Andy Barbour's grandfather first moved from the UK to Kenya in 1958, and he eventually bought a verdant piece of land in Diani - a beautiful coastal town that boasts enviable white sand beaches, a forest ecosystem found nowhere outside of East Africa, and all kinds of wildlife. Half a century later, after traveling the globe, his grandson decided to use a portion of the forested plot to build a sustainable tourism destination populated with buildings similar to those he had seen in Southeast Asia. Called Stilts, this now famous backpackers' paradise features five treehouses, three cottages, and a breezy gathering area frequented by bush babies.
We had a chance to chat with Andy about the genesis of Stilts, which was carefully designed to have the smallest possible impact on this section of Coral Rag Forest. While the Kenyan-born business owner derived his inspiration from Southeast Asia, the materials and skills required to build the treehouses and cottages were all sourced locally. During our visit, we had a chance to watch trained Makuti roofers repair one of the roofs with hundreds of shingles made of palm fronds. Using a kind of twine, the men attached the shingles to the timber framing in overlapping rows. At this pitch, the roof needs to be replaced every seven years.
Andy sources sustainable Casuarina poles to frame roofs and build furniture that he designs himself. The dining, bar, and reception area is furnished with beautiful timber seats topped with colorful cushions covered in the same fabric that the local Swahili men use to wrap around the lower half of their bodies (kikoy). Nearby craftsmen also weave detailing for the pieces out of palm, optimizing the use of breathable, natural materials that fit with the wild surroundings. Colobus, Sykes and Ververt monkeys are regular guests, as are bush babies, a monitor lizard and other small reptiles.
Stilts only uses solar-heated water that is funneled through black pipes, and lights in the tree houses are powered by 12 volt batteries. The lack of electric sockets emphasizes a glorious sense of disconnectedness from the wired world. (Although some guests might prefer the larger, more expensive cottages that do have lights and sockets.) Andy used cement for foundations, floors and walls in the cottages – a choice dictated mostly by cost. He explained that the hot, humid climate is rough on timber, which is also why he opted for steel steps instead of wood. In time, he hopes to install solar panels that will provide the necessary energy to power all of the lighting.
Remarkably cool despite the heat (thanks to natural ventilation), the treehouses, cottages and rendezvous area are so comfortable that we’d never want to leave. But Andy might have a thing or two to say about that.
All images © Tafline Laylin for Inhabitat