Whoever it was that said “it takes twice as long as you think it will” was an optimist. Sometimes it takes three times — as this project did. The silver lining for you is that it taught me how not to manage my time, and how to recognize when I need advice in order to stop banging my head on the wall.
We were asked to design, draw and model a 650 sq. ft. house for two people anywhere in the world but North America. Outdoor spaces were encouraged since they didn’t count towards our square footage, but no major functions could be left outdoors. I asked my friend Allison if she and her husband Paul would be my clients, and we promptly had a brainstorming session over tea. She wanted the house to be on New Zealand’s North Island, but didn’t have a specific town in mind. I located it in the Coromandel Peninsula, between Tararu and Whakatete Bay. Allison is a witch, Paul is a shaman and energy healer, and they are both tall, so they both wanted the house to be in harmony with nature, have high ceilings, and have quiet space to meditate in. There were many other desiderata, but these were the most important.
Our initial sketches were of earthships and cliffside houses. Our favourites were the many-storey cliff house, and the two-storey house built around a fireplace circled by the main stair, but I didn’t have enough experience to design these within the square footage requirements and the massing I wanted. So in critique, I was advised to concentrate on one or two key ideas, because I was being pulled in too many directions, and because I had some difficulty explaining how the place should feel — or rather, what I was going to do to produce that effect. The feel I knew: this was the good witch’s house, so I wanted it to be hidden away in a forest or other natural setting, and I wanted it to surprise and delight, to be a place that you hadn’t expected to exist but were glad did, like a secret grotto. That was when I got the idea of making it a treehouse. That surprised and delighted both me and everyone who heard the idea, but I knew it was feasible since I had heard of books about them.
My first intention was to split the house into one or two-room chunks, and put them on individual platforms, all connected to a roofed outdoor stair wrapped around the trunk of a massive kauri tree, like a necklace. This is perfectly workable in a climate that stays between 5-25°C all the time. Compare that to my home in Ottawa, which goes from -40°C in the winter wind to +40°C in the summer sun.
The first version of the public block saved space and was efficiently heated by the central fireplace, but didn’t respond much to the tree. The second version wrapped better around the trunk, and kept the compact but livable kitchen and dining room arrangements. It also snuck in a half-bath and laundry room (on the right) to cut down on the plumbing labour.
The blocks wrapped around the trunk. At this point, I still had to figure out how much height I needed between the platforms, and how many turns of stairs, since the roofs had not been figured out. I particularly liked the angled joining of the bedroom and bathroom.
The drawings of the house were due soon, which was how I learned why traditional houses are simple rectangular boxes: they are vastly easier to roof. I sweated over how to cap those angled blocks until my head spun, and admitted that I would have to simplify them in order to meet deadline. That brought about the second version, which was a two-storey house and deck perched in a large, spreading totara tree.
I didn’t like this version so much. The whole composition was awkward. The deck was enormous yet boring, and while that peaked second floor roof worked, it felt like a 1950s or 60s bungalow, not a traditional cottage. Worst, the meditation perch felt like an afterthought. This mattered to me because the key idea I had been able to retain from the cliffside house was the ascension from public, social space through private space to a place to be alone with yourself. That last was the meditation perch, and I could barely cram in a ship’s ladder in the bedroom to the roof, and if I added a balcony or sitting area up there, it would look like an afterthought. Not acceptable.
Since I wasn’t happy with the second iteration, I changed the plan again before building the model, which was the final submission for the project. Some features from the previous stage remained, such as the material choices: wood siding, a shingled roof, a brick chimney. But the concessions I made to simplify constructing it were exactly what made it feel charming and cottagelike again. All the rooms were simple boxes joined orthagonally except the angled bath, because I could cut 90° and 45° angles accurately in foamcore without a fancy mat cutting setup. Suddenly the blocks looked traditional and nestled into the tree better. I changed almost all the roofs to simple gables, which again, I could see how to make even though I needed to represent 18″ thick material with 6″ thick foamcore.1 That meant the interiors would have vaulted ceilings with rafters — perfect! I solved the joining of the bedroom and bathroom roofs by not having them join — instead I made the bathroom enough taller that it could have its own roof, and just let it be square instead of trying to cut off a corner. Since it was going to be so prominent anyway, I made the roof look like a witch’s hat, which Allison loved.
Get the CAD drawings for the plans and elevations (AutoCAD 2004 .dwg file, 170 kb)
But honestly, the house was the easy part of the model. The hard parts were the ground and the tree. Especially the tree. The ground is kitty litter molded into shape with water and glue, dry-brushed with several shades of acrylic paint, and set with twigs to represent smaller trees. It looks satisfyingly groundlike, and permitted me to stick dowels and skewers into it, which turned out to be very important.
The tree is made out of broomstick handle and coat-hanger wire. To make the tree actually look like a tree, I wrapped the bare wood and wire with gauze-mâché.2 Once that was dry, I painted it with a basecoat of brown acrylic and dry-brushed another shade or two on it. This gave me a firm trunk, bendable branches, and a nice barklike finish, all good. The problem was that it also gave me branches that tended to rotate, even when unloaded. Perhaps that could have been solved by gluing them into the sockets, but I didn’t have time for epoxy or Weldbond to set, my cyanoacrylate had glued itself shut, and the hot glue didn’t work when I tried it. I saved the tree by adding reinforcing braces out of bamboo skewer and dowel, which would stick with hot glue to the outer layer of the tree.3 If I ever build another model tree, I’m going to buy a nice thick cable twisted out of medium gauge copper wire, which I can gently fray apart and bend to my will, and gauze-mâché it into life-likeness. I’m sure that method will have its own new and exciting dilemmas, but at least the branches won’t twirl in their sockets.
I admit this isn’t the best model I could have made — another iteration, and it would have been much better. But, given the difficulties I overcame in making it, and how impressed most people have been when they see it, I’m still pleased with it. At least half the class were startled to find out that it wasn’t a real tree. Allison is making room in her apartment (after downsizing from a house) to keep it permanently, even though it is large and somewhat fragile. Another friend who saw it stopped in his tracks and said, “Could I have that?”. Now, if I can just get that kind of reaction to all my projects, I should be set!
- Eighth-inch foamcore, really, but it was a quarter-inch scale. The roofs were made by cutting the rafters out of foamcore and sheathing them with bristol board. ↩
- Like papier-mâché, but with lengths of bandaging gauze in place of paper. ↩
- I also tried to make invisible repairs out of fishing line, but they slipped, and they weren’t invisible either. ↩