through the house (far right, top) contain its circulatory system. The exterior will weather over time, blending in with the surroundings

The architects chose types of wood that need no treatment and age naturally. There are no painted, varnished or even oiled surfaces. South Africa’s woods are no good for building: many are too hard, and the pine that’s farmed is better for cheap furniture than inventive architecture. The outside is clad in western red cedar imported from America, the resins of which protect it against the weather and will, over time, fade to a pale, bleached blond so that the house blends into the forest around it. The inside is fitted out in white oak. The highlight is the floating stairway curling up through the house, its treads cut into leaf-like shapes.

So that the house should not be blown over by the wind, it is planted firmly in the ground. While it may not hang in a tree, its occupant can almost say he lives in one.

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