With Victoria Day only a month off, the minds of many Torontonians are turning to the rural retreats where they hope to find temporary refuge from the big-city summer. Among the traditionally popular places, of course, are cottages and lodges and campgrounds. But before long, in at least one Ontario location, there will be a novel option for a getaway week or weekend: a treehouse.
The one I have in mind has little in common with the ramshackle affair your dad hammered together in the back yard some Saturday afternoon long ago. Rather, it’s one of 12 lovely, luxurious, one-bedroom dwellings now being designed by Toronto architect Tye Farrow and destined to hover over the forested grounds of the five-star E’terra Samara eco-resort on the Bruce Peninsula.
The idea of putting treehouses on the property came from E’terra’s owner, Laurie Adams, who was familiar with the tree-top residences and houses on stilts featured in some Asian resorts. But the execution of the project, as things are turning out, is largely a Canadian matter.
Take, for example, the shape of each treehouse. Ms. Adams stipulated that the structures be not only “in the trees,” but “of the trees” – connected, in some fashion, to the patterns and appearances one finds in wild nature. So the inspiration here, Mr. Farrow told me, is the samara, the graceful, papery, winged seed of Canada’s own maple tree.
The contours of this aerodynamic, natural form are evident in the treehouse’s pod-like “seed” (which shelters the bed and washroom, compositing toilet and shower), and the “wing” that extends over the lounging area. A simple, retractable ladder connects the house to the ground. (Because residents are expected to take their meals in the main lodge nearby, there will be no facilities for cooking in the units.)
Also, the translucency of the samara will find an echo in the lantern-like luminosity of each treehouse. The open-worked skeleton is influenced by traditional Atlantic-coast strategies for building sailing craft. But making this brightness happen also involves some very high-tech manoeuvring. Cladding is to be a fine fabric coated with fibreglass and self-cleaning titanium dioxide, running around and over the structure. This substance will be stretched over super-strong, super-light ribs fashioned out of wood reinforced by NRX, a Canadian-made structural product with the practical properties of Velcro.
In accordance with his client’s mandate to minimize damage to the forest, Mr. Farrow intends to suspend each house from a collar high up the trunk, instead of following the more usual practice of nailing or bolting the structure directly into the tree. Also, as part of the effort to keep disruption of nature to a minimum, each treehouse will be fabricated off-site in three sections, which can then be quickly and easily fastened together when the time comes to hoist the house into place.
Mr. Farrow admits to being captivated by every aspect of the project, both on the aesthetic and artistic side, and on the engineering side. From the outset of his discussions with the owner several months ago, he was excited by the possibility of creating “a totally different experience – being nestled up in the trees. The idea was that people would leave the city, go there, eat well, have the opportunity to exercise, get massages [and] live in treehouses. It caught our imagination. You become part of the natural environment instead of being separated from it – floating within the trees instead of dominating them.”
He has also appreciated the challenges posed by the low-impact requirements of the commission. “Typically,” Mr. Farrow said, “there are diagonal supports that are nailed into the tree. Our approach involves hugging the tree instead of piercing it. It’s quite simple construction and doesn’t damage the site.” He acknowledges the source of his suspension system in one used in Japan to prevent pine boughs from breaking under loads of snow.
Requests to design treehouses do funny things to architects, often prompting them to craft structures that are merely whimsical – and quite forgettable. Mr. Farrow’s lyrical (and technologically advanced) design for the Bruce Peninsula site is a serious, memorable response to a client who is ecologically minded and who wants her guests to be at peace, if only for a weekend, in the Ontario forest.
These treehouses should fulfill that desire well indeed.