When I arrived in India at the start of 2016 having never climbed a single tree with pruning equipment dangling off my harness, or having never having done any real carpentry before, I really had no idea what to expect. Luckily for me the treehouse community were about to embark on their biggest treehouse project ever – The Khaya Treehouse.
Filip, aka. ‘Dr. Fix-it’, founder and beloved father of the treehouse community had just gotten back after a long trip to Brazil where he had been working with the land and building a number of different tree houses for resorts and hostels and friends. On his return, not only had he launched an extremely ambitious project to build 500 treehouses in 10 years, but he’d also reached a stage in his life where he wanted a house of his own. Quickly he set about organising the team and a space in which to do so.
The chosen tree had actually housed a small structure 8 years earlier, a viewing platform from which you could see the surrounding forest. The platform, constructed simply from bamboo, was nestled 18 metres up in the canopy between some sturdy branches. From there upwards, Filip and his friends constructed a secondary tower which – if you dared – you could climb until you were 26 metres above the forest floor, swaying on a few pieces of bamboo, higher than pretty much everything in a 10km radius.
By the local standards, Khaya’s are one of the biggest trees in the forest. Khaya is African Mahogany, and it grows quickly. In just 40 years this particular tree had reached a height of 23 metres and was 3 metres around the base. The plan for the house was to have 4 levels: 1st. Living room and outside balcony, 2nd. Kitchen equipped with gas stove and sink, 3rd. Bathroom, toilet & shower, 4th. Bedroom topped with a solar panel roof which would supply power for the house. A series of sub roofs and drainage systems placed on the lower levels would divert rain away from the house and the walls. Fortunately, in Southern India insulation against cold weather is not really a concern; but heavy rain and cyclone winds are prevalent during monsoon season so it’s important to have a house which is totally waterproof.
Our first task was to build a staircase to access the tree – and not just any staircase mind you – a 9.5 metre spiral of steps fastened together with laminated strips of eucalyptus and based on a huge slab of granite. The stair post, into which the steps were inlaid, is 13 metres high and cleverly supports the front side of the treehouse, relieving some of the weight acting upon the tree. In fact, with such a large structure, reducing the weight which acts upon the tree is quite important. Our first protocol to reduce weight is to prune the tree. Any weight that can be removed via pruning gives us a safety margin when beginning to build. It was possible for us to remove about 2 tonnes of weight during our first two major pruning sessions, which meant that until the point where the weight of the treehouse exceeded 2 tonnes, we theoretically had nothing to worry about…
The thing is, we had roughly 5-6 tonnes of weight to put up in that tree… Some clever engineering was required to ensure that the tree not only dealt with the weight of the house, but continued to grow and remain healthy. Here’s a few important design considerations we made during this project:
- Centring the house: The treehouse is built directly around the the trunk of the tree so that the entire structure is centred in such a way as to not cause a toppling affect.
- Spreading the load: Steel cables were installed to support certain areas of the house to the upper branches, instead of loading everything on the lower ones.
- Lowering the centre of gravity: Keeping the centre of gravity low can be an incredibly important step to building a solid treehouse, especially with a very large structure. The first major branch available to us (located just beneath the first floor, 7.5 metres off the ground) became a fundamental loading point. A large proportion of the house’s weight was redirected via a series of vertical and diagonal beams to this point, therefore lowering the house’s centre of gravity and stabilising it to the trunk. To top that off, instead of supporting the upper floor structures on the high branches, which would mean the house could sway more in high winds, we supported the upper structures mostly onto the lower structures and the staircase post.
- Inter-tree connection: Using steel cables we connected the Khaya tree to two of its neighbours to provide extra strength and stabilisation. This would really make a big difference during high winds. The two cables lead about 35 meters off to one big Eucalyptus, and the other to a medium sized Banyan tree in a different direction. These cables would also double up as zip-lines when the project was finished and we began building houses in those two trees.
- Light weight materials: An obvious way to save weight is to use lightweight materials, instead of wood. We opted for dark green, weatherproof canvas to fabricate much of the facade. This isn’t a permanent fix however, in a few years after the tree has become used to the additional weight, the canvas can be removed and replaced with wood, which is long lasting and way more sexy.
At the beginning there was about 7 of us in the team; by Spring about 12. Working with a bunch this big is stupidly fun, but organising such a large group of people does have its complications. For quite a few of us learning how to climb a tree with gear and just doing some basic movements up there took quite a while to get used to. After many weeks monkeying around I started to feel a little more useful.
Besides working on the Khaya, celebrating and partying, so much was happening those first few months. We met many great people passing through, some of whom hopped on for the ride and became part of the family, others who just stayed for a while and then moved on with their travels . Almost 1 year on, the treehouse is nearly there. A mighty 79 steps leads you all the way to the fourth floor 16.5 metres from the ground. All of the floor structures are finished and we’re working hard to close off the final parts of the facade.
With 15 other treehouses completed this year we were not working on the Khaya treehouse the whole time, but regardless it would have taken us a while – any big construction like this does. Anyway, there has been no reason to rush. The house is stunning. Like a never ending mosaic we add new pieces to the puzzle every day, every section changing the dynamic of how the house looks and fits in the tree. When I wake up in the morning and stroll over to the communal area where everyone is having breakfast together, it’s impossible not to notice the Khaya treehouse looming over us majestically from the top of the canopy, huge and undeniably unique. Often times I wander off and find myself staring up at it for ages still not quite able to believe we actually did it.