The High Life

Tired of being terrestrially housebound? Four homes go out on a limb and find their place in the trees.
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Early artifacts show that hundreds of thousands of years ago, almost all human dwellings were suspended high within trees, away from scavenging animals, floods, and other dangers on the ground. Up there in the canopy, pre-Neanderthal humans would huddle together in tight circles, grunting and clicking, pawing at each other’s wooly coats, enchanting one another with dances of elfin magic and wizardry. 

"This was really a parameter-driven project," explains Lukasz Kos, a Toronto-based designer and cofounder of the architecture firm Testroom. "That is, I had to let the trees decide how the tree house would be."

What the trees decided, apparently, was that they wanted a gracefully slender, Blade Runner–like elevator lodged between them. They also decided they didn’t want to be too mutilated in the process. Kos responded to their needs with the low-impact 4Treehouse, a lattice-frame structure that levitates above the forest floor of Lake Muskoka, Ontario, under the spell of some witchy architectural magic.

He created this effect by suspending the two-ton, 410-square-foot tree house 20 feet above the ground with steel airline cables. With only one puncture hole in each of the four trunks into which the cable is anchored, the trees get away almost entirely unscathed, and the structure attains the visual effect of being suspended weightlessly in midair.

At the base of the tree, a staircase rolls on casters upon two stone slabs, allowing occupants to enter and exit regardless of how much the tree house may be swaying or rocking in the wind. Solid plywood walls punctuated by a floor of red

PVC constitute the "opaque" base story, which is largely protected from the outside elements. "The idea was to have the tree house open up as it gained elevation," explains Kos. The second story is surrounded by a vertical lattice frame, allowing for breezes, air, and light to filter softly through walls while still establishing a visual perimeter between outside and inside space. At top, the tree house is completely penned in, a suspended patio with a ceiling of sky. br> br>Photo by Lukasz Kos.

Or at least this is what I used to daydream about up there, lolling away hot summer afternoons on the plywood floor of my childhood tree house. You see, it’s a different world up in the canopy, a world devoid of earth-bound distractions, where the imagination is free to run wild. It’s these qualities that have attracted a handful of new designers to reinvent the tree house, and in the process remind us of something our monkey-ancestors have known for a million years: Branches are the perfect place to hang out.

Those looking for a more down-to-earth option might consider wallowing in a pigsty, which is essentially what designer Amir Sanei constructed for his two sons. "The design decisions could be explained simply to them by referring to the needs of flying pigs," Sanei comments with a twinkle in his eye. Sanei, who is the cofounder of London-based Sanei Hopkins Architects, based most of his design on the "pig ark," the simple metal domes used to house pigs on farms surrounding his house in Suffolk. But since flying pigs have some special needs, some alterations to the design had to be made.

Sanei elevated the Flying Pigsty six feet off the ground with four ropes slung between two trees "because flying pigs cannot fly far from the ground, and they need good clearance when they come into land." Entrance to the ten-foot-long, galvanized steel–and–scrap wood Flying Pigsty is via a ladder or rope at back. The entire project was completed over a long weekend in August 2005 for around $850.

Though most times Sanei allows his sons to play freely in the Flying Pigsty, he has strictly forbidden them to enter during moments of twilight when the pigs return to feed. "The boys have permission to use the structure," Sanei says sternly, "only when the flying pigs aren’t there." br>


Photo by Amir Sanei.

Check out the slideshow.

British Columbia–based Tom Chudleigh designed the Free Spirit Sphere as a have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too tree house that combines the wonder of being airborne with all manner of earthly comforts.

Handcrafted of wood or fiberglass, this lavish ten-foot-six-inch-diameter sphere is fully wired to accommodate a microwave, space heater, refrigerator, TV, Clapper—whatever. And it’s plumbed for a kitchen sink. Retractable beds sleep up to four people.

But if the point is to surround one’s self with all mod cons, why not just rent a condo in Barstow? "When you’re up in the trees," Chudleigh says, somewhat evasively, "you really get the sense that you are just floating up there, that you’re in a different world." This sensation is produced by four flexible ropes that connect to the sides of the sphere, allowing it to suspend freely above the ground and move with the whim of the forest breeze or branches, intimately connecting the Free Spirit Sphere occupant with the surroundings. "It’s a really healing place up here."

Chudleigh has built four spheres so far and is on his way to Australia to build four more. Prices range from $45,000 for the fiberglass to $150,000 for the handcrafted wood sphere. "You think of conventional buildings as having walls, straight lines, color patterns," says Chudleigh. "In these spheres you are completely removed from that: All walls are merged into one, you are in the air, connected to it, detached from everything familiar—it’s a total escape from the conventional world." br>


Photograph by Gregor MacLean.

"I kept pushing the idea of doing a new kind of tree house further and further, trying to find the best structure, the best materials," explains Dustin Feider, a 23-year-old freelance furniture designer. "Then I finally figured it out."

What Feider discovered was that instead of trying to build a traditional "box" tree house, he could use less material and construct a more stable structure if he made a geodesic dome—a mini Epcot in the sky. And that’s how the 02 Sustainability Treehouse looks suspended 45 feet up a poplar tree in the front yard of the Pewaukee, Wisconsin, house in which it was built.

At the base of the tree is a basket constructed of polypropylene panels connected to an electric winch, which is tied to the roof of the tree house. As though in an elevator, occupants ascend the tree and enter superhero-style through a triangular door on the floor. Here, the real fun begins. The entire structure is clad in translucent 16th-inch triangulated polypropylene panels, half of which open to allow breezes to waft in on warm summer nights. "In daytime, the light filters in and it has a really soft quality, like a pillow room," explains Feider.

The standard model 02 Sustainability Treehouse is 13 feet wide and costs $18,800, which includes three weeks’ installation labor. A do-it-yourself kit is about half that price. All materials are 100 percent recycled or recyclable, and interiors and sizes can be customized per client specifications.

"I think sunset up there is my favorite time," says Feider. "Then, you get all these amazing purple shadows. It’s so much better than watching TV." br>


Photograph by Dustin Feider.


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