From the air, the Okavango River valley is a green gash through the arid grasslands of northern Botswana, about 50 miles east of the Namibian border. The verdant canvas of waterways and wetlands fans out across the Kalahari Basin, forming one of the only inland river deltas in the world. It was within this ecologically rich landscape—inscripted as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2014—that Nicholas Plewman was commissioned to design a luxury resort with minimal site impact.
The region is familiar territory for Plewman, the director of his namesake firm in Johannesburg, South Africa, who had built the property’s existing lodge 16 years before. The area’s landmarked status, however, imposed severe design and construction limitations on the new 11,500-square-foot resort, which includes 12 freestanding bungalows and a lodge, with a restaurant and lounge. Nearly all building materials would have to be biodegradable, and waste from the resort would have to be treated on site.
The design team, which included London-based architecture firm Michaelis Boyd Associates, turned to wood. “Timber became the necessary building material because of its biodegradability,” Plewman says. The team drew inspiration from the carpentry of Botswana’s indigenous Bayei people as well as animals that Plewman says either “carry their shelter with them or weave it from the organic materials on hand,” like the scaly pangolin and the sociable weaver, a small bird that builds elaborate, communal nests.
The result is a family of intimate, wood-shingled structures that nearly disappear into the riparian landscape and operate off the grid. The main building, an undulating, animalistic structure, winds through a copse of trees and comprises a “cocktail of timber,” which Plewman says includes pine, cedar, eucalyptus, and massaranduba, much of which was sourced locally. The design also repurposes leadwood limbs from the original lodge as handrails and stilts to elevate the bungalows, a necessity during the area’s seasonal flooding.
Rising 27 feet from the forest floor to its peak, the lodge is essentially an upside-down hull supported by large parabolic portal frames made from glulam pine. The frames are bolted to concrete footings—which were exempted from the biodegradable material requirement—and cross-braced with twin pine 2x6s. Secondary arch ribs, soaked in a nearby river and bent on-site, help support the butt-jointed pine strips that form the structure’s wooden skin, “like the timbers of a boat,” Plewman says. This plank sheathing is finished with a roll-on acrylic waterproof membrane and cedar shingles, which were sourced from Canada because of its limited availability locally.
Viewed from the southeast, the building shell resembles the scaly carapace of a pangolin, sweeping down to skim the ground before curving up to create entrances and fenestration. But from the northwest, where the lodge offers al fresco dining and the glulam arches are exposed to the elements, the structure is more akin to a corpse. “You could say it’s the ribs and carcass of some great beast that died in the forest,” Plewman says.
The site’s remoteness, swampland, and absence of fencing set the groundwork for a challenging construction. “You’ve got elephants and lions and who knows what walking through there at any time,” Plewman says. But the asymmetry of the portal frames caused additional headaches. Even finding a fabricator was nearly impossible. “To create a portal arch in the South African context is actually very difficult,” he says. In fact, they could find only one suitable mill, White River Sawmills, in White River, South Africa.
Each frame had to be broken into three sections—two leg supports and the arch apex— to maintain the specified radius per section and then joined with steel plates. “In total, 10 different radii were used, which meant that 10 different jigs were required by the manufacturer,” Plewman says.
But when the timber arrived on site after a journey of more than 800 miles, a portion of which requires four- and six-wheel-drive vehicles, at least half of the portals had warped. “[The arches] were bent open a bit so the parabolas were wrong anyway,” Plewman says. He considered rejecting the timber, but “it wasn’t practical. One, [the mill] probably would’ve gone out of business. Two, the costs would’ve been just huge.” Waiting for new arches would have also caused significant project delays.
With the help of De Villiers Sheard Consulting Structural and Civil Engineers, in Cape Town, the architects drew the supplied sections in CAD and determined the new radii that would allow for a smooth form and be structurally sound. Then, using a large circular saw, local contractor Lodge Builders Botswana re-cut the glulam frames.
The imperfections are largely imperceptible, and even Plewman isn’t bothered by them too much. Such unexpected moments, he says, can give a building texture and a more lifelike energy—which is what he wanted in the first place.