If you head north from New York City and hang a left on Route 28 up near Woodstock you’ll find yourself on a very scenic drive through Catskill State Park. Verdant hills dotted with lakes and ponds seem to roll on forever in between the forested mountain tops. It is here, up in the trees, that Linda Aldredge, the owner of LuLu Organics, built her weekend getaway. We came across Linda’s blog about her experience in the woods via a profile of her friends on The Selby. We immediately thought that Inhabitat readers would appreciate Linda’s treehouse as not only a sustainable shelter, but as a reminder of how functional and rewarding small and simple can be. Lucky for us, Linda graciously answered some questions and invited us for a treehouse weekend.
How did you come upon the idea of building a treehouse? What was your inspiration?
The idea was actually my friend Su Barber’s. Late one night, she and I got to talking about what I was going to do with my land and she suggested a treehouse. When she suggested a treehouse I’m pretty sure she meant a platform in the trees with a canvas tarp for a roof or something really simple. But I got all fired up about it and starting researching treehouses. The more I read the more inspired I was.
I was also really inspired by the Handmade Houses books published in the 70′s. I like to think my group of friends upstate and in the city are having their own movement of DIY architecture and building. I am constantly inspired by my friends.
What were the requirements/ restraints of the plan?
Money was the biggest restraint, my original budget was $12k and for the most part we stuck to that. I splurged on little things like copper flashing but with a 100 sq ft house it didn’t really add up. I was also trying to avoid any subcontracting of others—no foundation, no septic, no well—because I couldn’t afford these things. The ‘off the grid’ aspect was something I was really excited by for obvious reasons but no one really ever talks about the fact that it’s SO much cheaper (for a little house like mine).
This is a house I simply can’t afford to keep up. I can’t afford to heat it in winter, which most cabins have to be in upstate otherwise you’ll have burst pipes, etc. I can’t afford a mortgage. I can’t afford water and septic costs. I can’t afford property taxes. It had to be sustainable. Just the very nature of my life forces me to choose this option.
Our other restraint was the location. We had originally scouted a completely different area for the building earlier in the winter but the previous owner, four days before close, had 40 trees cut down clearing all of our original locations, so we had to really think on our feet! The largest span between two trees is 25ft which is HUGE in treehouse building terms, hence the support posts.
As for other requirements I suppose I had dozens. The ones that stand out: I had to be able to see the pond when up in the loft, I wanted a row of windows around the bed so I could stare out at night and I wanted the staircase to be big enough that I could easily carry things up and down. I also wanted the triangular windows to appear random and mosaic so I wouldn’t have to stare at something uniform for the rest of my days.
Were there any resources that you used for structural guidance?
I’d like to say yes, but for the most part we just stuck to the knowledge of my two builder friends. We also consulted my friend’s father who is a builder and architect as well as the Peter Nelson and Gerry Hadden book ‘Home Tree Home’. We also bought GL brackets from Michael Garnier from Out ‘n’ About, without those our entire design would have been a bust.
Not having brushed up on tree house architecture, I was wondering how tree houses adjust to tree growth?
With treehouse building, you have to take into account all the various changes a tree will make in it’s lifetime with your house. If you account for all these things it should grow and be healthy and your house will last a really long time. Firstly, you should make sure the tree is alive!! Hire a local arborist to come inform you of which of your trees are the healthiest, oldest, sturdiest, which are hard woods, etc.
Secondly, you have to be sure your tree (or trees) will continue to have a source of water to their root system. This was easy on my land because it’s a watershed and the ground is always wet. The location is also on an incline so the trees get a lot of pour off.
Thirdly, whatever means you devise to mount and support your platform you can’t asphyxiate or strangle the tree, like tying rope around it. This will kill the tree.
Lastly, you should only build the height of your platform a certain distance up depending on the age of the tree because younger trees can’t support the weight of a big, heavy treehouse. I think the equation is 1/10th? Say the tree is 80 ft high your platform should stand 8ft. There are a lot of things to take into consideration when building a treehouse, these are just a few. I suggest for anyone who wants to build one to buy every book on the market before they build.
Theoretically, as the tree grows, it will slowly grow over whatever you drill into it to support your house, making it even sturdier. You also can’t attach anything to the tree that doesn’t allow for movement. For example, you can’t just nail a board into a tree and call that your platform. Our platform is in no way attached to the beams that hold it and the posts are in no way attached to those beams. It’s a suspension system. When the trees sway, the beams slide allowing the trees to be as free as they can be.
Can you tell us a little bit about your friends who designed and helped build the tree house?
Marc Hundley and Kursten Bracchi helped me design and build the house. The design of the actual house is loosely based on a sustainable camping house Marc built in Canada. Kursten then added all the really complex elements like the lateral beams with the mosaic glass, all of the structural support and the staircase. He did all the calculations for the live and dead weight the house has to carry in both summer and winter. I’m in awe of his aesthetic, even though we really knocked heads in the process, our combined visions ended up being an incredible match. I dare say, I’d love to build a proper house with Kursten someday.
When did you build the house?
The summer of 2006.
You already mentioned some activity that changed your plans at the last minute. Do you want to tell us more about that?
Yes! The previous owner, Lawrence Rowe, decided to log 40 trees four days before close. It was a total breech of contract and completely illegal. Instead of suing the pants off of him, which I had started to do, we decided to build with the trees they left behind. I never realized how completely destructive logging really was until this happened to me. It was as if a tornado had hit my property. They left entire trees behind with their root systems completely upturned. These beautiful, old sugar maples… I was clearly gutted, but am happy to have those wonderful old trees in the things we’ve built.
Were there any other surprises?
The caterpillars were the biggest surprise. We thought nothing of them at first but oh, how wrong we were. They were everywhere and in everything. I was pulling them out of my underwear. There are still a zillion cocoons all over the house and platform.
Did you make any other changes from the original plan to the final structure?
Yes. We had started with the idea of having a small, circular staircase in the beginning coming up from underneath the platform. I decided against that for various reasons. Also, the windows under the lateral beams were meant to be different sized but uniform triangles made like proper windows. I didn’t think we’d have the time or money to make proper windows so I asked Kursten to come up with something else. Hence the routed out 2×4′s and 4×4′s with inset plate glass. I also wanted something random in the design, hence the mosaic. I love it now and am really happy I pushed him to go in a different direction. We had some grand plans for a lookout and a rain barrel fed shower encased in antique glass for the back platform but alas, we ran out of time.
Can you tell us about the recycled elements?
Yes, we did a lot of building with the trees left behind in the logging. Kursten made the entire staircase and cut some huge, beautiful treads that we’ve used for all kinds of furniture. Marc made the adorable little ladder to my bed out of branches, the benches around the campfire and the small coffee table in the house. We’re still making stuff to this day. Kursten has turned this beautiful, long log on it’s side, braced by some flat stone standing on it’s end in what might be the sturdiest wood bench of all time. He’s thinking that a huge dining table will compliment it. It sits smack in a field of ferns, it’s beautiful. I can’t think of anything more wonderful than a big, woodsy dinner party smack in a field of fern.
How is the house powered/fueled?
With solar, an AC/DC inverter and a deep cycle battery. There is both a propane fed cast iron stove top for cooking and a propane fed heater for heating the house when I’m there in a colder season.
How do you store food?
When I’m there I try not to buy anything that can’t be stored in a ceramic crock or wood box with chicken wire over the top. I also have a tough sac that we throw meat into and sink into the pond. My friend Grant always does his brining in the tough sac, which I think is hilarious! This year, I also caved and bought a tiny cooler, mostly for drinks.
Do you have a rain barrel? Is the water potable?
I do have a rain barrel. The water could be potable if I put the right filtration system on it but I haven’t and probably won’t. For now we bring in all of our drinking water.
Any plans for a well?
I would love to dig a well. The only problem is to have a well without a proper house you need to have an electrical line put in to pump the water. I would love fresh water but I’m on the fence about electric. I’m quite happy to just have my little solar set-up. I would love to find a solar powered pump but I am told such a thing does not exist.
Growing up nearby, I know the roads are fairly treacherous in the winter, have you spent much time up there then? Are you planning to winterize the place eventually?
I do have plans to winterize, yes. I want to buy this beautiful little wood stove meant for yachts. I don’t currently spend time there in the winter but it drives me batty that I can’t. I definitely visit the house in winter and stay there in the fall and spring but the current little propane heater I have is dangerous and inefficient. My ideal scene in the winter would be to snow shoe in and hole up with some warm whiskey drink, some good music and a good friend.
And the inevitable question, what’s the bathroom situation like?
This is probably the first question out of everyone’s mouth. Lately, I’ve taken to renting port-o-lets for the weekends but only because so many people come up it would be unseemly otherwise. But typically we just venture off into the woods with a good garden spade. I really want an outhouse but there are some intense laws about what goes into the ground water due to the watershed. This facet of the treehouse will take shape in the next year but I couldn’t really tell you how.
Do you get to see lots of woodland critters?
I wish! For the most part we see a lot of frogs and spend a lot of time with my very aggressive fish. There used to be a beautiful red tailed falcon that lived on my land but she seems to have taken up house somewhere else. There is also a bear currently living on our mountain but I’ve only seen him once and it was a good distance away from my property, though I am told he spends time on my land. There is a porcupine that comes now and then but again, I never see him. I wish I did! It is also my dream to have a fox friend.
Have there been any unexpected benefits to spending time in the woods?
Peace of mind is the obvious benefit and the original goal. And the foraging for food and medicinal herbs has been amazing, but again these are all things I’d set out to experience. I guess I’d have to say the most unexpected thing that was born of the treehouse is how my relationships with people have changed. Pre-building I suppose I had a lot more ‘New York’ type friends, the kind that would never really leave the city. And now I have a ton of friends who are into the same things as me—foraging, building beautiful things, cooking in unusual ways and by unconventional means. I imagine if I lived in northern California still this wouldn’t be such a far-fetched idea but Manhattan can breed an incapable-ness in people that has always astounded me. If I couldn’t put my hand to something, life wouldn’t be worth living.
What is a typical weekend in the Catskills like for you?
We start by loading up on locally grown foods and some kind of alcohol, usually some nice wine or a bottle of whiskey. We make an endless rotation of fresh meals. Someone will wander down and build a fire, someone else will clear some blackberry bush or chop some wood. I usually clean up the place upon arrival. If the battery is charged I’ll put on some music. Once a fire is going, the hammock is hung and we’re fed, we’ll go for a swim in the pond and when we get out we all come and warm ourselves. I like to take plant walks to pick some herbs or blackberries. Each night usually ends with a big meal and a campfire, sometimes we bring a guitar and do some singing. Mostly we just drink, talk and laugh till we want to pop. Oh, and we do a lot of looking at the stars.
Has your experience in the woods influenced your life in the city in anyway?
Outside of making me a lot happier, I’d have to say it’s eased the typical New York City frustrations I have from day-to-day. For example, I live in a small apartment in Chinatown that’s not in the best of shape (very NYC) but when I have problems I tend to look at them through a different set of eyes. There was one summer where we kept having blackouts in our building and while it was annoying I’d just imagine I was upstate and my perspective would completely change, like ‘who needs electricity?’ I even pondered getting the same solar set-up just to have an energy store for the place.
I also think of the city as just another leg of the never ending adventure that is my life. If I pick a ton of plantain or burdock or some other medicinal herb, I then bring it home, dry it and make some salve or balm or tea. That might not sound so adventurous but it’s kind of my idea of the best time ever.
Thanks Linda for your time and hospitality!