The HemLoft

by Kent Griswold on April 19th, 2012. 126 Comments
Share on FacebookShare on Google+Pin on PinterestTweet about this on TwitterShare on LinkedIn

by Joel Allen

Some people make a conscious decision to buck the American standard of living and shoehorn their lives into a tiny home. It didn’t happen to me that way. I ended up building a small home through a series of bizarre circumstances. I started off with a career in Software development at the age of 23. By 26 I had saved some money and I attempted a retirement stunt that went sideways, leaving me penniless. That’s when I began living out of my car and decided that instead of returning to software, I would test my aptitude as a carpenter.

The HemLoft

Photo Credits Joel Allen

While living out of my car I discovered that I quite liked the sport of compact living. I was in Whistler at the time and although I didn’t own a home, I enjoyed one of the biggest backyards in the world. I even began sleeping outdoors and got a kick out of finding places where no one else had slept before. I called it sport sleeping and it led me to the believe that my home extended far beyond the confines of my car.

That fall I decided to build a treehouse in my spare time. It was meant to be a simple sleeping loft that I could use as a secret camping spot on crown land in the woods. I felt compelled to build something more elegant than the average treehouse so I began consulting a couple of friends who were recent graduates from architecture school. Together we conceived of the egg-shaped treehouse.

building materials in car

Being a fledgeling carpenter, I had no idea about the technical and logistical challenges of trying to build an illicit orb on a steep slope in the woods, with no electrical power. Enthusiasm and naïvety were the two key traits that pulled me through. Within two months, I had finished the skeletal structure and I had my little sleeping loft in the woods. But it wasn’t long until I wanted more.

Joel building framework

I couldn’t help but feel that my the egg house would take on a new personality if I could transform it from an al fresco deck into a cozy little home. The only problem was, I had already spent $6500 on the structure and the most expensive part was yet to come. I was no longer living out of my car and I was finding it hard to justify going into debt over a treehouse on crown land, that I technically didn’t own.

HemLoft platform

The cost of finishing deterred progress for nearly two years until one evening I made a pivotal discovery. While searching the free section of Craigslist-Vancouver for a couch I found bounty of interesting items popping up. People were giving valuable things away for free! The good items were usually gone within moments of coming online, however, I was a little more determined than my competition. Within a couple of months, I filled every nook of our suite, from floor to ceiling, with building materials.

HemLoft Framework

In the meantime, I had also met my soon to be fiancee who was a natural born carpenter, good at visualizing things in three dimensions, and most importantly, not afraid of heights. By the next spring, we were off to a fleet start, packing all the materials I had scavenged over the winter up to the treehouse before the snow gone. At the same time we were also building a house for a German fellow in Whistler so our days consisted of mostly of carpentry. However, it was exciting to be making such fast progress.

HemLoft from above

Heidi and I worked efficiently together and we could visualize and revise the design of components in our heads before making them come to life. With all the free materials at our fingertips, it was just a matter of putting them together in a creative and coherent way. I spent many evenings thinking about the ergonomics and interior layout of the space. With little more than 100 square feet, plus a sleeping loft, there wasn’t a square inch to waste. However I loved the challenge and I couldn’t wait until we could wait until we were done construction so we could try living in it.

HemLoft

By mid July of 2011, the tree house was complete. Since it was built around a hemlock tree, I called it the HemLoft. It was a small space, but somehow felt grand in its extension into the outdoor world. We had included a plethora of windows including hatches that opened up from the loft, a tall vertical window that nicely framed a neighboring tree only four inches away, and a sliding glass window onto an outdoor covered deck, with a breathtaking cliff-side view over the valley.

HemLoft from below

That summer we only had a week to live in the treehouse before beginning a cross country trip to Nova Scotia. The stay was short lived, but magical. Although we were living in a small space there was a sense of grandeur in our immediate connection to the outdoors. It was that experience that made me realize that I would much rather have a modest home in a luxurious setting than a luxurious home in a modest setting.

Please visit Joel’s website: http://thehemloft.com/

entrance detail

window detail

view from window

HemLoft deck

the outdoor kitchen

siding detail

HemLoft work area

desk and view

view out of top of HemLoft

view of tree

The HemLoft at night

126 Responses to “The HemLoft”

  1. Auntie L says:

    What a beautifully creative abode. Thank you for sharing your journey. It is inspiring.

  2. Rachel says:

    Your HemLoft is beautiful. Building on crown land can be a risk. I hope you can find your way to your own land and have fun building another beautiful place. You have the time, it took us at least 15 years of work and good play to find our own tight spot and we are still working at making it our home by scrapping hurricane lumber and working a wee bit so we can buy materials like hoses to heat water in the sun that beats on the roof ( a luxury, both the sun and the hot water) and some nails to keep it all together. Stay inspired!

  3. April says:

    Incredible! Great vision and execution on this space – I’m in love!

  4. Amanda says:

    holy god, that’s beautiful.

  5. Caroline Carrigan says:

    Best tree house ever!

  6. Trevor says:

    Best design I have seen in a while on here. I am appalled however by the reactions of people who believe this is harmful to the environment. Clearly those individuals are highly uneducated when it comes to life outside the US and Canada, as well as how humans have lived since the beginning of time. As long as your McMansion is built on your personally “owned” land then you’re okay! As long as you appeal to a “building code” then you are doing what nature intended. Lol. I have yet to see on here even a scant reason as to why this abode is not better for the planet than its current and mainstream alternative. If more people did this then the world would be a better place. In the meantime, I’m off to begin exporting fire extinguishers to the aborigines.

    • Michael says:

      So you feel that the planet would be a better place if all 400 million North Americans were to live wherever they wanted irregardless of the environmental impact, befouling our watersheds, and living like third world peasants? That you would have no objection to strangers building a lovely little shack in your “personally owned” backyard a few steps from your door. That you feel it is stupid to have a toilet when one could just walk a couple of steps out the door and defecate outside in your front yard as “nature” intended. You would welcome all 300 million Americans doing the same, including all your immediate neighbors. And this would make the world a better place…..?

      Certainly our ancestors lived this way and millions in other parts of the world do today. However, for the most part their lives are nasty, brutish and short, filled with disease. I am amazed that you would put up cavemen and aboriginial peoples and their lifestyles as a valid role model for hundreds of millions of people to live in harmony with nature in 2012.

      • Kate says:

        The comment you replied to never said people should live wherever they wanted without regard to environmental impact. In fact, I think you’ll find that many of the aboriginal people whose lives you describe as “nasty, brutish and short” were very conscious of their environmental impact and tried to live in a certain balance with nature. Of course, some aspects of their lives could be seen as less than desirable, but they certainly weren’t ruining the environment as much as “civilized” people. Those who lived the shortest, nastiest and most disease-ridden lives were probably the ancestors of most white Europeans and Americans alive today, who spent a few centuries in the middle ages living in their own excrements in cramped cities and squalid villages, abhorring nature and personal hygiene for religious reasons, and generally trying to make other people’s lives as unpleasant as possible.

        I also find it interesting that you mention “befouling our watersheds” in one context and “having a toilet” in another. Have you joined the Tiny House Blog exclusively to attack this particular design, or did you just happen to miss all those posts about composting toilets vs flushing? The environmental impact of “defecating in your front yard” can be significantly less when taking the right precautions than using a regular toilet, where you stop thinking about what happens to your excrements as soon as they’re out of your sight… while they’re effectively on their way to befoul your watersheds.

        Another thing to take into account is that there are different concepts of ownership that are in effect in different cultures, and they still work. Of course you have to take into account the rules of the society you live in, but what seems so wrong and inconceivable to you may sound normal and commonplace to someone else. In Sweden, for instance, it is not the norm to “own” land; the land belongs to the state and you can lease it to get the right to build on it. It is also perfectly legal to camp in someone else’s back yard, as long as you don’t do any damage to their property.

        Cultural norms also change over time. For example, the principles the first white settlers used to colonize the American continent would now be considered highly illegal but were perfectly acceptable a couple of hundred years ago – acceptable, at least, to the non-indigenous colonists who squatted on land that did not belong to them. If you would argue that the principles of ownership are absolute and should never be questioned at all, then all Americans of European ancestry who didn’t legally purchase their land from the indigenous tribes should head back to Europe asap.

        Please don’t see this post as a personal attack. I only think that in trying to get your points across, you have stopped trying to see other commenter’s points of view, even if they may be just as valid as your own. Instead, you try to completely shoot down any argument that seems to clash with your own views. I think you originally raised a few legitimate points, namely disregard for established rules and safety, but the aggressive tone of your replies makes people focus on that rather than the issues you discuss.

        • Michael says:

          I have no problems with a composting toilet nor with any other toilet that sanitized the waste, but the Hemloft has no toilet at all. This I have a problem with since the builder stated he lived in it for weeks at a time. While treated sewage is sometimes released into rivers and other watersheds, it is TREATED, not raw excrement. How is this more harmful than simply squatting in your yard? I had thought that everyone knew better that to pee and crap into streams above where others may draw their drinking water, but it’s seems I took too much for granted.

          There are indeed other cultural property norms, but as you stated ” you have to take into account the rules of the society you live in” . Canada is not Sweden, the builder did not take into account the rules of the society he lives in. He simply stole the land in a culture that recognizes property rights. Even worse, he encroached upon forest in an area that is suffering from massive development. In his own tiny way he too is a developer, just like any other and he did it with no review or input from the community in which he lives. To add insult to injury, according to the first sentence of his story, he is not even a citizen of Canada. How is that acting in accordance with the norms of the society in which he lives, Whistler, BC?

          To be honest,, I feel that the big issue here is between the armchair dreamers who only see the attractive looks of this structure and fall in love with the idea of sleeping in a treehouse, and the realists who want to put the structure into context looking at the total overall picture of how it impacts the world around it, how is was constructed, etc.

          • BusterMcNalty says:

            Do a quick internet fact check. You’ll find several instances of e-coli outbreak caused by improper dumping of sewage by licensed sewage treatment facilities into a source of drinking water. What you won’t find is a single incidence of e-coli outbreak caused by an errant turd shallowly buried by a camper or builder of an awesome tree house. If you do, I’d really like to see it.

  7. Carrie says:

    If you do come up with a design element that could accommodate expansion of the tree trunk, I’d love to see how you accomplish that. And have you ever considered a rain cache for water?

    As far as the negative comments here: I guarantee if you take a good close look at your own life, it’s impact has just as many negative consequences for the environment as this man’s little treehouse does. I know mine does. So please, if you want to change the world, take a good long look in the mirror and focus your criticism there.

  8. Tank says:

    Awesome tree house.
    I also admire the craftsmanship you put into it.
    Great work!

  9. Willy says:

    Ironically, “third world peasants, cavement and aboriginals” did and do a lot less damage to the earth than modern industrial societies.

    “Nasty, brutish, and short?” Well, it is fitting that you would use a quote from a man arguing for the virtues of monarchy over democracy.

  10. David says:

    Are there provisions made against lightning strikes?

  11. Jan says:

    It occurred to me that I hadn’t visited the THB in awhile, so I thought I’d catch up. This is what I found: an intense conversation about all aspects of this unusual and beautiful structure, sprinkled with vitriol and acrimony. (Yet another example of a few ruining things for the majority.)

    Back when the start of my tiny-house project was featured on this site (about a year ago), the discussion was always thorough and questioning, but never vicious. When the tone of some of the comments changed and showed no sign of improving, I still visited the site every day but I tried to skip over the comments posted by the most negative and mean posters. That became too difficult when the number of negative posters grew, so I cut back: I only visit the site a couple of times a month now.

    I once thought it would be fun to offer a follow-up post when my tiny house is complete. I would not be interested in subjecting myself or my project to this forum now.

    I’m not sure what the answer is, of course. Turning off comments would ruin the site, since the exchange of ideas can be as informative as the original post. I appreciate all you do, Kent, to keep this site fresh, interesting, diverse, informative, and relevant. I think it is regrettable that the site has lost the more welcoming and respectful feel of community it once had.

    • Dave says:

      I have to agree, although i lovethe site, more and more comment space seems to be spent with flame wars and negative comments…. If you hate something like this so much, why read it and spend time arguing? There are other websites that probably feature things you like! Not saying “if you cant say something nice…” but i just don’t understand why some people burn so many calories arguing nd complaining.

      Many projects on this site aren’t what i consider “ideal” either, but the ones i don’t like, I don’t spendtime commenting on!!!!

  12. squashroll says:

    Awesome! More pictures please!

  13. Bishop PewSausage says:

    Michael and Bryan, isn’t there an illegal lemonade stand run by some children that you could be calling the authorities about?

  14. Ben says:

    Wow, this is one controversial tree fort.

  15. John says:

    And here I thought global warming was going to be our ruin.

  16. Stanford Lehmberg says:

    I love the design of your treehouse Joel! Let the neighsayers play Salieri to your Mozart.

  17. Lloyd says:

    Michael, you are so right. If a camper drops a deuce in the woods the lethal chemicals in that dung will bore through sixty feet of bedrock and foul the drinking water of Canada.

  18. BusterMcNalty says:

    Michael and Bryan, without your diligence, the world would be going to hell in a handbasket. You go, girls!!!

  19. Bishop PewSausage says:

    Lloyd, right on! If this one gets by the authorities, pretty soon that whole woods is going to be full of tree houses with free wheelin’ inhabitants dumping freely, copiously, all over the place from the eaves of their feculent abodes. Not only will this “dirt” foul the water, but countless birders with ruin their sandals. “Guardy Loo” will ring from the tree tops as it did when the denizens of medieval houses emptied their chamberpots in the streets below. It’s going to be a hellovathing.

  20. Bishop PewSausage says:

    Did the author/builder write anything about how he deals with his waste? Or are people just making unsavory assumptions?

    Does he intend this as a full time residence, or is it just a little fun house?

    Does he mind if other people use the tree house, since it is on public property?

    Seems like a lot of unwarranted assumptions are being made by folks who appear to have some sort of hidden agendas.

    It’s a beautiful tree house.

  21. Hondo says:

    LOL!!!! at the illegal lemonade stands comment! The only way to fight fire is with fire. Props to the Bishop!!!!!

  22. Kent Griswold says:

    Now this is getting crazy, comments are now turned off on this post!