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HemLoft treehouse is a quiet forest retreat ... if you can find it

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April 19, 2012

Described by its creator as 'a secret treehouse hiding in the woods of Whistler,' the stor...

Described by its creator as 'a secret treehouse hiding in the woods of Whistler,' the story of the HemLoft is one with an uncertain ending (Photo: Heidi Hermanski)

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Described by its creator as "a secret treehouse hiding in the woods of Whistler," in the Canadian province of British Columbia, the HemLoft is, unlike many buildings that describe themselves such, a treehouse in the truest sense: the entire weight of the egg-shaped structure is supported by the tree around which it is built. Though welcome to visitors - the right sort of visitors, at least - one first has to find it. And the ongoing story of the HemLoft's ever-widening profile is as compelling as the story of its construction - and it's a story with an uncertain ending.

Ex-software engineer Joel Allen was inspired to turn to carpentry by the wizened and mysterious Old Man John, who sounds a bit like Obi-Wan Kenobi but with a plumb-bob instead of a light saber, the "quintessential hippie" who he'd met at the Hills Garlic Festival. When work on the HemLoft began, it was only Joel's third carpentry project, his first being a shed (neat, white and gleaming) built over the course of a week for his parents (which left him with such a serious case of Carpal Tunnel Syndrome that he didn't recover for a year). His second foray into woodcraft was on the construction team of a multi-million home overlooking Whistler's Alta Lake. There his fellow workmates advised him to drag his suspiciously shiny tools behind his car for a few miles so as not to stand out as quite the carpentry n00b. Even so, his skills were deemed sufficient and he kept his job on the development.

After several outdoorsy trips to Alaska with a friend, Joel came up with the idea of building "a little loft in the woods," but was dissatisfied with the treehouse designs he'd seen which looked, in his eyes, inelegant from below due to their support structures. He spent some time mulling the problem with friends and architecture grads Mark and Jayne. It was Jayne that eventually hatched the idea of an egg-shaped structure - an idea Joel describes as "a moment of cosmic brilliance." The trio gradually developed the concept into a design, and after a period of building scaled-down models, he was convinced of the inherent structural soundness of an ovoid skeleton.

Of course a treehouse without a tree is really just a house, so in 2008 Joel set of to find a suitable host in the woods surrounding Whistler. He very quickly abandoned the idea of buying land - "I'd have to find a wealthy oil tycoon to cosign a mortgage and spend the next 450 years of my life paying it off," he writes. For the time being, he put the question of land ownership to one side and instead set about finding a suitable location. The ideal site would be a "reasonable" distance from a road, but far enough into the words to escape the sights and sounds of human activity. A south-west aspect, a view, and nearby running water were also desirable. After two months of searching, he found his tree.

After two months of searching, Joel found his tree (Photo: Heidi Hermanski)

"The first thing to catch my eye was a sun-lit moss covered outcropping at the top," he writes. "I scrambled my way up the steep slope over rocks and deadfall. It seemed nearly vertical. From the top I was greeted by a view of the distant mountain range through a thin veil of branches. It was breathtaking."

Without knowing who, precisely, owned the land out of which his perfect tree grew, Joel set about covertly building the HemLoft. It took only a few weeks for him to refine his tactics, which he describes as "an elegant five-step process" involving hazard lights and stealthy subterfuge. "I'd sometimes start calling a random name, like I was looking for my dog." Cunning.

Over the weeks that followed he had to contend with wayward tools (dropped, scattered or lost entirely), storms, and nocturnal bear encounters - an occupational hazard for regular visitors to the woods of the region. But gradually he built a scaffold, floor structure and structural ribs, and the HemLoft began to take shape. One 17-ft (5.2 m) rib was driven to the site during the small hours of the morning like the wings of an airplane, poking out of the driver and passenger windows of the car. After that, the ribs were wisely taken to site in halves.

With the structure complete, he took the winter and spring off. It was during this break that he met and fell in love with Heidi, who, as luck would have it, "had the intestinal fortitude and climbing skills of a mountain goat," as well as being very able with her hands. They set themselves the deadline of the following summer to finish the HemLoft, but there was the tricky question of an estimated CAD10,000 for remaining materials. At that point he had already sunk $6,500 into the project.

The Hemloft's entrance gangway (Photo: Heidi Hermanski)
The Hemloft's entrance gangway (Photo: Heidi Hermanski)

Then Joel made a discovery: Craigslist; specifically Craigslist Vancouver. A 45-minute drive away, Vancouver proved an Aladdin's Cave of free high quality materials. "Within five minutes, I discovered a lovely solid-core wooden door," he writes. "Then, up came 200 square feet luxurious hardwood - enough to cover the HemLoft floor." But such items are typically snapped up within seconds, and so Craigslist became something of an obsession to him. In his own words, he was "more motivated" than the competition.

At the end of the following May, the winter snows had melted and work could recommence on the Treehouse. The front door was fitted, glass windows installed, and a sliding door onto the deck put into place. The HemLoft's sidings had been reclaimed from an old sauna. Gradually the HemLoft was transformed from skeletal shell to a habitable, even comfortable, treehouse. At the end of July, the HemLoft was complete. With a spare week falling between the lease of their apartment expiring and a planned trip to Nova Scotia, Heidi and Joel decided to live in the HemLoft. Joel recounts the week as idyllic. For many of us it would be called a getting-back-to-nature experience, but after the amount of time the pair had spent in the woods already, the description doesn't seem apt - even allowing for all the showering in waterfalls, picking twigs out of each other's hair and cohabiting with bears. But "life was grand," Joel writes, convincingly.

But the HemLoft, which was built and lived in in secret, was not to remain secret for long. On a trip to New York Joel and Heidi met a family friend of Heidi's named Benita, who exhibited a journalistic curiosity about their creation. Following her advice, Joel submitted the HemLoft to Dwell Magazine, where it was featured in an outdoor special edition, and garnered considerable interest.

It transpires that the HemLoft was built on Crown land (yes, in Commonwealth countries that is still a thing). As such, he doesn't technically own it, and therefore he's understandably nervous of the increasing exposure the HemLoft is receiving ("if the wrong people find it, they may make me take it down," he writes). But that is tempered by a desire to share.

He's unwilling to see the treehouse taken down just yet, but is also away that the prospect of semi-permanent squatters on what is effectively public land may not be viewed favorably in all quarters. He's considering options, some of which involve opening the HemLoft up to the public to some extent, either by turning it into a campsite or making it the subject of a geocaching treasure hunt. In any event, one suspects that the final chapter of the HemLoft's story is not yet written.

A new video Joel has kindly put together and shared with Gizmag, is embedded below.

Source: HemLoft

About the Author
James Holloway James lives in East London where he punctuates endless tea drinking with freelance writing and meteorological angst. Unlocking Every Extend Extra Extreme’s “Master of Extreme” achievement was the fourth proudest moment of his life.   All articles by James Holloway
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17 Comments

Beautiful design. I'd want it higher in the tree and larger in diameter. Awesome though. Without spraying around the trunk, how would you keep the ants out?

Buellrider
19th April, 2012 @ 06:47 am PDT

Excellent, , , all of it!

Electrothump
19th April, 2012 @ 09:36 am PDT

@Buellrider , a thick wad of grease around the trunk just beneath the structure will take care of all crawling insects. What an awesome structure!!!!

TracerZA
20th April, 2012 @ 03:16 am PDT

Coffee grounds Buell, coffee grounds. Ants don't like it. Nor do they like blendered onion, garlic and any chili pepper and watered down. Either works, try it.

lonv166
20th April, 2012 @ 03:34 am PDT

I think it is superb. I live on an island in The Philippines, on top of a ridge, some 20,000 square feet of relatively flat land, until recently a jungle. It took me 2 years to clear it, and this year we will build our home, a home with 3 outside walls, in a square building. Our guest house will have no walls whatsoever, but will be completely private. That should be done next year, given we have enough money left over. We don't like living in conventional housing.

lonv166
20th April, 2012 @ 03:39 am PDT

Great idea !!!!! How can we arrange to come for a visit and we would also like to visit the structure going to be build in the phillippines by lonv166...feel free to email us...

Richie Suraci
20th April, 2012 @ 02:56 pm PDT

What keeps the weight on the bottom and top of the house from stripping the bark and potentially killing the tree?

kilgatron
20th April, 2012 @ 07:00 pm PDT

That is a really nice tree house. It is cool that it blends into the environment it is put into. :)

BigGoofyGuy
20th April, 2012 @ 07:20 pm PDT

This looks like it would be a lot of fun for a few days..

It has been a long time since I slept in a tree house

and ran to the main house to use the "Potty" or to

have a 5 gallon bucket handy.. Is the Romance???

Knapper
20th April, 2012 @ 07:35 pm PDT

"What keeps the weight on the bottom and top of the house from stripping the bark and potentially killing the tree? "

There appear to be some brackets with bolts at the top, which seem to hold the treehouse up on the trunk. Not too keen on that idea. Why not have some wooden braces (complete with their bark, for aesthetic purposes) from the outer diameter of the shell fixed to a collar which sits on the ground around the base of the tree. That way there'd be absolutely no strain on the tree trunk, which would simply be used to stop the house tipping over, with the mass resting on the ground.

If you built some bearings in you could even rotate the treehouse about its central axis and have a different view every day. ;-D

joeblake
21st April, 2012 @ 01:07 am PDT

As a deer hunter, I have hung many types of deer stands in trees. This will kill the tree, of that there is no doubt. Trees continue to grow in diameter as long as they are alive. Even chained on stands have to be loosened and moved from time to time. This "house" was built in stealth, because even the builder knew he was doing wrong. In essence, he is a trespasser and thief. He is stealing from the public, but with his method, and research skills, it could have been in your parents back yard. His house should be forfeit to their version of Department of Natural resources, as an wildlife observation post, until the tree dies, or removed now to preserve the tree. This house is not an accomplishment, it is a crime.

kellory
21st April, 2012 @ 09:38 am PDT

re; joeblake

It is not a tree house if it sits on the ground. Granted I would have used 13+mm lag bolts driven deep into the hart wood for support and otherwise barely touched the tree.

Slowburn
21st April, 2012 @ 12:08 pm PDT

Beautiful--BUT a much larger tree house of similar 'beehive' shape was constructed on a Redwood tree, North of Auckland some 2.5 years ago as a local promotion for the 'yellow pages'. The structure operated as a restaurant for a limited period of time, and only skeletal remains can now be seen.

wrynic
21st April, 2012 @ 08:53 pm PDT

I saw this project yesterday, and thought wow, what a coincidence... the more I read the more I suspect a design I did for Make-A-Wish (printed and on web from Dec. 2005) has been totally plagiarised with this project. Judge for yourself, LA Times article at bottom of the page:

archinect.com/people/project/14966908/fort-joshua/29525720

Note the form, structural system, sleeping loft, skylight, window configuration, etc... the only thing he left off was the blue paint and the slide. Even the stair rendering on his own website shows the stairs as I have built them. If this is just some cosmic coincidence, then I apologize, but smells a little fishy to me. If this is the case, then not only has he stolen the land, but also stolen his "creative vision." This behavior should not be condoned.

JW747
24th April, 2012 @ 11:16 am PDT

Kellory? Why the hate? Nothing lives for ever. As a designer with a passion for tree abodes, well done! No hard feelings. One question? Hunter worried about killing tree, odd. Not trying to pick fight just seeking to understand. I have been working in "tree Yurt" and have battled same conundrum, how to tighten your belt while still being able to breath.

Thanks

Justin Schetrompf
25th April, 2012 @ 09:37 am PDT

I saw the article on CTV news today and I think the tree house is beautiful and well done. My wife and I will be in Whistler in a couple of weeks and will be doing some geocaching while we are there .

We would really love to see it first hand, Perhaps in our geocaching outings we will come across it. :-)

garcor
25th April, 2012 @ 06:36 pm PDT

"Kellory? Why the hate? Nothing lives for ever. As a designer with a passion for tree abodes, well done! No hard feelings. One question? Hunter worried about killing tree, odd. Not trying to pick fight just seeking to understand. I have been working in "tree Yurt" and have battled same conundrum, how to tighten your belt while still being able to breath.

Thanks"

If you think hunting is just about killing, you have a lot to learn. Hunters are the greatest conservationist that exist. Entire species that would otherwise died off, have been brought back to healthy herd size by hunting and conservation groups. Hunters worried about killing trees? There are laws about even using screws that penetrate the bark, not being allowed when hanging deer stands on public lands. Nothing can remain behind on public lands either, after a hunt (assuming proper permits and laws allow hunting in those areas). Trespassers are always a problem as well, even when lands are private, posted, fenced, and game cameras are in place. Theft is common as well.

Add to that, the ways the laws are written, an apple tree on a farmer's land, can be sited as an "attractive Nuisance" if a trespasser falls out of it, though they had no right to be there in the first place. People need to understand that they do NOT have the right to free access of other people's property! This guy didn't even try to find out WHO OWED THE PROPERTY before he set up shop. He didn't CARE about anybody's rights he was violating. He didn't care about personal property he was stealing (the tree and land) It is by luck alone he stole from the public, not a private owner.

Most modern hunting stands strap to a tree, so as not to do damage to the tree, we try to follow the back packer's creed "Take nothing but photos, leave nothing but foot prints." those animals that are killed, (note I said killed, not harvested, no one planted them) are eaten. We do not waste what we take, our permit fees help fund conservation efforts across the country, and in some cases, around the world.

If you are against hunting, yet you eat meat, I have to ask you why? I am complying with the laws of my state, helping to manage the deer herds with the blessings of the division of WildLife, Cutting down on deer/ auto accidents, and feeding my family. It is naturally lean, range fed meat, free of hormones, or steroids, and it comes in a biodegradable wrapper! All I am doing is cutting out the middleman and gathering it myself, instead of letting the butcher fetch it for me from the kill pens. Conscientious hunter go to great lengths to follow the laws, respect other peoples land, and other people's rights. This man did nothing right. He is a criminal. Just because you want something, does not mean you can have it, any kid know that much. If you wish to learn about what hunting is really about, I can recommend a few sites that would be of interest to you.

kellory
26th April, 2012 @ 10:40 pm PDT
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