Living in a Treehouse – Whistler

Joel Allen builds an incredible treehouse in the wilds of Canada

This interveiw ran in Business Insider on June 1, 2012.

Joel Allen quit his job as a software developer when he was 26 to pursue a get-rich quick scheme.

Things didn’t pan exactly as planned. He ran out of money and found his calling as a carpenter.

But a brilliant new idea struck him. Allen could use his carpentry skills and materials gathered from Craigslist to build an awesome treehouse on government land in the wilds of British Columbia. He’d live for free in style, right in the middle of one of the most inflated housing markets in the world.

Allen’s treehouse, Hemloft, has been featured on his blog and in Dwell magazine. Business Insider talked to Allen.

It all started with a dream of early retirement and unemployment. “I was formerly in software and I liked it, I was making good money,” Allen told Business Insider. But the business went belly-up in 2006 and he was forced to live off his savings. Now Allen had a new mission: Come up with a million-dollar idea and live large.

“I had enough savings to live on for about a year while I attempted to execute the retirement stunt,” said Allen, but “the problem was the stunt was harder than it sounded on paper.” By the end of 2007, he was living in his car.

Reality hit hard in the spring of 2008. “I was left penniless, at the crossroads of returning to software, or trying something new,” Allen said. But a chance meeting with a “magical-looking character” named Old Man John turned Allen on to carpentry. “He was living the life that I had been pining after,” Allen wrote on his site. And “I wanted his ability to construct whatever creative idea came to mind.”

Years ago, Allen’s dad had built their family home, but his son didn’t know a single thing about carpentry. Pressed to find employment and learn the skill quickly, he gave himself a one-week intensive course in carpentry by building a shed for his parents that was an exact replica of their home. The 12-hour workdays paid off: Within a week Allen had landed a job working on a multi-million dollar home overlooking Alta Lake.

“I knew I’d rather be looking through the window of a cool building than an LCD laptop,” said Allen. So he decided to stay put in Whistler, “which was happily trucking along in its own development bubble.”

Another chance encounter with a laborer nicknamed “Free Range Ryan” got Allen interested in “sport sleeping,” a game in which players competed at finding the craziest place to sleep. Allen had been mulling over the idea of building a treehouse to keep the game going, but decided he wanted something “a bit more elegant.”

An architect couple suggested building an egg-shaped treehouse that “would be elegant, organic, unusual,” said Allen. The idea for Hemloft was born.

Summer of 2008 was spent roaming Whistler for hours in search of the perfect tree to erect the treehouse on. Allen had a list of requirements: The tree should be serene, close to a road and running water, proportionate to the treehouse, and in tune with its design. It also needed a view.

Once Allen found his tree, it was time to get to work. He had to be discreet about it though—this was government land. He wasn’t afraid of getting arrested, but didn’t want to chance it either. So he carefully listened for traffic and pretended to check his car’s hubcaps. “I kept forging ahead, hoping no one would find it,” he said. “It was pretty much a road that nobody ever used except residents.”

It took several trips from the car to move the materials to the site. Being on a 45 degree slope didn’t make matters easier. “Within a few weeks, I had lost a tape measure, destroyed a battery for my impactor, and spent a few too many hours looking for whatever tool or piece of material had gone hurtling into the rock field below,” he wrote on his site.

After finishing up at his day job, Allen worked through the night building the scaffolding and floor structure. One night he encountered a bear, and another time he caught a part in a tree and nearly slipped off the structure, which could have ended his life.

Two incredible things happened to Allen in the spring of 2009. “A girl named Heidi walked into my life, and before long we were planning future adventures,” he said. An accomplished designer and carpenter herself, Heidi was the perfect complement to Allen, who’d vowed to complete the “magical orb” by summer 2010.

Building a secret orb in the middle of the forest was becoming time-consuming and expensive. “I’d already spent $6,500 the first season building the framing and roof,” Allen said, “but I knew the finishing stages would cost much more.” That’s where Craigslist came in. A random search for a couch on the site’s free section gave Allen the idea to look for materials there.

“I spent hours upon hours trolling Craiglist, pressing refresh and getting competitive about finding stuff right away,” said Allen. “A lot of people in Vancouver were moving, getting rid of things for free and the materials were quite valuable.”

As a carpenter, Allen knew what was worth tossing and what could be reused. Among his finds were a double-glass sliding door (valued at $400), ash hardwood floor (worth $1,500) and clear cedar without any knots.

The Craigslist trolling became an obsession. At one point, Allen had amassed so much stuff, he could barely fit into his bed. Here he is trying to catch a few Zs next to that basketball floor.

At the end of May 2010, the door was hung, the siding was attached and Heidi and Allen were “like a pair of electrons” working overtime to “transform the skeletal pod into a cozy living space.” By July, the Hemloft was almost complete.

August 2010 marked the completion of Hemloft. Now all that was left to do was add some final landscaping and decorating touches, and take some photos to share with friends.

“It was a surreal feeling to be walking through the woods with a suitcase instead of an armful of plants,” said Allen.

For a week, the couple passed the days saying hi to a bear on his morning route, grabbing fresh fruit from a local market, and cooking al fresco meals on the deck.

In 2011, a childhood friend of Heidi’s mom suggested that Allen reveal the Hemloft to the world. She submitted the idea to Dwell Magazine, which featured the treehouse in its outdoor edition.

Allen liked the idea, but worried what would happen if strangers (and the government) found out. “I had two options: I could rent a pit bull and a shotgun and neurotically circle the premises for the next ten years of my life, OR … I could just not care, and welcome whatever curious prospectors wander in my direction,” he wrote. He decided to throw caution to the wind, and was thrilled with the result. The magazine was on news stands all summer long.

To date, the Hemloft remains untouched and Canadian authorities haven’t come after Allen.

“A lot of people would look at it as a massive waste of money, but I always thought it was worth the effort because of the sheer amount of enjoyment I got from it,” Allen told BI.

“There was something about secretly building a treehouse on land that wasn’t mine, with money I didn’t have, that had made me question my sanity … so seeing the impression it left on others was pleasantly validating.”

His friends were pretty impressed too.

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