Like so many wonderful accomplishments, the HemLoft sprang from broken dreams. Joel Allen was in his mid 20s, working for a social media startup in Whistler, B.C., when the company went out of business. Dream one, dead. He decided to retire at age 26 by crowdsourcing the funding for his new life of leisure, but that didn’t work out, either. Dream two, dead.
In the space that was left, he became a carpenter, found a friend and mentor in an aging hippie named Old Man John, and tramped the woods around Whistler until he knew them intimately. His story is long (and beautifully told at thehemloft.com), but the short version is that these threads came together as inspiration to build a treehouse — but not just any treehouse, a house that meshed organically with the environment and was a thing of beauty to the eye and spirit.
Along with two friends who were freshly minted architects, they crafted an egg-shaped design. Allen built a scale model to test its strength and durability, made the house fatter and roomier, and then began a months-long quest to find the perfect tree and ideal spot of land. Without the capital to buy property, he chose a path that seems a rite of passage in Whistler, to squat in the public forest.
“Finding that perfect spot on crown land wasn’t so easy,” he writes. “I had an informal checklist of requirements, the most important ones being that it within a reasonable distance to a road, yet out of sight and out of earshot of human traffic. The other requirement was hard to qualify, but was of prime importance: the shape of the egg would need to suit the environment and be proportionate to the tree. I couldn’t explain exactly what that was but I figured I would know it when I saw it.”
He found it in a patch of old growth near a development of multi-million dollar homes, then began the surreptitious process of pirate construction, which took years, thousands of dollars, and many more thousands in free stuff cadged through Craigslist. Finally, the Hemloft was done, and it was amazing.
Not long after that, Allen was confronted by a family friend with a question that, as he tells it, he’d never really delved into too deeply: why?
“I found myself grasping for some sort of rationalization that would make me seem less crazy. She said “no, why did you really build it?” For the first time in my life, I was forced to face the truth about it. I said “I guess… I just wanted to build something cool”.
It seemed too simple, but it was true. The driving force behind the whole thing was a simple, yet inexorable desire to build something cool. There were no practical motives or profound meanings. The fact that it was hiding below some of the richest properties in Western Canada wasn’t a political statement, it just happened to be where I found the perfect tree. And building with free materials wasn’t out of some principled ideal, it was just the only avenue I could afford. In the end, I was mysteriously compelled to build something cool, something beautiful… and apparently, I was willing to go to maniacal lengths to make it happen.
Allen eventually went public with the HemLoft. It was featured in Dwell magazine and he built a website for it. So, now comes the final and inevitable question: What becomes of a cabin built without authorization on public land?
“Since the treehouse was built on crown land, I don’t technically own it, and so its fate is uncertain. For three years I kept the HemLoft secret, but now that I’m finished, I’ve found myself wanting to share it…Coming out of the bush about the HemLoft is fun, however it poses a few problems; if people know about it, they might try to find it. And if the wrong people find it, they may make me take it down.
“It took a lot of work to build it, and I’d rather not take it down, just yet. So I’ve been thinking of ways to expose the HemLoft, while somehow making it legal. To the best of my knowledge, Squatting on Whistler Mountain, beneath some of Western Canada’s most luxurious mega-homes would not be looked favorably upon.”
Allen has yet to decide. 75 percent of the respondents to a poll on his site say he should try to buy the land. In the meantime, it perches in the forest, beautiful, quiet, and hidden.
Weekend Cabin isn’t necessarily about the weekend, or cabins. It’s about the longing for a sense of place, for shelter set in a landscape…for something that speaks to refuge and distance from the everyday. Nostalgic and wistful, it’s about how people create structure in ways to consider the earth and sky and their place in them. It’s not concerned with ownership or real estate, but what people build to fulfill their dreams of escape. The very time-shortened notion of “weekend” reminds that it’s a temporary respite.