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Secret treehouse, public land: what now?
April 25, 2012 12:10 PM   Subscribe

The HemLoft is an egg-shaped treehouse that Joel Allen built over three years on an imposing hemlock tree he found on crown (government owned) land near Whistler, British Columbia. Until recently, Allen kept the beautiful, illegally-built structure secret, but now that it's been shared with the world, what will happen to it?
posted by ocherdraco (47 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite

 
Gorgeous.

It looks like Kashyyyk.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 12:21 PM on April 25, 2012 [3 favorites]


They could make it the Queen's official residence when she's in the Province. Because the one she has now is just such an overwrought cliche.
posted by Naberius at 12:22 PM on April 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


That's beautiful, skillful, and charming. However, public land is public so that it can be preserved and enjoyed by everyone, not made into a pet project by a single person, however talented.

I do think it'd be a shame to waste the construction, now that it's built... the idea of turning it into a public camp site is wonderful. However, if that were done, presumably to local equivalent of forest rangers, park service, or what have you would be unexpectedly burdened with maintaining it themselves. That's not quite fair, either, if they didn't have the staff or inclination to make time for such an addition.
posted by gilrain at 12:23 PM on April 25, 2012 [9 favorites]


Canada needs squatter's rights.
posted by Stagger Lee at 12:27 PM on April 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'm coming at this from the angle of an American thinking about our own National Forests, however. Perhaps the Canadian equivalent is thought of or handled differently. This would be a presumptuous affront to the ideal of our National Forests, down here. At least, that's my feeling.
posted by gilrain at 12:28 PM on April 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


Is there actually a bed in that thing or is it just a nook to put his Macbook down on and do some light cooking?
posted by Burhanistan at 12:29 PM on April 25, 2012


Pull out the nails, disassemble it and move it somewhere else?
posted by kuatto at 12:29 PM on April 25, 2012 [5 favorites]


if that were done, presumably to local equivalent of forest rangers, park service, or what have you would be unexpectedly burdened with maintaining it themselves

Well, it's a cool thing in the woods, which usually falls within the remit of those organisations. If it had been built 100 years ago, we would want to preserve it now without a doubt. It seems to me that preserving things people will enjoy is a reasonable use of public money. There is no particular reason why there couldn't be a camping fee, is there?

On the other hand, if you were to do that, you'd need to make it quite clear that the next illegal building in the park is getting flattened, even if it's a leaf powered eye hospital for saintly orphans.

Also, why did they make that video so unbearable?
posted by howfar at 12:34 PM on April 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


It's beautiful. Some questions occur to me, though. How did he cart all of that stuff in? How is he managing human waste? How is he keeping the critters out when he's not there? Mice, etc.
posted by jquinby at 12:34 PM on April 25, 2012


For everyone that builds a beautiful egg treehouse on public lands, there are 10 that create an ugly packing pallet and tar paper shack in a meadow where they tear around on their ATVs. It's a shame, but the rules are there for our mutual benefit.
posted by Foam Pants at 12:36 PM on April 25, 2012 [27 favorites]


I'd love to live in such a thing. Until the bears showed up, anyway. That's the problem with nature, to paraphrase Calvin--something's always stinging you or oozing on you, or in the case of bears, rummaging through your garbage and then eating you.

So what happens when it rains? Can that thing possibly be affixed to the trunk in such a way that water doesn't come in?
posted by Sing Or Swim at 12:39 PM on April 25, 2012


...and the movement of materials is covered here.
posted by jquinby at 12:39 PM on April 25, 2012




For everyone that builds a beautiful egg treehouse on public lands, there are 10 that create an ugly packing pallet and tar paper shack in a meadow where they tear around on their ATVs. It's a shame, but the rules are there for our mutual benefit.
posted by Foam Pants at 12:36 PM on April 25 [+] [!]


My favorite is the abandoned ice fishing shacks, left to float after the ice melts. I don't think that this guy is trying to dodge that responsibility though, if you check out the post he's speculating on how to responsibly move forward.

Frankly though, the our conservation standards can be dubious. You have a hell of a time getting permission to mountain bike on a trail in Jasper, because you might threaten sensitive ecosystems. So I guess that means we should just bike on that big fucking oil pipeline that tears through the middle of the park.
posted by Stagger Lee at 12:39 PM on April 25, 2012 [3 favorites]


He obviously wanted to get outed. Why specify Whistler, why not just say southern BC, which has approx. umpity billion square kilometres that look exactly like the pictures?
posted by Keith Talent at 12:41 PM on April 25, 2012 [2 favorites]


I'm just afraid of Ewok-type villages popping up all over the place.
posted by onwords at 12:42 PM on April 25, 2012


For everyone that builds a beautiful egg treehouse on public lands, there are 10 that create an ugly packing pallet and tar paper shack in a meadow where they tear around on their ATVs. It's a shame, but the rules are there for our mutual benefit.

Your ratio is off by a few orders of magnitude, unfortunately.
posted by entropone at 12:44 PM on April 25, 2012 [8 favorites]


A classic case of "it's better to ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission". I would think its future depends on accessibility. If it takes a 5 mile hike in to reach it it is probably pretty safe from vandalism.If it is a easy walk up a well maintained trail it is liable to be torn down as a public nuisance.

There is the real danger of using fire in a wooden structure. Relying on propane might ease that concern but as a "romantic" getaway there would always be candles. I know a classic destination hike here in the Mt. Hood area to a partially developed hot springs requires regular supervision to keep the area clean and in good repair. The "public" can include some fairly boorish people who would tear the place up or use it as a party house for a kegger. Not everyone is taken with natural beauty and respectful of the craftsmanship involved in such a wonderful creation.
posted by pdxpogo at 12:51 PM on April 25, 2012


Although it is a beautiful structure, I guess I consider his approach to be poorly thought out/ill-considered. He says he knew from the outset that it was going to be illegally built, on crown land, etc. I guess I would have thought he'd do his homework and find out what the repercussions of his secret "getting out" would be.

But suddenly he decides to share his secret with the world via a glossy magazine, ostensibly so he can "keep building cool stuff"?

I guess the little Spock that lives in my brain keeps saying, "that's illogical, Captain."
posted by LN at 12:52 PM on April 25, 2012 [2 favorites]


What will happen if the structure remains is that someone will slip and fall off of those stepping 'stones', break a neck or two, and they or their heirs will sue whoever the owner is into the ground.

It's gorgeous, stunning and unique. Why the hell did he build it where he did?
posted by gurple at 12:58 PM on April 25, 2012


Man, if I was a genius carpenter I would so be copying that at the cottage as a playhouse for my nieces. Unfortunately the aforementioned tarpaper shack is more my skill level.
posted by sevenyearlurk at 1:03 PM on April 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


> It's gorgeous, stunning and unique. Why the hell did he build it where he did?

I can't presume to know his motivations, but it seems to me that there is an element of trying to be rebellious while still living very much in the center of conformity. During the week he is a software developer in the city living a modern life as expected, then weekends find him building a unique and forbidden structure on land that isn't his. Almost as if he's trying to appease a voice inside that says that the modern, comfy life on the grid isn't really letting him grow.

That or he's just off his meds.
posted by Burhanistan at 1:04 PM on April 25, 2012 [2 favorites]


Why the hell did he build it where he did?

I'm guessing because he was richer in free time than he was in cash or gorgeous property.
posted by Popular Ethics at 1:04 PM on April 25, 2012


Under the Land Act [RSBC 1996] CHAPTER 245, he faces a fine of up to $20,000 and a prison sentence of up to 60 days.

Looks neat, though.
posted by Sys Rq at 1:04 PM on April 25, 2012




Why the hell did he build it where he did?

Canada's crown lands are fairly extensive, and the public use them more than you'd think. Usually people are less enterprising about it, but there's no lack of hunting, fishing, hiking, camping, and whatever else going on.

The difference between this and the tarpaper hunting shacks is quality, not intent. There's nothing terribly remarkable about the idea, it's the execution that we're excited about.

So I guess, to rephrase the reoccurring question here, "Why do people think that crown land is theirs to use?" For the most part, the answer is that we've always used crown land, and so did our parents. It's usually not an issue. These aren't parks remember, they're what would have been referred to as "wasteland" or "the commons" once upon a time. Undeveloped wilderness.

I'd rather see people building shacks on crown land than watch more and more of it be leased off for right of ways, timber and mineral/oil and gas extraction.
posted by Stagger Lee at 1:12 PM on April 25, 2012 [2 favorites]


Lovely indeed. I get a strong olfactory memory or suggestion from those pictures. I can absolutely smell the raw wood and the evergreen needles.
posted by TreeRooster at 1:20 PM on April 25, 2012


Crown Land in BC is also very often licenced out as "Tree Farm Licences" whereby forestry companies have the right (indeed, the obligation) to log. I don't know the specifics of this beautiful egg, but it wouldn't surprise me if it ends up in a cutblock before it ends up in a park.
posted by Rumple at 1:24 PM on April 25, 2012


Not to nit-pick, but Crown land is owned by the monarch, not the government, although federal and provincial agencies do administer it.
posted by sudasana at 1:28 PM on April 25, 2012



Crown Land in BC is also very often licenced out as "Tree Farm Licences" whereby forestry companies have the right (indeed, the obligation) to log. I don't know the specifics of this beautiful egg, but it wouldn't surprise me if it ends up in a cutblock before it ends up in a park.
posted by Rumple at 1:24 PM on April 25 [+] [!]


As the creator suggested, the hut is sitting on Whistler, in spitting distance of some ridiculously expensive houses and a world class resort. That is the last mountain they'll log, between public relations and money, that mountain is pretty damn safe for now.
posted by Stagger Lee at 1:28 PM on April 25, 2012


I'm thinking about what you've said there Stagger, and it made me reconsider my original "WHO THE HELL DOES THIS GUY THINK HE IS JUST BUILDING SHIT ON CROWN LAND?!" response.

But I can't quite say, "hmm, yes, this is okay." I think my issue here is that where people use it for snowmobiling trails or hunting (praying to god they don't get caught) or camping, it's because it's there and they want to do this thing for their own personal recreation and they're not really hurting anything so why not? Whereas this guy did it a) to get famous on the internet, hoping to become a big enough deal that he could quite his day job and b) by killing a gorgeous old-growth tree that let's be honest here, people paid a LOT of money to live close enough to look at.

I'm not sure this is terribly clear, I'm having a hard time muddling out just why it makes me so mad. But it does. No matter how gorgeous it is.
posted by AmandaA at 1:30 PM on April 25, 2012


Possibly not the best way to introduce myself and make a first impression, but I find this intriguing in part because he built it while homeless and I am currently homeless. I also find it intriguing in part because the sort of housing that would work best for me and my health issues (I have a form of cystic fibrosis, as does my 24 year old son) is more like this small structure and, kind of like this structure, is all but outlawed in the U.S. today. In fact, Tumbleweed houses were put on wheels to circumvent American laws about minimum house sizes. I don't need much space. I need something small, made with a lot of natural materials, which I can keep adequately clean for my needs. That sort of thing is nearly impossible to find and creating it takes more resources/ingenuity/whatever than most people can come up with, let alone most poor people.

I have had a class on homelessness and public policy some years back through SFSU. I think the degree to which we have outlawed small, simple structures is part of why there are so many homeless and a growing divide between rich and poor while the middle class shrinks away into nothingness.
posted by Michele in California at 1:41 PM on April 25, 2012 [7 favorites]


Michele in California, you made a pretty good first impression with me anyway. Those are really good points, and I honestly had no idea that there were laws demanding a minimum square footage for a residence. Do you know roughly what the minimum size is, and why they claim it's necessary? Fire code?

Those laws can be double edged, I can understand why they might want to discourage certain kinds of slum housing for the safety and comfort of the occupants, but in reality they just hurt the poor more.

I know that out here there are people living in buildings hardly big enough to lie down in, but it's rural Alberta, so god knows whether they're doing it legally, or just hoping that nobody ever notices. They tend to be terribly depressing fire traps, and not cute or clean at all, but that's in part a poverty issue.
posted by Stagger Lee at 1:51 PM on April 25, 2012


by killing a gorgeous old-growth tree

Killing? How so?
posted by Cortes at 1:52 PM on April 25, 2012


Apparently he didn't plan for the tree's growth. My understanding of the thing is that either the tree is stronger than the structure and it tears the structure apart OR the tree withers and dies. This was gathered from reading the comments (I can't find it now, but somewhere he admits that he didn't think of it and apologizes, which is nice) so it may or may not be 100% factual.
posted by AmandaA at 1:58 PM on April 25, 2012


It's hard to tell just from the pictures but it looks like he has girdled the tree with metal in at least two spots. That is likely to kill the tree at some point.
posted by Mitheral at 2:01 PM on April 25, 2012


Stagger Lee -- I guess it depends on which side of the mountain you're on....

All the same I accept that the cabin itself is probably not in a TFL.
posted by Rumple at 2:01 PM on April 25, 2012


Stagger Lee: As I understand it, laws demanding minimum square footage vary from place to place but are pretty common in any incorporated city. I also live without a car and have for four years, starting well before I became homeless. If you cannot afford a car or cannot drive for some reason (such as certain medical conditions), then it isn't very practical to live in places rural enough to get around such laws. In the U.S., public transit does not support getting to grocery stores and the like very well, often even in town, nevermind from some unincorporated area where a shack might be legal.

My understanding is that such laws are typically intended to prevent slums but the result is not necessarily better housing for the poor. In some cases, the result is no housing for the poor. I am currently in a tent in San Diego. (It is technically legal here to put up a tent at night on public land like lie sidewalks.) The tent is fine for sleeping in most of thr time, except when it rains. There is a 90% chance of rain tonight and I am not happy about it. I also had to replace my tent very recently due to an animal (probably a racoon) chewing holes through my tent to get at the food I had on hand. This made me feel far more vulnerable than I usually feel, that what home I do have can be so easily destroyed. It makes some "slum" shack look appealling in some ways, though given my health issues it would need to be a very clean shack.
posted by Michele in California at 2:07 PM on April 25, 2012


Yeah, I like it but it would have been so much better if he had built it with the growth of the tree in mind. Maybe he should disassemble it, put it on a wooden pole in his backyard and come up with a better design for a live tree.
posted by the_artificer at 2:11 PM on April 25, 2012


It's absolutely stupendous.

Now take it down, find somewhere else to put it, and learn how to attach it to a tree without interfering with the tree's growth and eventual health.

Hope your next carpentering gig goes well, and you don't get arrested, dude.

Michele in CA: You make some very good points. I wish you well in finding your small space.
posted by BlueHorse at 2:47 PM on April 25, 2012


I really hate to be sour about it, but I can't help thinking: If one person does this and it's allowed to stand, then everyone should be allowed to build there. In some ways the aesthetics of the structure just amplify a certain sense of entitlement. Who decides that something is "beautiful enough" to warrant transgression? As the builder says:
For three years I kept the HemLoft secret, but now that I’m finished, I’ve found myself wanting to share it. I even shared it with a big glossy magazine! Coming out of the bush about the HemLoft is fun, however it poses a few problems; if people know about it, they might try to find it. And if the wrong people find it, they may make me take it down.
That doesn't sound like "sharing" to me, it sounds like bragging. I don't think public land has to be pristine and absolutely free from (what some/most people would call) art, or human-made structures, but it shouldn't be unilaterally privatized by one individual, and I don't think most people want it to be chock full of hemlofts either. (cf. andy goldsworthy, the prisoner's dilemma, and everything everywhere that isn't publicly protected.)

On a more positive spin, I'd say: Sure, make some secret art in forests (or plant a garden in an abandoned city lot) but you can't decide what happens when other people find out about it, because it's really not yours.
posted by wam at 3:03 PM on April 25, 2012 [2 favorites]


There was an interesting article a couple of days ago in the Times about a guy who had built illegally (but on his own land) a sprawling hippyesque compound. Similar to this, the beauty of the construction and design raises far more complicated questions than would a run of the mill tarpaper shack -- you don't want to set a precedent that forces you to allow anything and everything, but you also don't necessarily want to destroy a nice piece of folk art, either.

The article I linked is just the last in a long, long series of disputes in the US over these kinds of self-built places that violate building and zoning codes, or are infiltrated onto public lands; it's an issue that goes back probably a hundred years or more here.
posted by Forktine at 3:48 PM on April 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


I know a classic destination hike here in the Mt. Hood area to a partially developed hot springs requires regular supervision to keep the area clean and in good repair. -- pdxpogo, if we're thinking of the same place, I know exactly what you mean about it taking work to keep a place like that clean and usable. People can be filthy jerks. :( The volunteer effort involved in making it as lovely as it is (when it's at its best) is stupendous.

FWIW, last I heard the forest service was taking over and looking to find a private concessionaire to run it.
posted by epersonae at 5:11 PM on April 25, 2012


Actually, the treehouse sits on unceded Squamish-Lil'wat territory.
posted by docgonzo at 5:23 PM on April 25, 2012


Lovely treehouse, but it should be disassembled and moved somewhere safe. If they let it stand, there's every chance someone with less concern for the environment builds a house and damages the woods permanently claiming precedent.
posted by arcticseal at 6:50 PM on April 25, 2012


That hemlock doesn't look big enough to be old growth. Most of the Whistler valley was logged about 100 years ago, but people often mistake the older secondary growth stands for primeval forest. The mouldering stumps lying around the area dwarf these trees and give you an idea of what the valley bottom forests once looked like. Unfortunately, those are completely gone from BC save from a few isolated patches here and there.

While I think it sets a bad precedent to let structures like this stand, I can't help but feel it odd that we can get upset about structures like this possibly killing one tree, while shrugging our shoulders about the complete destruction of forests one mountain ridge away.

Back in the '90s, Whistler Mountain was hurting for cash and cut a bunch of "new runs" that werent cut in a way that made a lick of sense, until you considered that they were just following the best of the remaining old growth up the mountain. They even named one of the runs "Big Timber". These runs we're never cleared of logging slash and stayed out of the ski area boundary for more than a decade.

Still, that pales in comparison to what happened in the Sims Valley, Crown Land just a few miles away. The Sims Valley is adjacent to a wilderness park with borders conveniently placed to enclose high alpine terrain, mostly rock and ice without any high-value timber. Environmentalists wanted the park expanded to include the Sims Valley, but it a logging company already had the rights to log. Not only did the company win the fight to keep it out of the park, but they also successfully lobbied to have the stumpage fees reduced, arguing the area was so remote that it would otherwise be slightly less profitable to remove the huge old growth logs from one of the last intact valley forests on the coast.

Out of sight, out of mind, right? Dude builds an egg shaped house somewhere between Nordic Estates and Brio? Burn the witch!
posted by [expletive deleted] at 9:03 PM on April 25, 2012 [3 favorites]


Cortes: "Killing? How so?"

The treehouse will eventually cause the death of the tree if it stays in there; no doubt it will cause structural issues with the tree even if it's taken down. Every year a tree puts on annual increments, like an onion skin layer over the entire tree. It's how they get bigger. As the wood expands outward the parts anchored in the wood don't move; the new layer just starts to swallow it, while the compressed tissue beneath the anchored points gets killed by the cutoff of vascular flow beneath. The wood will "swallow" the points eventually, but the wood deformation is a structural weakness, and the injuries are normally a point of infection for a fungal pathogen that causes the wood to weaken.

Blah blah that's why I love treehouses but most often they really damage trees unless you really know what you're doing.
posted by Red Loop at 3:29 AM on April 26, 2012


I too thought it was rather absurd the 'outrage' over possibly damaging / killing the one tree by building this WOODEN structure upon it. What do these people think? that wood just grows ON trees? - Wood IS Trees!
posted by mary8nne at 4:47 AM on April 26, 2012


I don't know how absurd it is. Usually one is building a treehouse to appreciate the area, and experience the trees. It's a little counterproductive to be killing what you're trying to appreciate.

Unless you're of the Reagan bent when it comes to trees, it probably matters a little, at least.
posted by Red Loop at 6:24 AM on April 26, 2012


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