HemLoft treehouse is a quiet forest retreat ... if you can find it
April 19, 2012
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.
"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.
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.